An Alienating Journey Through The Amazon Warehouse
12:07 PM EST on February 17, 2021
Amazon, one of the most valuable companies in the world, currently employs more than one million people. Many of these jobs are in Amazon warehouses, where for years workers have been describing conditions that include brutal heat, incessant demands for more productivity, stealing tips from drivers, and staggering injury rates. None of this has stopped Amazon's rapid expansion, adding even more jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing orders to stay at home pushed online retail to the fore. This also has not stopped COVID-19 outbreaks from happening in Amazon warehouses from Southern California to Oregon to Minnesota to New Jersey and even in Germany.
In January, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, said they were unionizing. "Working at Amazon is supremely dangerous," the workers explain on their website. "The record on Amazon’s deadly and dehumanizing working conditions is well established." If they succeed, the Alabama workers will be the first Amazon union in the United States. Meanwhile, Amazon's outgoing CEO, Jeff Bezos, is once again among the richest people in the world.
What follows is one former Amazon warehouse employee's account of how he ended up late last year working in a Connecticut Amazon warehouse. Among other things, his account grapples with the endless productivity demands put upon workers there and the flimsy safety practices, as well as what happened when someone in the warehouse tested positive for COVID-19. Working for the global retailer, he said, is "gonna suck your soul out."
I lost my job after COVID-19 hit. In the current climate, a lot of places are being very selective because a lot of people are out of work; they can pretty much take their pick of whoever they want, you know? And the one place that’s paying a decent wage and bringing people on really fast right now is Amazon.
It seems great at first. You’re making a decent wage. I started at $15.75 an hour, and I think that’s what most people start at. If you work overnight, usually they add money to that as it's the third shift. They have a good benefit package, I guess, considering the climate right now. They offer some insurance. I don’t know if you’ve been unemployed lately, but it’s pretty rough for the average blue-collar worker.
They tell you to come in for the interview, and you show up at the warehouse. It’s a huge freaking building. It’s almost a mile long, seriously. When I interviewed, they had the trail set out for social distancing, but they had so many people there. You can’t get everyone to respect the rules so it was kind of a shitshow. They had people sitting in cars, waiting. Luckily, I got there early, so when I came out I saw what a mess it was: people all over the place, people with masks down their chins and shit. You know how it is. People either wear their mask regular or they just don’t give a fuck.
They bring you in one at a time. You check in with the clerk. They take your social, your ID, and they send you over to one of these three stations. It’s like the DMV; you’re at a desk with a person behind it and a giant wall of plastic in between you. There’s footprints where you have to stand, it almost feels like you’re getting a mugshot, or in a lineup. They’re asking you questions: Can you lift? What’s your daily routine? What hours are you willing to work? Can you work multiple shifts? Can you work 12 hours straight? At the end of it, if you can function, they’re not gonna shoot you down. They’re pretty much taking anyone. I saw everyone from 18-year-olds to people pushing 50, 60.
Then you go into another hallway for the drug test. You walk into these stalls, where they have a bunch of iPads lined up with sheets of plastic in between. There’s a monitor, but they’re pretty much at the back of the room just accepting all the finished drug tests. They don't really interact with you unless it’s obvious that you’re lost because they don’t want to get close to you. They just want you to come in, do your thing, and leave them alone. They don’t want to get near you. It was sketchy. Let’s just say that. Because they have all the PPE on. They have the gloves, they have the masks, they have everything but meanwhile they tell you, Oh, just wear whatever you want, it's casual dress, just make sure you wear a mask. So there’s people in shorts, tank tops, it’s ridiculous.
Before the drug test, you have to play the video on the iPad that tells you how to take the drug test. They don’t give you any human instructions whatsoever. You do not interact with the human. All the human does is point you to a station. They don’t give you gloves or anything, so who knows how many people have touched this iPad or if it’s been wiped down in the meantime because there’s what seems like 10 million people outside waiting to come in right after you.
