Amazon workers' nightmare shows what happens when jobs are scarce

How would you feel about your son or daughter working in a warehouse that had a temperature of 102 degrees? And for a company that offered no benefits and had job applicants standing by in the event somebody conked out due to heat exhaustion? Yes, this is good old reliable Amazon, and it's treating their people the way you might imagine Third World workers get treated. The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. laid it out in a stunning piece that ran over the weekend. Some snippets:

Workers said they were forced to endure 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 in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time. 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.

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.


The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say. Large companies such as Amazon can minimize costs for benefits and raises by relying on temporary workers rather than having a larger permanent workforce, those experts say. "They can get away with it because most workers will take whatever they can get with jobs few and far between," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. "The temp worker is less likely to complain about it and less likely to push for their labor rights because they feel like they don't have much pull or sway with the worksite employer."

At one point in May the heat became so bad Amazon paid an ambulance company to have paramedics and ambulances stationed outside the warehouse. OSHA told Amazon that the way the warehouse was run had "the potential to adversely impact" employee safety and health. No kidding. This isn't the first time questions have been raised about Amazon's business practices, and yet the abuses go on because workplace regulations are often vague and open to different interpretations. They go on because there's no union to protect employees. Most of all, they go on because Amazon's success is dependent on being fast and cheap. The company could hire more people and put less pressure on workers, but that might result in having to charge a few more bucks to ship a book or DVD - and, be honest, how would you feel about that?

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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