The holidays are no holiday at Amazon
Nevadans pay high cost for convenience
An Amazon employee in a fulfillment center. (Amazon press photo)
It’s called ‘peak season’ – the time of year when ten-hour days for some of the nation’s more than one million Amazon employees extend into eleven-hour shifts packed into a backbreaking blur of six-day work weeks.
“They work us like crazy with hardly any days off, especially during the holidays. They don’t care about the safety of their employees,” says Johnny Acejo, who spent five years employed at an Amazon facility in Phoenix.
Amazon declined to answer the majority of questions posed for this story.
Unwinding after a long shift while facing the prospect of doing it again involves video games, booze, or weed, according to about a dozen employees interviewed by the Current. Others turn to the sleep aid Unisom, purchased online from Amazon.
The job is consuming.
“They literally keep track of your restroom time,” Acejo says of a scanner worn by employees that allows Amazon to track their movements. “I took five minutes in the restroom because I had real bad stomach pains and I was throwing up. I got a write up. All they care about is the numbers.”
The numbers are good.
Ecommerce sales in the U.S. topped $800 billion in the last year. As of October, Amazon owned 41% of the market share, followed by Walmart at 6%, according to Statista.
Amazon’s net income for the twelve months ending September 30, 2021 was $26.263 billion, up 51.14% year-to-year.
Amazon is the second largest employer in the U.S. (behind Walmart) with more than a million workers. Amazon employs more than 10,500 Nevadans at more than a dozen warehouses, distribution facilities, and fulfillment centers throughout the state, mostly in Southern Nevada.
“Amazon is changing the nature of work in our country,” says a resolution passed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters last summer, which noted the company “presents an existential threat to the standards we have set” in Teamster-related industries Amazon has disrupted, such as parcel delivery, freight, food distribution, and movie production.
The resolution says the union “recognizes that there is no clearer example of how America is failing the working class than Amazon. From its start as a book retailer, Amazon has grown to become an ecommerce giant and has disrupted industry after industry and displaced hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
“Amazon is very rightly worried that if one fulfillment center were to organize and unionize, it could start a domino reaction that would cause all others to fall in line,” says Avery, a former Amazon worker and host of the podcast The Amazon.
“Amazon exploits its employees, contractors, and employees of contractors via: wage theft, fraudulent classification, intense production quotas, dehumanizing work environments, unsafe workplaces and production standards, low wages, high turnover, no voice on the job, lack of job security and outsourced jobs,” says the Teamsters’ resolution.
But the union’s effort to organize Amazon workers appears stalled.
“We are not discussing specific locations or strategies at this time,” said a national spokesperson for the Teamsters.
Members of local Teamsters chapters say they’re unaware of any efforts to unionize Amazon workers in Nevada, as is a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO of Nevada.
For the last two decades, Amazon has deflected union overtures – most recently in Bessemer, Alabama, when it turned back the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents poultry plant workers in that state.
Last month, a judge ruled Amazon interfered in the vote and ordered a do-over.
“I’d say the ability to organize is a slim chance due to attrition, union busters, and Amazon’s brazen ability to not break but obliterate labor law with little to no consequences,” says Avery of The Amazon podcast. “Every chip is stacked against the workers and through pure grit a large number of them are still fighting the good fight.”
“Organizing is hard due to the fact that no one stays,” he says. “Union organizers at Bessemer estimated they lost 60 ‘yes’ ballots a day due to attrition and Amazon’s ability to legally prolong the organizing attempt. People simply don’t stay in a shit hole long.”
A group of Whole Foods employees unsuccessfully attempted to organize in 2018 after Amazon laid off several hundred employees and increased the cost of doing business for suppliers, according to the Wall Street Journal, when it purchased the grocery chain for $13.7 billion in 2017.
“Amazon won’t allow that because it will cost them more in the long run,” said one Whole Foods delivery driver in San Diego who asked not to be named. Paying union dues will just be a burden to workers, she fears.
“We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates,” says an anti-union video produced by Amazon for its employees. “Our business model is built upon speed, innovation, and customer obsession—things that are generally not associated with union. When we lose sight of those critical focus areas we jeopardize everyone’s job security: yours, mine, and the associates’.”
“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Jeff Bezos wrote earlier this year in his 2020 letter to shareholders. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees.”
Bezos went on to say that even though the vote was in Amazon’s favor, “it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”
Bezos rejected the notion that Amazon employees are “desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work. When we survey fulfillment center employees, 94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.”
Avery, host of The Amazon podcast, says job satisfaction is elusive at an Amazon fulfillment center.
“Satisfaction isn’t near what most people get from a job at Amazon, it’d be hard to be satisfied when Amazon averages a 150% turnover rate and near double the average of serious accidents in the workplace,” he says.
He’s referring to a Washington Post investigation that revealed Amazon reported twice as many accidents to OSHA as other warehouse and storage companies.
OSHA is currently investigating the storm-related deaths this month of half a dozen Amazon employees at an Indiana warehouse. Some employees say they were not allowed to leave the warehouse to seek shelter.
“As soon as there was a tornado warning, the team took immediate action to move to shelter in place locations,” Amazon spokeswoman Alisa Carroll told the Current via email.
“When a site is made aware of a tornado warning in the area, all employees are notified and directed to move to a designated and marked shelter in place location,” she said. “This is the safest approach to ensure no one is on the road or outside during a tornado.”