The drug test is oral, it’s almost like a thermometer with a cloth pad on the end that absorbs your saliva. You have to keep it in your cheek and swish around until it turns blue. You stare in this mirror until you see the color blue and then make sure you keep all your spit in the thing while you put it into the small plastic bag. You have to take your mask off while you’re doing this, you’re not wearing gloves, and you’re basically drooling all over this stick. You have to fill out paperwork in the meantime while you’re doing it. So how sanitary can it really be? There’s only one person in that room. Are they really cleaning each station after each person? Thoroughly? Or are they just doing it as fast as possible to get more people in.
Once you’re finished you take it out, fill up the bag, close it, and the person there points you to the little bag to deposit it in. You put it in, and they walk you out. They tell you to go to the security guard, and they’ll let you out. When you leave, you see the line of people going up to and through the parking lot, where everyone else is waiting to come in. Because they are interviewing so many people. It’s gotta be hundreds of people at a time.
That’s it. They’re not asking, Tell us about yourself. They don’t give a fuck. They’re like: Can you function? Can you lift shit? All right. Good. Do you have a criminal record? No. Can you pass a drug test? OK. Go. They take your picture so they can put it on a badge when you come in for your Day One, and that’s it. They treat you like cattle. It’s seriously like cattle.
They give you a preliminary job offer as soon as you walk out the door. They’re that desperate for people. The turnover rate has to be ridiculous.
You're An Amazonian
It’s all through email. You do not talk to anyone on the phone. Everything is electronic. Everything is through a robot; it’s not a person. You’re always talking to do-not-reply at Amazon.com. I’ve known people who got a letter in the mail two weeks later saying they didn’t get it because they didn’t pass the background check or the drug test. They don’t man up and call you and say, No, you didn’t get it. They just string you out, and then you get a letter in the mail like, Fuck you.
If you do get it, you get an email and it says, Congratulations, you’re an Amazonian, and now you have to do all this. You have to do all your personal paperwork, filling out your W-2, filling out your tax paperwork, give them your bank information, and direct deposit. You have to sign waivers, whether or not you want to sign up for benefits. It’s all pretty normal. You watch the training videos, stuff like basic HAZMAT: If you see blood on the ground don’t touch it, and if you see a robot wheeling around, don’t stick your hand near the wheels because it will chop your fingers off. It’s pretty mind-numbing. They pay you for your time. You take a quiz at the end of each one to make sure you’re paying minor attention to it. You can fail as many times as you want, and it gives you the right answer at the end. So if you fail it once, you’ll pass it the next time. Yeah, great quiz.
Once you’ve finished all that, they send you an email saying you have to sign up for your Day One shift and you do it through their Amazon A to Z app. Day One is almost the same as before except instead of going to the new hire place, you go to the main entrance. One of the HR people comes out with the badges, and they give you your horrible picture with your barcode and stuff on it so you can scan in, because every time you enter or exit the building you have to scan your ID to go through. It’s almost like a subway terminal. The little security door type has a bunch of bars that come out. You go through that. You have to go through a—I don’t know if this is new or if they did it before—body-scanning technology where it takes your temperature and scans your pockets to make sure you’re not carrying anything in that you’re not supposed to. You walk through. Once they give you the thumbs up, you’re allowed to come in. For Day One, you again have to follow a path.
On your first day, they take you into separate groups, depending on what shift you’re on. I was lucky because the group I was in, there was just, I think, five of us. But the other two, there probably was 20-something people in each of those groups led by one person. They all got led to one station, and they all lined up right next to each other. Which is why it’s concerning. Because they’re all right next to each other, directly next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, listening to one person show you around the station.
The station is basically this: You’re facing this big, metal desk. I’d say 10-to-12 feet long, probably about 8 feet wide, and it’s got a conveyor belt where they put on the cart stall items or the boxes. There's also a large metal ladder. It’s got a bunch of lasers, a bunch of scanning stuff. When you get there you’re supposed to—and I don’t know if this is new for COVID-19 or if it was always done this way—but you’re supposed to spray down everything and wipe it off. But the more time you spend on that is less time that you’re stowing items, and that means you’re probably falling behind people. They say they want you to stay safe and healthy and clean, but you know someone’s gonna cut corners and get right to scanning. You have to figure out what you want to do because they time you.
