Amazon's Best Excuses for Abusing Sick and Pregnant WorkersS

Workers in an Amazon.com warehouse were routinely sent to the emergency room because of sweltering, suffocating heat that sometimes exceeded 110 degrees — and because Amazon refused to open warehouse doors, fearing theft, according to a devastating exposé in the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call. After workers, an E.R. doctor and a security guard complained, federal regulators investigated the warehouse and recommended changes. Amazon responded with popsicles, bandanas and finger pointing.

The Morning Call paints a truly bleak picture. Workers at the Amazon plant, who were leased by the company from a temp agency, had their productivity tracked by a scanner database minute by minute, routinely had their picking and packing quotas doubled, and were constantly getting fired on a hair trigger basis for accumulating demerit points issued automatically by computer, for example when they slowed down a smidge in the sweltering heat of a locked warehouse in summer, or left early to escape the heat.

And there's no question the heat in this hellhole was medically dangerous. Amazon even hired paramedics to wait right outside the warehouse's (closed!) loading dock doors to treat fainting or dehydrated employees. The 20 current and former workers interviewed by the Morning Call said the heat caused legs to cramp, lightheadedness, made people pass out (in one case right at the water fountain), caused dizziness, tingling and numbness and blurry vision. This past summer, at least 15 were set to the hospital by ambulance, with another 20 to 30 treated by paramedics on site. At one point, the flood of patients prompted an E.R. doctor to call an OSHA hotline: "I'd like to report an unsafe environment with a[n] Amazon facility in Fogelsville … Several patients have come in the last couple days with heat-related injuries."

During heat waves, people could voluntarily go home, but they would automatically get demerit points, which could lead to a firing. Having the demerits removed involved a doctor's note and obtaining a medical waiver from warehouse managers. But having the right paperwork didn't always protect people from managers' shenanigans, as you'll see below.

Amazon.com and the managers it hired have come up with all sorts of ridiculous excuses for running a sweatshop that even hardened longtime warehouse workers described as the worst job they'd ever had:

  • Medical breakdowns in our warehouse had nothing to do with our warehouse:Amazon and its contracted managers routinely shifted blame to other people. In a report to OSHA about a single particularly bad day in June, Amazon site safety manager Allen Forney said people were rushed from the warehouse to the hospital with... personal problems: "Fifteen out of 1,600 employees experienced heat-related symptoms. Six of these employees were treated at a local hospital ER for non-work related medical conditions triggered by the heat."

    But it turns out workers were, go figure, pressured into calling work problems personal problems. "One temporary worker" with hypertension, the Morning Call wrote, "said her vision got blurry, she had trouble standing and couldn't concentrate one shift when heat in some parts of the warehouse exceeded 110 degrees. She went to a nurse station in the warehouse because she was feeling dizzy. Within minutes of her arrival at the nurse station, an ISS manager asked her to sign a paper saying her symptoms were not related to work, she said... 'I think it was work-related, but I just signed the paper," said the wemployee... 'I knew if I left through the nurse's station I'd get half a [demerit] point. If you get six points within three months you get fired.'"
  • Whoops, your job doesn't exist any more: "Sharon Faust said she took a temporary job with[the warehouse temp agency] ISS, hoping it would lead to a permanent position with Amazon. Then in June, the 57-year-old Breinigsville resident was diagnosed with breast cancer. She notified ISS that she needed surgery. They told her she would need a note from her doctor saying when she could return. Faust had surgery July 20 and reported to the Amazon warehouse with a doctor's note saying she could return to work Aug. 17. When she arrived to deliver the note within a week of her surgery, she found out the doctor's note wasn't necessary. 'They said my assignment with them is terminated. I was just flabbergasted,' Faust said."
  • But we give them delicious cold treats: In a July call to OSHA, Amazon's Forney disclosed that the warehouse was ranging from 108-112 degrees but noted "Amazon initiated voluntary time off, allowing employees to go home if they wished and ice cream was available." A warehouse security guard later complained to OSHA that he'd seen two pregnant women at the warehouse taken to nurses due to the heat. Amazon refused to open the garage doors, he said, but "they do have ice pops going around and water everywhere." Delicious ice pops solve everything, really.
  • Not our problem: By shifting management of the warehouse to its temp agency, "Amazon limits its liability for workers' compensation and unemployment insurance." That sounds cheap enough to make this warehouse misery a mere cost of doing business.
  • Bandannas for everyone! Amazon never did open those big doors, and the fans it installed after OSHA started poking around were compared by one worker to "working in a convection oven." But there are consolation prizes: "Amazon purchased 2,000 cooling bandannas, which were given to every employee, and those in the dock/trailer yard received cooling vests, Forney said."
  • You're not sick, you're foulmouthed: One 44 year old former waitress worked 11 hour days during the holiday rush, but found her rates dropping in the summer hear. One day her fingers tingled and her body felt numb. "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...Supervisors told Salasky to go home and rest. She reported to an ISS office the next day to drop off medical paperwork, and she was asked to sign papers acknowledging she got irate and used a curse word on the day she suffered from the heat. She refused to sign the papers because she said she didn't curse. A few days later, she called ISS and found out her assignment had been terminated."
  • We're doing everything we can (except not really): One former Amazon employee, who had worked himself out of the temp agency and into a permanent position in the warehouse, explained to the Morning Call that other warehouses where he worked woud routinely open loading dock doors to help circulate air when it got hot. He was told by managers that Amazon did not do this because it was worried about theft. And yet Amazon's Michele Glisson forwarded a statement to the newspaper claiming ""The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon.... 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." And yet somehow the temperatures in this worker's paradise climbed to 114 degrees. Somehow we don't think that's ever happened in the den of dissembling and greed that is Amazon's Seattle headquarters.

[Morning Call, Awl, Business Insider, Business Insider. Photo of Amazon warehouse in Nevada, December 2008 via AP]