Tyler Hamilton has optimized his every waking minute. Between Black Friday and Christmas, five nights a week, he pulls himself out of bed, brushes his teeth, and rushes to his car just before sunset. On his drive to the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, he stops at Wendy’s to buy two bourbon bacon burgers, two large chilis, fries, and a drink.
Hamilton eats the burgers as he drives and then punches in to start his shift arranging incoming product inventory just before 5 pm. In the middle of the night, he takes thirty minutes of unpaid break time and reheats the chilis. By the time he clocks out at 5:30 am, his car has frozen, so Hamilton sits huddled in the dark until it warms enough that he can drive home.
“Then I have to shower, because working at Amazon for 12 and a half hours means you’re going to be filthy,” he says. “I’ll have some juice and maybe watch a little bit of YouTube or something and just pass out.” The next evening, he’ll do it all again.
As holiday shopping reaches a climax this week, Amazon’s two-day Prime shipping remains one of the few options left for desperate shoppers still hoping to order online. It’s a notoriously exhausting and demanding time for workers at the company, where the period between Black Friday and Christmas day is known as “peak season.”
During peak, Amazon requires that workers add a full 10- or 11-hour shift to their already demanding weekly schedules, multiple employees told WIRED, and penalizes those who do not by removing a day of unpaid leave for each missed extra shift. The company also increases workers’ daily expected productivity rate, defined with metrics such as items packaged per hour, workers say.
The four workers interviewed for this piece also say that their managers speak less about safety and instead emphasize speed during this period. All have been involved in organizing fellow employees to try and improve working conditions, but none work at a facility where a unionization petition has been filed.
Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly says that although the holidays are Amazon's busiest time “the health and well-being of our employees is our top priority.” Productivity expectations do not increase during peak, he says, and workers should take any workplace concerns to their manager. “We assess performance based on safe and achievable expectations that take into account time and tenure, peer performance, and adherence to safe work practices,” Kelly says.
Amazon has become the dominant online retailer in the US and in countries such the UK and Germany in large part through its massive logistics operations. But the company’s facilities have developed a reputation for punishing working conditions. Amazon is the second largest private sector employer in the US—behind Walmart—and employed nearly 800,000 workers in blue-collar “labor” roles in 2021. Workers at a Staten Island Amazon facility won a unionization vote this year, but the company is disputing the result.
This year’s holiday season occurs at a difficult time for both Amazon’s leaders and its logistics workers. In 2022, the company’s revenue grew at the slowest rate in more than 20 years, and in November it began laying off 10,000 corporate employees. Amazon also lost almost 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers this year, it told investors, mainly by not replacing people who left the company, which has a high rate of turnover in those roles. The company still hired extra staff to manage the seasonal rush, announcing in October it would add 150,000 temporary workers to its warehousing and delivery operations.
As an exhausted Hamilton is falling asleep each morning in Minnesota, Jennifer Crane is already several hours into her day shift at Amazon’s St. Peters, Missouri, fulfillment center. She places anywhere from 70 to 280 items into boxes each hour, for 11 hours.
Crane has been battling a nagging injury in her left arm and wrist since October that she says was caused by her work’s repetitive packaging motions. She’s one of the thousands of workers with musculoskeletal injuries caused by repeated motion in logistics jobs at Amazon and other companies. “I’m in pain every day. And dealing with that, trying to make rate, means I compensate on my left side,” she says. “Trying to make rate is hard, and if you don’t make rate they write you up.”
Two of Crane’s seven children, sons aged 20 and 31, also work at the same fulfillment center. They both work the night shift, but the family, with Crane as a single mother, has only one car, so they pass the car back and forth in the parking lot every morning and night between shifts.
When Crane gets home from work after her day shift, she has three teenage boys at home to feed and put to bed. “I can’t come home and sit down and sleep like I would like to,” she says. When she hands over the car to her sons at the start of her day shift and the end of their night shift, the exhaustion on their faces is painful to see. “I’ve got a 20-year old who comes out walking like he’s a 50-year old man,” Crane says.
The injury rates in Amazon’s fulfillment and delivery centers are about 50 percent higher than the warehousing and fulfillment industry average, and more than double that of Walmart’s, according to 2020 and 2021 injury data reported to the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration and analyzed by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of labor unions. In Washington state in 2021, after Amazon workers filed unusually high rates of worker’s compensation claims, safety investigators found that Amazon’s productivity expectations were directly tied to high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.
Eric Frumin, SOC’s health and safety director, says the data needed to know whether Amazon’s injury rate is worse during peak season is not available. “It’s very difficult for people outside the company to understand the facts about what’s going on inside,” he says. “Part of that clearly is deliberate on the company’s part.” Kelly of Amazon says the company invested $300 million last year on worker safety improvements.
Nearly 2,000 miles across the US from St. Peters, Sara Fee and Anna Ortega work similar shifts for Amazon in San Bernardino, California, in a region known as the Inland Empire. It has become a massive freight and air hub for Amazon and other logistics operations serving Los Angeles and southern California.
Fee works with one other person to manage five stations that are part of the process of moving packages from planes onto trucks. Her department is significantly understaffed compared to peak season last year, she says, creating additional pressure to work as fast as possible. If she and her coworkers don’t move fast enough, the chutes that deliver packages from the floor above will fill up, turning on a blue warning light. Too many blue lights and the workers upstairs have to stop work. “It’s sort of like a jam-up point,” Fee says.
Ortega works on one of the teams that feeds those chutes, maneuvering large boxes full of bags, and moving bags or boxes onto robots. On her floor, alarms sound every time a conveyor belt or chute is jammed or full. In peak season, they sound more often because more packages come through, and more of them are larger, Ortega says. “Most of the day now the conveyor alarms are going off, it’s just so loud in there,” she says.
Amazon provides workers with foam earplugs, but Ortega says those who want to be aware of their surroundings or able to talk with coworkers choose not to wear them most of the time. Kelly, the Amazon spokesperson, says that the San Bernardino facility is fully staffed and that the ear protection provided to employees is designed to allow people to hear their surroundings.
For Ortega, Fee, Crane, and Hamilton, the intensity of peak season has dampened their enthusiasm for this time of year outside of work. All have either reduced what they order from Amazon or stopped buying from the company altogether. Ortega now tries to shop mostly from small businesses, she says. Fee describes herself as previously dependent on Amazon, but now shuns its online store.
Crane says she wishes more of Amazon’s customers knew about the humans working behind the scenes when they click Buy Now. “I want the public to know that there is a cost to their 2-day Prime shipping,” she says. “They don’t realize what it’s doing to us as workers, what kind of pressure it puts on us.”
Updated 12-20-2022, 4:30 pm EST: This story has been updated with additional comment from Amazon.
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