At the end of your shift, you get the amount of seconds it took you to scan each item and stow it, and the lower it is the more bonus money you can sign up for on your shift. They’ll give you extra money to sign up because they want the fastest people working more. So do you want to stay safe or do you want to be one of the good workers who gets good shifts? For Labor Day, we got a message saying something like, Top three people will get Amazon gift cards! So they’re encouraging you to not stop.
A Day In The Warehouse
You get into the parking lot, a ginormous parking lot. You park. I drive a Honda Civic, so you better remember where you parked because there’s probably 700 other Honda Civics in that parking lot. You go through security, you scan your badge, go through the door. You go through the temperature scanner. Then you have to walk to a station, where you can find one of the people, one of the quality assurance managers. They pull up their tablet and check which stations are being used, which stations are busy, and they’ll say all right. They print out a little paper sticker. They write the number on it. You have to go find it.
If you’re lucky, it’s only a hallway or two away. If you’re unlucky, like I have been, it’s gonna be 15 minutes of walking to get there because you have to follow the paths. There’s no direct route; you’re gonna have to go over and around and through some bullshit to get there. Because it’s a factory. It’s a warehouse. There’s shit everywhere, gated off, closed up, shit moving, people dragging bins back and forth, people with pallet jacks, people everywhere. You’re supposed to respect social distancing while you’re also supposed to be hustling to get to your station. You've gotta find the balance, which is understandable. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about that. It’s luck of the draw. If you get screwed, it kinda sucks. If you’re on the same floor and it’s two hallways down, then you walk it. But if it’s on the third floor and six hallways down, then that sucks. Because then you have to go up two flights of stairs, walk a bunch, get there, and you’re already almost out of breath by the time you get to the station.
You walk up to the desk. On your lefthand side would be where the scanner, the physical scanner is, that’s part of the station. You also have a hand scanner for if something is harder to scan or you need to be a little more mobile so you can do it yourself. They put it there because it's right next to where the robots bring in the large containers that you’re actually putting the individual items into. The monitor tells you, Hello, welcome you just signed in. Do some neck stretches! Do some arm lifts, touch your toes! OK, (low-pitch voice) scan! It tries to give you these little motivational tips.
Cameras are built into the whole desk. It’s a giant metal thing that's ceiling to floor. It’s got the laser scanner. As you pull in the bins, there’s lasers everywhere. They self-scan as you’re pulling in the bins to register the bin. The only thing you have to scan yourself are the cardboard containers that have the red sticker on them and when you pick up an item.
You have to do what’s called a six-surface check to find the most valid barcode. When you do your training online, which people barely pay attention to, it gives you an order of important barcodes. You’re supposed to look for this one and, if you don’t see that, then look for this one. If you don’t see that, look for this one. It’s in descending order of importance. If you scan the wrong one, go find another one. You have to keep turning the package over, finding different barcodes and scanning until you find the right one and it registers. If it doesn’t register, then you’re gonna have to do what’s called a drop item. That means the system fucked up, we didn’t recognize this item, and it’s not supposed to be in that container, so do all the other items in that box that you can. Unless they’re all the same, then you have to drop that whole thing next to the empty containers and someone will eventually come get it, re-register the bin, and drop it off somewhere else, if you’re lucky. Or it’ll just sit there forever and you’ll bang into it all the time.
Everything is through the monitor. You scan. You see it’s time to stow and it’s counting off the time: one second, two second, three seconds. Time since the last successful stow will be on the left, and the time you’re currently using will be on the right. You scan and you look at the monitor because the monitor tells you everything. It tells you what time it is. It tells you how long you’ve been at the station. It tells you how many items you’ve stowed. It tells you your average time. It tells you when your break is gonna be. It tells you when your shift ends. Everything. There’s no human interaction. Everything that is being told to you, the only human interaction you get, for me at least, was when I'd first get there and they would assign me a station. Or when the pickers would come over and bring some boxes or bins. Or on break when you have to clock out and you sit across the table from someone and you can chat for a little bit. That’s it.
