Over the past few years, we have published anonymous accounts from just about every kind of Amazon employee, from the blue collar pickers to the white collar office workers. Today we hear from a different kind of warehouse worker about the ceaseless demands of “rate.”
Previous warehouse workers have described physical strain, corrosive management practices, and the insanity of the holiday rush in Amazon’s vast “fulfillment centers,” where customer orders are filled and shipped. But there is another type of Amazon warehouse: equally vast “sortation centers,” also known as cross docks, which are meant to streamline Amazon’s supply chain by collecting and sorting huge numbers of orders for delivery to specific U.S. post offices. (A description of their purpose can be found here.) As Amazon’s supply chain specialization increases, so too do the variety of ways its workers can be ground down.
The following story is from an Amazon warehouse worker in California who wishes to remain anonymous. As you read it, it is worth keeping in mind that Amazon went to the Supreme Court to win the right to not pay its employees for all the time they spend at work. This is just one person’s perspective on how America’s 18th biggest company is operating.
Here’s the deal: I have never felt more disposable or meaningless than I do at Amazon. But this is an easy thing to claim, as a lot of other Amazon storytellers have. So I’ll avoid saying things that can be easily disputed—like management is incompetent, or friends promote other friends, etc.—as these things can be written off or disregarded; I’ll try to stick to facts.
I started working at a warehouse designated ONT8 in Moreno Valley, CA, about a year ago. Right across the street (literally) was ONT6, which was the kind of warehouse you know about, the ones with Pickers, all the cubbies, the supply robots, the whole shebang. ONT8 was not that kind of warehouse—sorry “fulfillment center.”
ONT8 was known as a “Cross Dock,” apparently one of the only ones on the west coast, and we didn’t fulfill customer orders. Whereas the traditional Amazon warehouse is filled with people running around from cubby to cubby, a Cross Dock largely consists of people standing in one place for ten hours a day, doing the same task over and over again. But I’ll get into that in a bit.
My interview was nothing like an interview. No one-on-one, no “what are your best qualities?” About thirty of us were sat down in a room and showed videos that would train us for the exact kind of jobs they did at ONT6, not our ONT8. We were told how to properly pack items into the cubbies at a traditional warehouse, despite the fact that there were none whatsoever at ONT8. We were told how to use the handheld computers needed to Pick from cubbies, again, despite us never ever actually doing that. Then we all put cotton-coated drug tests into our mouths, and Amazon would continue with our employment offers should they come back negative. Basically, Amazon will offer employment to anyone who claims to be able to do the physical tasks necessary and is not currently on drugs during the interview. But that would take two weeks, and in the meantime, there were more training videos we needed to view for jobs we would never do at ONT8. The entire day’s worth of training was sort of pointless.
My drug test came back negative because I’m not an idiot, and I was soon thrown into an area called Prep. In Prep, more than a hundred of us were put in front of stations with computers, scan guns, and full pallets of products. Full, six-feet-tall pallets of all sorts of things. For instance, deodorant. We’d unpack box after box of Right Guard six packs, put two of them into another bag, put that bag into a yellow tote bin, and keep going until the entire pallet of hundreds of deodorants was empty. Then another pallet would be put in front of us, and we’d repeat this soul-numbing process until break, until lunch, until second break, until end of shift, until we died. We were told we were fulfilling customer orders, so we needed to take special care of the product we handled. We did not fulfill customer orders, as I’d come to find out. What we actually did was Prep—read: prepare—products for other vendors so that they did not have to, and then the products would go to other fulfillment centers across the country to be unpacked and cubbied, or to other vendors to be sold by them. We were that middleman that everyone is always trying to cut out, and justifiably so.
We had to make Rate. We had to unpack and repack a certain number of product per hour. Our UPH, or units per hour, was what determined whether or not we’d get a talking to by one of our many bosses. When I first got hired on, we had to make a Rate of 85, which was doable, if challenging at first. By the time Peak season came around the rate was about 180. After Peak, it stayed at 180. That meant that we had to Prep about 3 units per minute, which was fine if the product had no Prep to be done to it, but not easy at all if the product had to be bagged, and bubble wrapped, and then boxed up. In fact, in instances like that, you would never make Rate, it was impossible; things like that took at least a good minute per item. And when you didn’t make Rate, you would get a talking to by a manager, and they did not appreciate it if you explained that you could not make Rate with a pallet of hundreds of dishes that had to be individually wrapped and boxed. That did not matter. Rate was Rate, and if you couldn’t make it, you were in trouble.
