Sick at Work at Amazon

by

06/21/2020

Neighborhood: Featured, New Jersey, Robbinsville

I work at the Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey, about an hour south of New York City.

The sickest I’ve ever been was my first winter there.

I’d applied earlier that year, in the fall of 2018, because the four-day workweek was appealing, and the wage was better than the temp construction work I was doing through an agency called Labor Ready. When I showed up to my first day of work, I was informed that the four-day work week was sometimes five, due to mandatory overtime, or MET—Mandatory Extra Time—in Bezos parlance.

Come Thanksgiving, MET was in effect. It included not only the extra day, but also an additional hour tagged onto each 10-hour shift, so for at least a month we’d be working 55-hour weeks. That winter I was loading trucks on the ship dock during the night shift—6:30 PM to 6:00 AM. The trailers that I worked in were unheated and often below freezing—the problem for truck loaders was we’d go from dock door to dock door, from trailer to trailer, which means going from the cold trailer, back into the heated building, into another cold trailer, and back into the building, fifty times or more in a shift.

The body doesn’t like this, at least mine didn’t, nor does the body like the graveyard shift, and I got the flu. At least half my fellow employees got sick at some point during Christmas MET. I remember driving home at 6:15 AM one morning, after I’d had four cups of coffee during the shift. I fell asleep behind the wheel, and woke to morning rush hour horns blaring at me and swerving at 70 mph. I got off the wrong exit, just feeling completely lost and out of it, breathing through my gaping mouth as my sinuses were completely clogged.

This was more than a year before COVID-19 hit.

*

Amazon, like much of the country, was slow to react to the pandemic. As I remember it, the first step taken at our warehouse was to enforce MET on most, later all, shifts. Not the additional hour in this case, but an additional day. Concurrent with this action, workers were encouraged to stay home if they felt sick and were not penalized for staying home. One of the more common reasons workers get terminated under normal circumstances at Amazon is that they get sick, or other emergencies prevent them from coming, and they run out of UPT—Unpaid Personal Time, 20 hours of which is allotted every three months—and then go Negative UPT. But now, during the pandemic, it is nearly impossible for workers to be terminated.

It wasn’t until April that they began taking employees’ temperatures upon entering the building. 100.3 is the magic number. If you have a temperature of 100.4, you are sent home for three days without pay. If you are 100.3 or below, you work. At first temperatures were taken with a device that scans your temple, like scanning a barcode. Then the process was changed, and we are now lined up and led through an area where there is a thermal camera, all the while being ordered, “Six feet! Six feet away!”

Once we get on the floor, six feet is an absurdity. Face coverings are now mandatory, but it gives the place the disconcerting look of a poorly planned Halloween party. Some workers, like me, wear the disposable masks handed out at the entrance. Others wear bandanas like outlaws. Some wear personalized sewn fabric masks—the Batman logo, flowers, the central image from Edvard Munch’s The Scream. But when it comes to social distancing, it’s just not going to happen. Partly because of the nature of the work, and partly because of human nature.

On the ship dock one of the tasks is palletizing: grabbing boxes that come down a chute onto a belt of rollers and scanning them onto the correct pallets for their eventual destinations. These destinations are called sorts. Often, there are four different sorts at a pallet lane. At times, all the different sorts come down the chute simultaneously. When a pallet lane is busy, there are up to six people working on it, three on each side. Most lanes are, functionally speaking, twenty feet in length. You see where I’m going with this. Not only is social distancing unlikely, once things really get cooking, it’s impossible. Workers are on top of each other, grabbing boxes quickly that, it often turns out, are meant for the pallet farthest from them, while the person next to them does the same. Workers cross paths to get to the correct pallet, sometimes bumping into each other. It is expected—technically required, as per “rate”—that you will move fast. “Rate” is the minimum number of boxes (150) palletizers are to scan in an hour, and performance is measured through an electronic scanning gun. There is no time for the caution and care required for social distancing. One would have to become an absolute robot in order to palletize in one spot.

Actually, it is a goal of Jeff Bezos to robotize Amazon employees. Tenet number seven: “Variation is the enemy of Standard Work. Eliminate variation at each step of the process. Work towards zero variation by catching it at the earliest possible step in the process.” Tenet is official Amazon phraseology. There are eleven “tenets”—eleven commandments—displayed in the larger break rooms in the front of the building.

Another department called AFE—Amazon Fulfillment Engine—where products are grabbed from different-sized cubicles and put into boxes by workers, also fails when it comes to social distancing. Though each worker has an eight-foot section of floor space in this area, there is no separation. When the worker in Station One goes to grab a product—a tub of cheese balls, let’s say—at the furthest cubicle to her left, and the worker in Station Two goes to grab the battery-powered massager in the furthest cubicle to his right, these coworkers are face-to-face. Six inches away from each other.