"Cameras Are Watching You All The Time"
The robots are supposed to see which containers you scanned in and bring you bins relevant to the times you have in your station. But sometimes that shit just doesn’t happen. You can have 10 huge things but you’re getting stuff that only has room for cards and books and stuff. So you have to send it away, and you better hope that you have something lined up behind it, or else it can take 45 seconds or up to a minute for it to bring you another one—and that’s all on your clock.
The robots haul ass if they want to. If they’re in the clear, you’re not allowed to go in that area unless you’re trained for it and you’re one of the people working there. If something falls off, or if you’re trying to place something and it falls out, they have this spiky plastic string stuff that’s supposed to guard things from falling out onto the floor, where the robots drive around. You’re not supposed to reach in there. But you know if something gets damaged that you scanned, or if it goes missing, you’re gonna get hit with it. You’re gonna get hit with the error, and that detracts from what you do. That’s why some people end up reaching where they shouldn’t and then they get hurt.
The cameras are watching you all the time. If it sees you’re making odd movements, if you’re not crouching the right way, or you’re not lifting the right way, or you’re not using your legs. If you’re overextending, it will say, “Do some arm stretches,” and then it’s gonna cost you 30 seconds or it will say, “Do some neck rolls,” and that’s gonna cost you some time. So it encourages you to be safe but, at the same time, it kinda doesn’t want that because it wants you to go as fast as possible. It’s a Catch-22. Either you take your time and you’re gonna slow down and you’re gonna fall behind, or you try and hurry up and then it randomly decides that all right, now you’re too unsafe—and it's gonna punish you for it.
You know you’re not supposed to reach into your pockets. The big containers that show up, if they’re already fucked up from someone else, you’re not—well, if you’re trying to fit something else into it, then you’re allowed to kinda clean up that area. But if it’s full and just bulging, you’re not supposed to touch it. Because if you touch it, the cameras are going, if there’s an error later, it’s gonna assign the blame to you. Because you're the last one who touched it. You don’t know if someone stowed it that way or if, while it was moving and the robots are driving around, shit just fell over. They want you to put all the heavy stuff on the bottom, it’s like organizing a closet. You want it to make sense. You want the heavy stuff on the bottom and the lighter stuff on top, even in the individual cubbies. But sometimes it just doesn’t happen because people are desperate to get their time, so they just shove shit in there.
They encourage you to do 10-, 12-hour shifts. So if you’re in the back end of a 10-to-12 hour shift, you’re probably pretty beat, you know? Maybe not thinking right. You’re not lifting right anymore because you’re tired. And you’re worn out. It’s easy, like falling into a trap.
They have fans lined up, but while you’re at the station, you’re blocked off from them. The only time you really feel the air is when you step out to put more bins on the conveyor belt that lines up behind where you’re working. The only time you can really cool off a little bit is when you’re not stowing. So you’re costing yourself time to get a little bit of comfort. You gotta balance.
You can tell when people are having a bad day because they’re slamming down the containers as they pick them off the conveyer belts and just making constant noise. You can put in earplugs, but if you do you’re cutting off your senses and if something were to fall or something were to shift you’re not gonna hear it coming. It’s just gonna hit you. Or if someone is coming up behind you with a pallet jack when you’re walking, you could get your foot run over. It’s kinda like being in a slaughterhouse. It’s just constant banging.
"They Want Production"
If you work six hours, you get one unpaid 30-minute break. So they’ll give you 30 minutes where you have to clock out and you can eat. If you work eight or more, you get 15. You get two 15-minute breaks, and a 30 unpaid. You can work through them. Because I was flex, it’s different for me. I don’t know how the average shift person would be. But, for me, I have to look at the monitor and see what it tells me. Because usually when you talk to the person when you’re checking in, they just wanna get rid of you. They just want you to be working. They say, OK, go here, bye! See ya!
The bathrooms are nowhere close, really. Unless you're lucky and you get a station that’s close. Usually, you’re taking at least a couple minutes to get there and back and that’s gonna hurt your time.
If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to sign out of your station. The bathroom, it can be close or it can be far, it depends on where you’re stationed, then you have to come back and in the meantime you better hope that they didn’t take away your shit because they thought it was an empty station. You have to bring everything you brought with you to the bathroom. You have to bring your water bottle. You have to bring your tools with you. Because they could disappear if someone thinks it's an empty station and they just throw it away.
