Valued at nearly $1 trillion, Amazon is one of the most powerful companies in the world. The Seattle-based retail giant employs more than 600,000 people and operates 100 sortation and fulfillment centers in North America, sometimes sending out as many as 1 million items per day to customers. But Amazon does more than just retail. Amazon publishes its own books and comics, finances TV shows and movies, operates a Texas wind farm, builds robots, streams music, delivers prescription medications, and operates web services for everyone from Medium to the CIA. And that’s not even counting its high-profile acquisitions, which include Twitch, IMDb, Zappos, and Whole Foods, among countless others.
Nearly all of us use Amazon in one way or another. But what is it like working inside the beast? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to workers at every level of the Amazon empire to find out.
Welcome to the Amazon Diaries.
Amazon’s warehouses are the backbones of its retail operation, the real-life nodes between the billions of items sold on its digital marketplace and millions of customers. Altogether, Amazon operates 386 logistics facilities domestically and 847 globally, covering nearly 213 million square feet of distribution infrastructure. The majority of Amazon employees work here, either full-time or on contracted gigs. Turnover rates at these facilities are very high — the company announced it would hire 100,000 seasonal workers for this past holiday season alone.
Though Amazon raised minimum hourly warehouse wages to $15 last year, firsthand reports indicate that work in these warehouses can be grim. Workers’ time is so closely managed that some avoid taking bathroom breaks, reportedly sometimes even peeing in bottles. Temperatures inside facilities range from blisteringly hot to freezing cold. Fifty-four workers were exposed to bear repellent when a malfunctioning robot punctured a container at a warehouse in New Jersey, hospitalizing 24 people and leaving one in critical condition. According to a workplace safety report released last year by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH), seven workers were killed at Amazon warehouses between 2013 and 2018.
In an email, an Amazon spokesperson disputed those characterizations, and the accuracy of those figures. “COSH is financially supported and run by committees which are private coalitions of labor unions and other interested parties,” they wrote. “We are proud of our safety record and the thousands of Amazonians who work hard every day innovating ways to make it even better.”
“These are tired narratives based on historical bad reporting, cobbled together to create a false narrative around our employer practices,” they went on. “Everyone is encouraged to come and see for themselves what it’s like to work in an Amazon fulfillment center by booking a tour.”
In early December, I spoke with a 21-year-old Amazon warehouse employee who requested anonymity to speak freely about her experience working in two different facilities. In a location outside Pittsburgh, she worked as a fulfillment associate, stacking and wrapping pallets of goods. For the past four months, she has been working at a location in Kentucky in the “sortation” department, loading and unloading trucks for $15 per hour. She says that she’s looking forward to the day when warehouse jobs are automated out of existence. “It’s either that or we all sit there and sort all [packages] manually,” she says. “And I do not want that as a prospect.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you start working at Amazon?
I think I heard about [it] from relatives. The [job] up in Pittsburgh, my grandmother mentioned something about an office job up in the area. I looked into it, and it wasn’t an office job, but it was a warehouse gig. I didn’t have a job at the time, so I took it. This one [her current job] was more, “Oh, there’s an Amazon down here. Cool, I’ll take that back up.” I’m a part-time associate. Currently, this is my only job. I don’t have energy to do much else aside from Amazon.
What are some of the similarities and differences between working as a fulfillment associate and working as a sortation associate?
The tasks that I’ve been put on as a sortation associate have been loading trucks with boxes and unloading trucks that come in with boxes. It’s different from fulfillment up in Pittsburgh. Up there, all we did was fill pallets that we wrapped up, and then we took those wrapped pallets out to be loaded up into the trucks. But we did not load them into the trucks. We just put them on a staging area, where someone else handled that. Sortation is a bit more hands-on. You’re doing more. You’re playing a more active role, I’d say, in the shipping of things, in their distribution.
How many hours a week do you work?
Normally, they have me working 24 hours a week. It can go anywhere from 18 to 30 hours, $15 hourly. Currently, I’m making enough money to live on. I could do this, I suppose, in perpetuity. Financially speaking, I could keep this going forever. But I’m not the best off, I’ll put it that way. As things stand, I’m going paycheck to paycheck. I haven’t really worked out the numbers, but I can keep myself above water.
Why do you think it was so difficult to get Amazon to pay workers $15 per hour?
