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Working The Holidays As An Amazon Worker


It's just a couple of more days until Christmas. And if you are like other last-minute shoppers, you may be wondering how on earth you're going to get those last gifts on time. And if you just cannot stand the thought of a crowded shopping mall - and, frankly, even if you can - you're probably thinking about turning to Amazon. Amazon is now the 800-pound gorilla of e-commerce, accounting for some 60 percent of purchases on Black Friday, according to the web traffic analyst Hitwise. And, yes, it is an NPR sponsor.

But we were wondering what it's like to work at an Amazon warehouse during the holidays, so we called Chavie Lieber. She's written extensively about working conditions at Amazon for Vox, and she's with us now. Chavie, thanks so much for joining us.

CHAVIE LIEBER: Hi. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

MARTIN: How much does the workload increase at Amazon during what they call peak, between Thanksgiving and just after Christmas? Can you give us a sense of that? And tell us - as we said, you have sources who speak to you usually without attribution. But what are they telling you about what that's like?

LIEBER: A lot of the Amazon warehouse workers that reached out to me, they all say that they are grateful for the job. They want the job. It's really just that it is high-intensity. It is so aggressive. All Amazon warehouses abide by this number called a packing quota. And basically, what that means is every Amazon warehouse worker has a number of boxes that they have to pack per hour. And during the holiday season, when the orders are kind of running in, the managers are trying to get the warehouse workers to pack faster and faster.

So, you know, the average can be, let's say, 240. But then, during the holiday season, the number of boxes you have to pack per hour can go as high as 400. And basically, if you are slowing down, you're not keeping up or your productivity levels aren't as high, workers can get write-ups, and they can also be terminated.

So it just seems like, you know, working under these type of conditions is pretty demeaning. And some employees that I've talked to have said, you know, by the end of the holiday season, a lot of people just feel like they can't make it.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, why do you say it's demeaning? I mean, I can see that it's demanding. But why do you say it's demeaning? Do they say it's demeaning?

LIEBER: Yeah. Yeah. The line that a lot of people say to me when they talk about, you know, people that are protesting and they're rallying against Amazon, they want Jeff Bezos and they want Amazon to know that we are not robots.

And basically, it's this idea that, you know, they want to do the work load. And they want to pack for Amazon. And they want to do this job. But they don't want to work in this type of environment. And basically, Amazon has this really codified system where it's not like you can talk to a manager and explain, you know, I'm not feeling well this day or I'm doing this. Like, you know, people describe it as like a well-oiled machine.

MARTIN: So I was going to ask you about that. Are there rules about breaks - how long, how often people are allowed to have them?

LIEBER: I will tell you what I know about people that are working there full-time, which is, according to federal law, you need to have breaks. And Amazon's break system is two 15-minute breaks and then a half-hour lunch break. And, you know, some of the complaints that Amazon workers have told me is that these breaks are definitely not enough, especially if some - you know, some of the Amazon warehouse workers in Minneapolis are protesting because a lot of them are Muslim. And they don't have enough breaks to, you know, eat, drink, get water, go to the bathroom, grab lunch and then also abide by their praying schedule.

So even though, you know, the 30-minute break and then the 15 - and the 15-minute break add up to an hour, which I guess is pretty typical in a lot of workplaces where people are given an hour lunch break, it's extremely rigid. And if you go over your break time, like, you can get penalized.

MARTIN: What about overtime? Are people expected to work overtime? Are they required to work overtime during peak?

LIEBER: Yeah. During peak season, according to my understanding, overtime is mandatory. Some of the people have told me that their schedules are something like four days a week, 12-hour shifts. And if you try to use vacation time or paid time to call out during peak time, it can be a fireable offense, or it could - it could get you penalized.

MARTIN: If you don't come, like if you call in sick, for example?

LIEBER: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: OK. So you actually alluded to this. There have been various boycotts at Amazon warehouses in - mainly overseas. Would that be accurate?

LIEBER: I think that there definitely are a lot of strikes and walkouts in Amazon fulfillment centers in Europe. We're definitely seeing a little bit of this movement in the United States. One Amazon warehouse manager that I interviewed had told me that, on Prime Day, the facility that she was working in, people were handing out flyers that they wanted to stage a mass walkout on Prime Day about two years ago and that the managers had been ordered to kind of collect the pamphlets and get rid of them.

You know, the flipside to that is that if people - I think if people were really, really concerned and they heard that these type of conditions were going on, I think that you'd see more boycotts. I think consumers are definitely interested in the story, but I'm not sure if it's going to stop them from shopping on Amazon.

MARTIN: We know that you've heard from a number of disgruntled Amazon employees or employees who say that they found the conditions - well, in some cases, intolerable, but in other cases, tolerable but unpleasant. Have you heard from others? I mean, have other people commented on your stories to say that that's not the full picture or that they just feel that it's, you know, for whatever - the good outweighs the bad? Have you heard from other perspectives?

LIEBER: Sure. Sure. Well, I mean, Amazon has reached out to me specifically and have, you know, they've told me that these employees that I've been speaking to are one-off and it's not the case all around. Actually, I was able to tour a fulfillment center in Staten Island a few weeks ago and, you know, talked to a few employees there who said that they were, you know, they were happy with the jobs, and they were happy with the wages. They were thrilled with the benefits.

I had a story go up on vox.com about what it was like to work the Black Friday shift. And I had people reach out to me who said that they worked at a warehouse, and this is what the job is. And, you know, they don't agree with people who complain that it's high-pressure and that it's this type of job because the job is the job.

And what I want to say to that is, you know, at a certain point, people have to step back and, you know, wonder, like, what goes on inside these warehouses? What are workers saying? And the bottom line that the warehouse workers want me to tell people is that they are human beings that are packing their boxes, and it's not always easy for them. And they want the company to kind of step up and listen to their demands.

MARTIN: That's business reporter Chavie Lieber. She reports on Amazon for Vox, among other subjects that she covers. Chavie Lieber, Thanks so much for talking to us.

LIEBER: Thank you for your time.

MARTIN: We also reached out to Amazon for comment. In a statement, company officials said they work hard to provide a safe, quality work environment for their 250,000 employees across the U.S. They added, quote, "associates are the heart and soul of our operations." [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, Vox reporter Chavie Lieber mistakenly says federal law requires that employees be given breaks. State laws govern employee breaks. In the example given, Lieber was referring to Minnesota state law.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 9, 2019 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, Vox reporter Chavie Lieber mistakenly says federal law requires that employees be given breaks. State laws govern employee breaks. In the example given, Lieber was referring to Minnesota state law.

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