There is a department, called “Safety,” whose workers, among other things, are supposed to roam the floor and scold everyone about social distancing. But I haven’t seen them around lately. As one Tier-4 manager said to me, in a moment of frustration, “As soon as the virus hit, Safety retreated! HR retreated! They’re off the floor and hiding away behind closed doors in their offices! Cowards.” Even AMCARE—equivalent to the school nurse’s office at Amazon—has shut its doors to employees.

The question is, with the relaxed UPT policy as per COVID-19, why are any of us Tier-1 workers here? Actually, many are not, and head count (terrible phrase) has been low since March. And while low turnout seems as if it would help with social distancing—the busy moments and busy sections still get people “bodied up,” as I heard one of the younger employees refer to these recurring moments of crowding.

With the reduced number of workers, some shifts find us working harder, running around more, and doing the work of two. This is true of my current position, as a CPT (Critical Pull Time) team member—we load everything that goes into a trailer from all over the dock. This job is best done with a partner. But the eight-person team, since late March, has often only had four people.

Those of us who do show up all have our reasons for being here: desperation, courage, boredom. But the one thing definitely keeping us here is money. At about the same time Amazon was pressured to relax the UPT policy, they were also forced to increase wages as a way to ensure there would be at least some people showing up to work. The hourly wage was increased by $2, and MET shifts are now double time instead of time-and-a-half—chump change, but this little bit of extra money is enough to keep some of us, like myself, showing up five days a week. Everyone has their story—a car payment, mortgage, college debt, credit card debt, three kids, six kids, a river cruise in Europe after all this is over, a trip back see family in Liberia after all this is over.

*

I’m on my second break, about six hours into the shift, and a younger CPT member named Jay is talking about his personal situation. He’s wearing a New York Ranger’s t-shirt and says he plays the drums, an electronic set with headphones, so as to not make too much noise at home. “I live with my dad,” he says. “I’m not concerned if I get it.”

“You’re healthy,” I say. “You’d get sick, but you’d be okay in the end.”

Jay gives a half nod, as if to say, maybe.

“But I don’t want to give it to my dad. He’s older. So, I’m only going to come in, like, three days a week. But once it hits, like, fifty cases”—as of this writing, May 1 2020, we’re up to 19 confirmed Covid-19 cases at the warehouse—“then I’m only coming in, like, once a week.

Jay goes on to tell me that his car payment is “pretty much under control.”

This rationalization—playing the percentages—makes sense to Jay, and who am I, worried about cobbling together enough money for recording studio fees, to correct him?

We stop talking, and look up at the television. One of the most surreal occurrences (though, truth be told, it doesn’t feel that surreal, it feels more like business as usual) is when, on this television in the west break room, an Amazon ad comes on. It shows a clean warehouse with uncluttered pristine floors. It shows healthy workers smiling through their masks. According to the ad, there are heroes involved. I, for one, don’t recognize the place I’m seeing on television a single iota.

The second break is over. At this point in the night, many of the masks—whether disposable or “stylish”—are hanging around the chin, or neck, or strapped to the top of the head. Or, in the case of the disposables, in the garbage. “I can’t breathe in this thing,” says David, an older man, waving his disposable like a flag of surrender. “How can I work if I can’t breathe, John, tell me that?” We both just shrug as we pass each other dragging pallet jacks.

***

Besides working at Amazon,  John Paul Carillo is a writer and musician living in Trenton, NJ.  He recently completed a novel, Real American People. His band Joy on Fire was featured last year on NPR’s All Songs Considered and is scheduled for a Tiny Desk Concert at some point in the non-COVID future.  To see more visit  joyonfire.com, jpcarillo.com

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§ 3 Responses to “Sick at Work at Amazon”

  • This is well put and excellent writing. I always suspected that Amazon commercials portraying warehouse work and news reports about Amazon warehouses are staged setups. Now I know, thanks to you, that they are. Also, the truth is, thanks to you, we know that, “Actually, it is a goal of Jeff Bezos to robotize Amazon employees.” Almost all of the corporate world has become heinous and pernicious. Amazon is a prime (pardon the pun) example. Thank you.

  • brian platzer says:

    Absolutely love this piece. Important, moving journalism. Congrats on a real get for MrBN!

  • DJ Oinky Pinocchio says:

    Great writing. Reminds this reply-leaver of Aldous Huxley. But there’s nothing “brave” about Amazon in this “new world.” And the “epsilon-minus semi-moron” is Bezos. MET, UPT, AFE pfffffft. A stark contrast to the blitz of Amazon commercials that are inundating everything. Keep on writing, mate! There ought to be a publisher coming for that novel.

§ Leave a Reply

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