ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor's report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.
Workers interviewed said they experienced brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out on stretchers or in wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.
In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour moving inventory through a hot warehouse. But with job openings scarce, Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants in the swollen ranks of the unemployed.
Many warehouse workers are hired for temporary positions by Integrity Staffing Solutions, or ISS, and are told that if they work hard. they may be converted to permanent positions with Amazon, current and former employees said. The temporary assignments end after a designated number of hours, and those not hired to permanent Amazon jobs can reapply for temporary positions again after a few months, workers said.
Mostly Temp Workers
Temporary employees interviewed said few people in their working groups actually made it to a permanent Amazon position. Instead, they said they were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, they quit or they got injured. Those interviewed said turnover at the warehouse is high and many hires don't last more than a few months.
Amazon didn't answer specific questions about the turnover rate or the working conditions. Instead, Amazon spokeswoman Michele Glisson emailed a statement, which she attributed to Vickie Mortimer, general manager at the Upper Macungie, Pa., warehouse.
"The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously," the statement said. "We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer. I am grateful to work with such a fantastic group of employees from our community, and we partner with them every day to make sure our facility is a great place to work."
But many employees like Karen Salasky disagree. "At first, I loved it," she said. "I started in November. We worked 11-hour days because of Christmas. It was hard, but I pushed myself and I got used to it."
She enjoyed the walking, which she considered good exercise. But she said she grew frustrated when she received a warning letter in March from a manager stating she had been unproductive during several minutes of her shift. Salasky said she was working as hard as she could, and she declined to sign the warning letter.
End the Slavery
Salasky said she would cry herself to sleep at night. She and her colleagues lamented about the heat, often chanting sarcastically, "End slavery at Amazon."
One hot day in June, Salasky said, she wasn't feeling well. Her fingers tingled and her body felt numb. She went to the restroom. An ISS manager asked if she was OK, and she said no. She was taken by wheelchair to an air-conditioned room, where paramedics examined her while managers asked questions and took notes.
"I was really upset, and I said, 'All you people care about is the rates, not the well-being of the people,'" she said. "I've never worked for an employer that had paramedics waiting outside for people to drop because of the extreme heat."
The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon's warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers' compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers work for the temp agency, rather than Amazon.
Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule, such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor's note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.
Heat prompted complaints about working conditions at Amazon to federal regulators who monitor workplace safety.
On July 21, an employee called OSHA to report that the heat index in the warehouse ranged between 108 and 112 degrees. Amazon initiated voluntary time off, allowing employees to go home if they wished and telling them that ice cream was available.
On July 25, a security guard at the Amazon warehouse called OSHA and said the temperature exceeded 110 degrees. The guard reported seeing two pregnant women taken to nurses and that Amazon would not open garage doors to help air circulation.
OSHA issued recommendations to Amazon Aug. 18 about how it could improve its heat-stress management plan and closed its inspection.
"I don't know how they can treat people this way," Salasky said. "I think the faster you work, the bigger raise they get, and they're just benefiting themselves and not caring about people. I used to shop Amazon all the time. I will never shop Amazon again."