Carroll said the site got warnings between 8:06 and 8:16, and “leaders directed people on site to immediately take shelter. At 8:27, the tornado struck the building.”
Validated OSHA complaints from Amazon’s Nevada workers the last year range from safety concerns, some resulting from a reduced workforce certain days of the week, to violations of COVID protocols.
“Scanners and carts used by employees for order picking are not being sanitized after being used,” says one complaint to OSHA, echoed frequently by workers interviewed nationwide.
But the most common complaint from Amazon workers in Nevada was the heat.
A complaint of “poor air quality” prompted an OSHA inspection of DLV 7, a facility in North Las Vegas ,on April 27.
“There is poor air quality in the workplace. The air filters are dirty,” says the complaint. “It is very hot in the building. Employees are experiencing headaches due to the heat and wearing a mask.”
“Employees in the warehouse are not provided with enough water or rest and are being potentially exposed to heat stress related illness,” says a complaint that brought OSHA to DLV 2 on Alexander Rd. in North Las Vegas on June 1. “The warehouse fans are operational but are not providing adequate airflow for the given volume of the warehouse.”
“Inside the warehouse employees are exposed to heat stress,” says a complaint that resulted in an inspection of LAS 1 on Bermuda Rd. in Henderson on June 22. “There is only one fan and no air-conditioning in the building.”
On June 28, inspectors visited the LAS 7 fulfillment center on Tropical Pkwy. in North Las Vegas, after receiving complaints that employees were “experiencing heat issues since the summer began due to the lack of air conditioning on the south end of the warehouse. Operation managers have advised that fans would be installed at each station throughout the warehouse however that has yet to occur for all stations. It is warm on the north side of the warehouse, but it is hot on the south side of the warehouse.”
OSHA records say the complaint was resolved.
“Employees are working under heat stress up to 100 degrees inside the establishment,” says a complaint filed in July by a worker at LAS 1 in Henderson. “The employer does not allow employees to use the fans in the trailers. The fans are locked up and employees that unlock the fans face retaliation including termination.”
The same substantiated complaint says workers “are rarely able to take breaks during their shifts. Employees typically do not receive any breaks during their shifts.”
Paying for the privilege
Amazon is among hundreds of companies that have agreed to pay a statutorily approved average wage and certain benefits to be eligible for incentives to do business in Nevada.
In 2014, the state ponied up a combination of incentives and tax abatements expected to save Amazon $1.365 million over the course of several years, while generating a projected $393 in economic impact for every dollar of abated tax.
“The proposed plan will bring a new non-sort operation to the Reno area. The state incentive program is a critical factor in the company’s decision for this expansion,” Amazon said in its proposal.
The company noted the majority of jobs would pay under the $20.62 per hour dictated by Nevada law to qualify a firm for the abatements.
“500 of the 600 positions will make an annual wage of $29,100 ($14/hr at 40 hrs/week). Of the remaining 100, 50 will earn $41,600/yr ($20/hr) and the other 50 is above the statewide wage requirement,” its proposal said.
Companies that receive abatements are audited after two years and again after five years, according to Greg Bortolin, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
“The company projections in 2014 estimated they would produce 600 jobs at an average wage of $16.50 per hour and make a capital expenditure of $10 million,” he said via email. “The audit findings found they created 533 jobs at an average wage of $23.37 per hour and made a capital expenditure of $15,295,110.”
A second contract with Amazon in 2016 bestowed benefits valued at $1.8 million on Amazon in return for building and operating a warehouse in Clark County. The company estimated the economic impact at $707 for every dollar of tax revenue sacrificed by the government.
“The company projections in 2016 estimated they would produce 1,000 jobs at an average wage of $14.64 per hour and make a capital expenditure of $18 million,” says Bortolin. “The audit findings found they created 704 jobs at an average wage of $52.63 and made a capital expenditure of $7,439,082.”
Both the jobs and wages generated were in compliance with the abatements, Bortolin says.
When Amazon was looking for a second national headquarters, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval offered to pony up $800 million in incentives toward the effort.
Avery of The Amazon podcast says the idea behind subsidies that employees “would reinvest all of their paycheck back into the city via housing and taxes and just going downtown to buy stuff,” is questionable. “In reality, it’s hard to say that that would happen. Those employees work for Amazon. They have the biggest company store known to man where anything can arrive to them faster than ever, no matter how much subsidizing is done.”
Why does a company valued near $2 trillion need public money from the states where it does business?
Nevada Democratic state Sen. Dina Neal attempted in 2019 to create a legislative committee to oversee incentives and abatements. Gov. Steve Sisolak vetoed the bill.
The state’s arrangement with Amazon has put it at odds with its own interests, as it incentivizes higher wages from private employers while failing to invest in its own critical workforce.
In a letter to Sisolak in October, the Governor’s Committee on Behavioral Health lamented that pay for “…front line staff working with the intellectually disabled and psychiatrically ill adults is far below that of large local employers such as Amazon and Walmart,” the Current reported.
While Amazon offers subsidies to employees to cover part of a health plan for workers who can purchase through an exchange, it has the most workers of any Nevada employer enrolled in Medicaid – 3,648 employees and 4,244 dependents at a cost of $ 21,326,448 in 2020, according to a state report.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders attempted unsuccessfully in 2018 to impose a tax on companies with 500 employees “equal to the amount of federal benefits received by their low wage workers.”
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