You have to clock out when you go to the bathroom because otherwise you’re still on the clock. If you don’t sign out, your time’s gonna rack up over and over. Say you’re gonna get like a 10-minute break, it takes you three minutes to get to the bathroom, a minute or two in the bathroom, and then three minutes to get back. So it’s gonna say your last stow was eight minutes. If you sign out, then it doesn’t take that eight minutes off your time although it does, it affects your break later on.
Usually you get hit with text messages right after you sign up for a shift. So as you sign up for one shift, it sends you a million ones saying OK, work these now! They had me listed as part time, but they would encourage me to work at least 40 hours a week, if not 60. We’re allowed to work up to 60 a week. The only limitations are you can’t work more than 12 hours in one day. So, depending on the shift, usually the overnight ones are when they’ll give you a bonus, five dollars extra or time and a half, if you’re lucky.
But if they have a bunch of people signed up, and you’re just desperate to get hours, you’re just gonna take your base rate at whatever time is available for you. So it’s luck of the draw. It pays to sign up ahead but, the thing is, there’s a balance. Say I were to sign up for a shift tomorrow: I’m more likely to get the extra five dollars because they’re more desperate to get someone to sign up for it. But if I sign up for that, I’m locked in, I can’t change. If I sign up for something four or five days ahead, I can drop it up to 24 hours before the shift. I’m not locked in. If something changes, I can change it. But I’m not getting any extra money. Even if it’s overnight.
You sign up for shifts using the Amazon A to Z app. You can either go on the computer, or you can download the app on your phone. For me it says "View available flex hours." You can sign up for whatever shift you want. But if you are on a shift, they have something called a mandatory extra day. If they are overloaded or they’re busy, you automatically have to work an extra shift, even if it’s more hours. You have no choice. You have to. Or you have to use PTO or you have to find someone to fill it for you.
For the stowers, we’re supposed to clean our station when we arrive and when we leave. But, like I said, you’re timed, your time is precious. Because it’s the amount of items you stow during the shift. So usually most people stop cleaning as soon as they have items to stow, when their first big container arrives. Because it usually takes about a minute once you sign in for the robot to bring you something to start bringing stuff in, depending on how busy they are. You’re either gonna have items already at your table when you show up or as soon as you sign in they’re gonna bring you something.
The only human interaction you get is usually people who are just as unhappy as you are because they’re doing the same grind, or it's with the supervisors that you barely talk to and, if you are talking to them, it’s either because you’re fucking up or because you need something and then you’re in subservient mode. They can have anywhere from three to five people waiting to talk to them at once, so you gotta make a judgment. Is it worth this much time to make this request? Or am I better off trying to keep my time down? Same thing with the bathrooms. The bathrooms are minuscule, for the men at least, I don’t know about the women. There’s two sinks, one urinal, and one stall. If there’s a couple of people who go when you go on break, you’re fucked. Because that’s when people try to save it for, but everyone’s gonna be going and there’s two so you might spend your whole break waiting to go to the bathroom. It all depends. If you’re far away, you gotta account for that and you’re gonna waste time, but at least you get a break.
There’s just so many judgement calls that are put on the lowest man. How safe am I? Do I do safe lifting, or do I try and get a faster pace? Do I actually do these stretches that it’s telling me to do because I’m getting sore, or do I hit skip so I can get back to stowing right away? Do I pause and take a drink and cool off for a second, or do I get right back to it? If the pickers are busy, do you go over to the conveyor belt and grab your own stuff, like I usually do because I’m able to, but if you’re older or if you have a smaller frame, if it’s a thing with a bunch of heavy shit in it, are you really gonna want to, depending on how far away your station is, are you gonna carry that all the way to your station? Usually you have the stronger people as pickers when you move up. So maybe some people just aren’t able to lift it, and they have to wait and that’s gonna cost them time when it’s gonna reflect on them.
My high score, I worked a 10-hour shift and I think it said I stowed 982 items.
