Free Shipping Sure as Hell Ain’t Free

Inside Amazon’s Warehouse: Lehigh Valley Workers Tell of Brutal Heat, Dizzying Pace at Online Retailer

I loved Amazon because you get free shipping if you spend over $25. If I was close to the threshold, I’d buy a small item, and voilà! I met the $25 requirement. Now, I’m ashamed to admit I bought a couple books for my partner’s father from Amazon last month.

Most of the workers at the warehouse in Allentown, PA are temporary. It’s cheaper for Amazon to do this because they don’t have to pay benefits, worker’s comp (the agency does), etc. I can understand wanting to keep the costs down that way. But when their working conditions rival a third world sweatshop’s? Inexcusable.

There were two major complaints: the heat and the pace.

The Heat

OK. Heatwave – high 90°s, low 100°s. Can you guess how hot it got in a non-insulated warehouse with every dock door closed? On the worst day, 114° F on the ground floor. Wouldn’t it make sense to open the dock doors to get some air circulating? You would think. Amazon was afraid of theft. Then hire some frickin’ security guards stationed at each door! Too expensive? Is it more expensive than hiring paramedics parked in ambulances outside during heatwaves? That’s what they do now. If the employee doesn’t cool down enough, they are either sent home or rolled away in wheelchairs or stretchers so the ambulance can take them to the hospital.

An employee complained to OSHA after watching 15 coworkers pass out from the heat. The building’s heat index reached 102° F, and that was just the first floor. OSHA called the next day telling Amazon to investigate and report back by a certain date. OSHA visited 4 days before that date. The next day an ER doctor who treated these workers for heat-related illness also called OSHA to report Amazon’s unsafe working conditions.

Apparently, OSHA sniffing around caused changes:

Since the OSHA inspection, Amazon installed 13 additional fans in the warehouse, planned to install a cooling system and temporarily hired emergency medical personnel to work on-site, Forney wrote.

No employees were penalized for leaving work early due to heat-related symptoms, Forney wrote. Amazon has an automatic record-keeping system that gives employees demerits if they leave early, he wrote.

“We went in and manually changed each employee’s time, so we did not have any employee receive demerit points for leaving the site for a heat-related illness,” Forney wrote.

If government regulation is “getting in the way of business,” I’m all for it in this case. The only reason Amazon made these small changes is by OSHA getting in the way of their labor abuses.

Problems still exist because even though Amazon made some changes to the physical environment, the pace of work hasn’t changed.

The Pace

Keeping up with the productivity rates was really difficult, especially since the rates were increased:

“…he said the productivity rate abruptly doubled one day from 250 units per hour for smaller items to 500 units per hour. One day we came into work and they said, ‘Your rate is now 500 units per hour. Get to it.’ ” Zweifel said. “No warning or nothing. I’m a young guy. I could keep up with it. But I saw the older people working there, they were getting written up a lot. I didn’t think it was fair…They would say, ‘If you don’t make rate, we will walk you out of the building and give your job to somebody who wants a job,’ ” Zweifel said. “I saw a 65-year-old guy get fired for not making stow rate. I saw him get talked to and then a manager walked him out of the building.”

“It just got harder and harder,” Dallal said. “It started with 75 pieces an hour. Then 100 pieces an hour. Then 125 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster and faster. Temporary workers were told by ISS their jobs could lead to permanent positions, which helped motivate them to meet production expectations, Dallal said.”

They were both threatening and enticing to keep up these nearly impossible rates. Even those doing the “best they can” like Dallal, were written up. And the permanent job never materialized. In fact, Dallal was terminated after the third write up. He couldn’t keep up the pace because of the heat. He was relieved that he fired because he didn’t want to quit.

Too many people will endure these horrendous working conditions because of the economy. And even more would never think about complaining. They will stay and suffer silently because there aren’t any alternatives. Amazon knows this so why would they bother spending the money to keep their workers safe? And they can push them until they break. There will always be a fresh body to replace them in this economy. Unconscionable.

I am glad The Morning Call did this exposé. The more people that know about this the better. Hopefully, it will make people think twice when shopping with Amazon. I know I’m not shopping there anymore, and neither is my partner. As more online shopping whores like myself stop shopping on Amazon because of this, they will feel it. And I will spread this story as far and wide as possible. Free shipping really isn’t free when workers are collapsing and being taken to hospitals. Actually, it’s pretty damn expensive.

25 responses to “Free Shipping Sure as Hell Ain’t Free

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