That sad part of it was that Rate was largely predetermined for you before you even started work. A pallet of boxes was already at your station from the previous shift, and that was what you had to work through. If it was a load of SD cards that were good to go, all you had to do was scan them. Rate was in the bag. If it was gaudy Rachel Ray platters that had to be bubble wrapped, X00-stickered, and individually boxed, you were fucked. You couldn’t ask for a new pallet, you had to just get through the one you had, and maybe the next pallet would be different. Oftentimes, the next pallet was more of the same. The warehouse got identical pallets in tens and twenties, and we all HATED dealing with Rachel Ray stuff.
Rate was constant. Rate was on you all day. If you went to the bathroom, that lowered your Rate. If your boss came by to see how you were doing, that distraction lowered your Rate. If you ran out of bags and had to go get new ones yourself, that lowered your Rate. If you cut yourself on a box cutter or pinched a finger in the conveyor belt right next to you or something, and had to go to the on-site Amcare office (like a school nurse’s office, and equally as competent), well, you were still on Rate, and that lapse in work lowered your Rate. If your boss pulled you aside to talk to you about your low Rate, I mean, you’re still on Rate during that talking-to, so that further lowered your Rate.
And no, we did not get fifteen-minute breaks, as I’ve read in various other articles. We got ten-minute breaks. Ten-minute breaks which had to be taken in designated break areas. During the morning stand up meetings (basically calisthenics) it was constantly drilled into our heads that we were given ten-minute breaks. Management would ask us, “How long are your breaks?” And like sheep, we’d all drone back, “Ten minutes.” Amazon, by the grace of Jeff Bezos, the bald god that he is, allowed us to have “two-and-a-half minutes to walk to, and from the break rooms,” as management would gleefully inform us. Never mind that it often took longer than that to walk to a break area, sometimes through a metal detector—heaven help you if that thing dinged, there’s like half your break right there. And if you happened to be in a part of the warehouse that took longer than that to get back from, well, your break was just taken from you. You should have planned your bladder better than that, now get back to work.
But at least I was making more than minimum wage, which could not be said for the seasonal employees. Our seasonal staffing company was called Staff Management, and the people they brought to us were known as SMXers. SMXers were technically employed through SM, and not by Amazon. They worked the same 40+ hours a week we did, but they made minimum wage, earned no benefits, didn’t get stock options or a 401k, and could be let go at any time regardless of reason. I heard that one girl from ONT6 was let go of in the middle of her shift at the water fountain. SMXers had their own SM bosses, separate from our Amazonian bosses. I have no idea what determined what made someone a seasonal employee (white badge) or a direct hire (blue badge). I got lucky and was hired on directly by Amazon.
During Peak Season, from October to the end of December, mandatory overtime was called on a constant basis. We had to come in an hour early four days a week. We had to. If you missed a mandatory overtime shift, and you didn’t have a doctor’s note, you’d get written up. During the so-called Blackout Period, from Black Friday to the middle of December, if you missed a shift at all, and you didn’t have the Personal Time Off to cover those eleven hours, you’d better have a doctor’s note, or you’d probably be let go of. No Vacation requests would be honored, either.
And the parking situation was horrendous, as well. I’m not lying when I tell you that you could arrive at the warehouse half an hour before your shift, and still end up clocking in late. That happened. A lot. It happened to me on more than one occasion. It just took that long to find a space!
And the poor SMXers were simply not allowed to park on-site at all during Peak. They had to park at the Lake Perris Fairgrounds, which was an auto speedway miles down the road, and be bussed in. So they’d have to park down there like an hour before their shift to ensure they got bussed in with enough time to clock in on time.
The scary thing was what happened outside the warehouse during Peak. Cars in the parking lot would be broken into quite a bit. It happened so much that the site security team would address the break ins during the daily stand up meetings, but it didn’t help. Cars still got broken into on Amazon property. Probably broken into by Amazon employees. As far as I know, Amazon did nothing to affect any kind of meaningful security change.
We were promised that if we met a certain quota of products shipped during Peak, we’d all get big bonuses on our checks by the end of Peak. Well, we met the quota. The site as a whole did really well. We blew up our quota. But what we weren’t told was that even though our site met the quota, since some of the other sites in the network did not, we would not be getting our bonuses. This little condition was never explained to us beforehand. I consider this a lie by omission. Yes, Amazon lied to me.