The Amazon fulfillment facility in Eastvale, California, was gearing up for its annual onslaught of holiday orders in October 2016 when Andrea appeared for her first day of work. A creative child from a working-class Latino family, Andrea dreamed of becoming an English teacher. With her job at Amazon, she hoped she could work and pursue an education at the same time. For years, the 27-year-old English major had taken other short-term warehouse jobs—mostly for retail companies, including the shoe store Zumiez. The work ranged from tagging items to entering UPC codes for returned packages. It was mundane, but it was a good way to make money while she finished her degree. Andrea assumed Amazon would be similar, albeit more strenuous.
More than two years later, injuries to her shoulder, neck, and wrist sustained during her time at Amazon—lifting up to 100 items an hour, moving them to conveyor belts, and then hauling them into trailers—have made it nearly impossible for her to type without the aid of voice dictation software. She has surges of pain up her spine and hip. She can’t write for too long without her right wrist flaring up. Even if working a new job was physically possible, scheduling it around class and her new regular rotation of doctor’s appointments would be difficult. She sees a chiropractor, acupuncturist, and primary care physician for multiple appointments a week. Only the primary care doctor is covered by Medi-Cal, the state version of Medicaid that she now relies on for health insurance. (Andrea has asked Mother Jones not to use her last name in order to protect her future work opportunities. Her employment at Amazon was verified by the company.)
Andrea is one of Amazon’s more than 125,000 workers who work in vast facilities that can span the length of over 20 football fields. Attracted by promises of steady bonuses and health insurance, many workers like Andrea have discovered an unofficial culture prioritizing speedy distribution of merchandise over the health and well-being of employees—sometimes with disastrous results. In locations from Los Angeles to Baltimore, Amazon employees face potentially unsafe working conditions that have been welldocumented in the media and by government agencies.
According to inspection data by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency charged with overseeing worker safety, there have been over 100 federal investigations launched against Amazon since 2016. OSHA has also issued letters to Amazon advising the company to voluntarily change conditions that posed hazards to employees. In 2015, OSHA issued a warning letter specifically about the use of EMTs in Amazon’s AmCare clinics in a New Jersey warehouse. The same facility is currently undergoing a follow-up inspection.
“It kind of reminds me of an American-made sweatshop,” Andrea says, reflecting on how she feels about her experience working for Amazon. “It’s cleaner and nice. You get praised if you meet your numbers. But you get humiliated if you don’t.” The only injuries Amazon ever seemed to take seriously, she says, involved blood. The main concern, it seemed, was not getting stains on the merchandise.
Amazon points out that the federal government has requirements requiring special control plans to deal with exposure to bodily fluids, including blood, to prevent the potential spread of infectious disease. The company disputed the characterization that its working conditions are comparable to a sweatshop. “We disagree. We’re proud of the quality work environment provided to associates in our fulfillment centers,” Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said in an email to Mother Jones. “The facilities are temperature controlled, they are well-lit, employees receive competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, and everyone is encouraged to be a leader on behalf of the customer and the company.”
AmCare clinics, run by licensed emergency medical technicians, are meant to provide employees with onsite first aid in a job that, even with the most stringent safety precautions, can be strenuous and result in accidents. But Andrea’s story, along with over a dozen other cases from interviews with Amazon workers, court records, and OSHA logs, show that hazards on the warehouse floor can launch months and years of medical injury that ultimately result in worker disability. Between 2015 and 2018, OSHA reported 41 “severe” injuries resulting in hospitalization, including six amputations and 15 fractures, associated with Amazon delivery or fulfillment jobs. This data does not include state OSHA records, and Amazon declined to make its internal safety data available to Mother Jones. While several Amazon employees who spoke with Mother Jones, including three in an interview facilitated by Amazon’s PR team, said injuries were not common at their facilities and they enjoyed working for the company, for the dozens of workers injured at Amazon each year the job can have a radically different outcome.
“There’s this sense that people should be able to get what they want immediately,” says Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of the watchdog nonprofit National Center for Occupational Safety and Health, tells Mother Jones. “But not at the expense of having your workers be disposable. Their bodies and lives aren’t disposable.”
Ah, but we are disposable in every sense of the word in 2019. A company pension for anyone my generation or younger is unheard of. My father worked for the state of NC for decades, then decades more in the private sector, two employers in 35 years. My mother had a pretty similar experience.
Me? The thought of being with a company for more than five years is astonishing, and for folks younger than me, everything is temp work, contract-to-hire if you're super lucky, and the gig economy, and even then, there's always layoffs and restructuring.
So why wouldn't
a trillion-dollar company like Amazon have disposable workers? Who cares about unions and collective bargaining anymore? We vote to break unions with our dollars and at the ballot box regularly.
And everything is right on schedule for the continuing American demolition, the rich looting the place before the lights go out.