I personally see no reason why that was such an issue, why that was such a big mess to get that implemented. I can only speculate. It is a company, [and] what is the sole purpose of a company? To make money. I say this probably simplifying a reasonable amount. That’s fair… but if you’re making that sort of wealth, it seems to me you have an obligation to not hoard it like a dragon. To not just keep it all, because at that point the money seems rather useless.
[Bezos] is the richest man in the world — he can afford to pay his workers a reasonable wage. It would be an entirely different thing if Amazon was some mom-and-pop sorta shop, some locally grown thing, and they’re working with “the family.” That sorta thing I kinda understand getting paid kinda bad, because you don’t have much money to throw around. But when your net worth is in the billions, you can afford to pay people a reasonable wage.
Are you an Amazon Prime member?
Yes, I am.
Do you ever talk about when Amazon or Jeff Bezos is in the news, either with your managers or other people you work with?
No, not really, [although] I can almost guarantee that it is a talking point in maybe the office area.
Do you think that’s because people on the warehouse floor are too busy to stop and talk?
Oh, very possibly. They keep us very busy. They divide [our] time into four-hour blocks. So, for example, I work from seven to 11 at night. But they have this policy that’s called flex up or flex down. That depends on the incoming volume of packages. If there’s a bit too much work, they’ll flex us up an hour to get more things done. If volume’s lacking, they’ll flex us down an hour, or 30 minutes, or 45 minutes, or 15, or something like that. If they decide to flex us down, we don’t get breaks.
What happens during flex-up periods?
The way that they handle peak season in general, which is basically the entirety of the holidays, is hire a bunch of people and flex up when needed. Flex up is basically just adding an hour. Normally, I work a four-hour shift, but when they flex up an hour, I work a five-hour shift.
What would happen if you said, “I can’t work this extra hour”?
They do a point system. Like, if you’re late within an hour, you get half a point. If you’re over an hour late, you get a point. If you basically ditch the entire shift, you get one and a half points. If you have five points, they give you an attendance warning, basically saying, “Hey, you’re about to get fired because your attendance is abysmal.” And if you get six points, they terminate you outright. So, if I were to clock out an hour early or two hours early, I would just take those points. I’m not sure if flex up is considered part of the schedule. I would presume that they would either say, “No, I’m sorry, you have to keep working,” or, “You could clock out if you want to. Just know that you’re gonna take the points for it.”
Do they give points for other things, other than attendance and lateness?
No, these are points just specifically for attendance. I presume there are other ways you can get terminated or released or whatever you wanna call it. But I do not want to find out those ways and those methods.
In the past two years, how has your perception of Amazon changed?
It’s been an interesting sort of thing. I am aware that there have been some frustrations and murmurings of low pay, of bad warehouses, in the warehouses across the pond. And that kinda came to me through the grapevine. I’ve [said things like], “Oh, you should just get it on Amazon,” to a friend, and they said, “Oh, no, I’m boycotting Amazon because some of the workers aren’t getting paid well,” and that sort of thing. And I said, “I’m sorry, actually I got paid reasonably well. I got pretty good hours. I had a pretty good time of things.”
On the whole, it’s been rather positive, because you do get to see those inner workings of it. Definitely interesting just from a logistics point of view. To see the technologies they employ, that sort of thing. On the whole, it has been good. As with any company, there are some issues. And that holds true with Amazon. In my facility, there’s a kind of “voice of the people” board that you can write things on to help implement changes to the management.
What shows up on that board?
Lack of equipment. There aren’t enough pallet jacks; there aren’t enough tape guns. Certain things aren’t acting properly; there are certain technical hiccups. Apparently they’re rather slow to get that sort of thing rectified, because I’ve seen one complaint that’s popped up seven different times, like, “Hey, this isn’t working. Hey, this still isn’t working. This still is not working. Why haven’t you fixed it?” That sort of escalation.
How much of what goes on in these warehouses is automated?
The majority of things are automated, at least in inbound and outbound. All you’re doing in inbound is just taking the packages and putting them onto the conveyor belt, and it puts it into the system. For outbound, you’re taking boxes off the thing and putting them into the truck.
Do you feel like, on the whole, the parts of the process that are automated tend to make your job easier?
On the whole, I am totally in favor of the automation in the warehouses, because at the end of the day, it’s either that or we all sit there and sort all [packages] manually. And I do not want that as a prospect. These mechanical breakdowns, these technical malfunctions, they happen, but it’s just kind of the nature of the beast. I say they’re a necessary evil. Machines tend to be a heck of a lot more accurate than a person who can be tired or just not thinking right. People can sort things wrong.