I feel like they put a lot of pressure on you. As you’re working you get random messages from a random person you don’t know. It’s a quality control person. It gives you their first initial and their last name, and it says, Step it up! Or: You’re number 175 out of 215 workers. Time to pick it up! Time to pick up the pace! The best I did was 37 out of 216. And it said, You can do better! I'd wonder when is it gonna say, Good job, keep it up! They’re always cracking the whip. There’s no carrot.
A COVID-19 Positive
They said someone on Sept. 6 was confirmed COVID positive, but that was their last day in the building and they’re gonna reach out to individuals they think may have been affected. I didn't get any kind of reach out or notification from them. At first, all the shifts were pretty full. There weren’t that many available options. And then all of a sudden around 12:30, between 12:30 to 1:00, about 108 shifts opened up. So either people were scared to come in or a bunch of people got sick. I’m guessing that it was more of a fear issue.
It took them so long to tell people, even though they have notifications for everything. For like the stupidest stuff: It’s Ama-zen time do a meditation! Do some stretching! It’s summertime, feel great about yourself! And then "don’t kill yourself" suicide prevention stuff with Wear Your Pajamas To Work Day. Then, right after pajama to work day it’s, oh, someone had COVID.
It just popped up in the app, and I got an email. No one called. Like I said, no human interaction. It was just, oh, our bad. Someone on the sixth tested positive for COVID, and here’s how, you know, we’re gonna put even more rigorous cleaning into place.
So that individual hasn’t been there since the sixth. But when did you start reaching out to people? Are you just reaching out to people that were in contact now or did you do it before? What’s been going on behind the scenes? Once I got that notification, I was planning on working that weekend but then I got a little sketched out, obviously. Especially seeing all those callouts. Either they’re desperate for people or it’s contained or it’s a mess? Especially because right before they sent out that email saying we had a COVID positive, they were saying, We’re hiring 100,000 new people, refer your friends! Bring everyone here! Who needs a job?
The Amazon worker provided screenshots of the COVID-19 alert from Amazon to Defector Media. Defector Media reached out to the director of health for the Quinnipiack Valley Health District, which includes North Haven, asking how many reports of COVID-19 exposure there have been at the North Haven warehouse since Sept. 1. Health Director Karen A. Wolujewicz responded in an email that Defector Media needed to call the Amazon warehouse for that information. When Defector Media called the phone number given by Wolujewicz for the warehouse, which had a Seattle area code, the calls did not go through, each ending in either a message that said "the called party is temporarily unavailable " or "your call cannot be completed as dialed."
Defector Media also emailed Amazon public relations with a list of questions that included a request to confirm the COVID-19 alert sent to workers, a request to confirm that, since then, more workers at the warehouse have tested positive for COVID-19, a request to confirm that part-timers work up to 60 hours a week, and asked for comment on the conflicting messaging being given to workers about their productivity versus safety. Amazon PR responded with an email that did not answer any of Defector Media's questions.
Deciding To Leave
What made me leave was the pajama thing. Wear your pajamas to work! And then the next day they say, oh, we’ve got COVID. I worked a few shifts and that was it. It was just a hostile environment.
Looking back, I think they weren’t the best place to work but they weren’t the worst, either. They put me in a pretty shitty position with all the pressure. They ask you to take extra hours and shit, and you feel like you have to but ... I dunno. I wasn’t there for that long. It didn’t go great. It might pay OK, and they have some good benefits. But it’s gonna suck your soul out. There’s not a lot of interaction with people. There’s not a lot of support either. They give you a task, and you do your thing, then it tells you when to take a break.
My roommate worked there for a while, and they were making him work crazy hours. And I can't say I didn't see it firsthand. But a job is a job. They could do a lot better of giving people support. I guess they are more open with the COVID stuff now. When he worked there, he said he got on a monthly basis, an alert, like Covid exposure. Everyone is just used to it now. So, like, it’s just like real life.
What I really took away from Amazon is that they just really look at it mechanically, like fuses in a circuit. One blows out, replace it with another. All good.
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Diana Moskovitz is Defector's investigations editor. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you prefer protonmail, email@example.com. If security is a concern, download the Signal app and send her a text at 929-251-8187.
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