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Originally published September 24, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified October 1, 2011 at 7:28 PM

Workers complain about Amazon warehouse jobs

Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com's warehouse in Pennsylvania's LeHigh Valley, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world's largest online retailer.

The Morning Call

Complaint chronology

June 2: Worker tells OSHA that the heat index, a measure that considers humidity, in the warehouse hit 102 degrees and 15 workers had collapsed. Worker reports employees who left work due to the heat received disciplinary points.

June 3: OSHA asks Amazon managers to investigate complaint.

June 9: OSHA inspects the warehouse.

June 10: OSHA receives hotline complaint from an emergency-room doctor at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest about heat-related injuries at Amazon facility in Fogelsville.

June 13: OSHA receives a letter from Allen Forney, Amazon's site-safety manager, who confirms that 15 employees experienced heat-related symptoms; he denies employees were penalized for missing work and that it has measures in place to protect workers.

July 21: Forney calls OSHA to report that the heat index in the warehouse ranged between 108 and 112 degrees. Amazon initiates voluntary time off, allowing employees to go home if they wished and ice cream was available.

July 25: An Amazon warehouse security guard calls OSHA and says the heat exceeded 110 degrees.

Aug. 18: OSHA recommends ways Amazon could improve its heat-stress management plan and closes case.

Source: OSHA

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com's warehouse in Pennsylvania's LeHigh Valley, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world's largest online retailer.

The 34-year-old Allentown resident, who has worked in warehouses for more than 10 years, said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the unbearable working conditions and mandatory overtime.

During the summer heat wave, he got lightheaded, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. Goris said he also saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain and paramedics bringing people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.

"I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse," Goris said.

His complaints are not unique.

Other workers said they experienced brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse during the summer heat waves. Amazon even arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken to area hospitals.

They also said they were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

Seattle-based Amazon didn't answer specific questions about the turnover rate or the working conditions for this story. Instead, Amazon spokeswoman Michele Glisson emailed a statement, which she attributed to Vickie Mortimer, general manager at the warehouse.

The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously," the statement said. "We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment, with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer."

On Thursday, the company issued a statement, saying it had spent more than $2.4 million this summer installing industrial air-conditioning units in four fulfillment centers, including the one in Breinigsville. It claimed "air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses." "We welcome and embrace questions about our preparedness and planning, and indeed we routinely ask those internally, but those who know us well don't doubt our intent or our focus on employee safety," the statement said.

Heat is on

In June, Amazon workers complained about working conditions to federal regulators who monitor workplace safety. The Morning Call obtained documents regarding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's inspection through the Freedom of Information Act.

On June 2, a warehouse employee told OSHA the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers had collapsed. The employee also complained that workers who had to go home due to heat symptoms received disciplinary points.

The next day OSHA told Amazon warehouse managers that the agency received a complaint about heat. OSHA officials said they wanted Amazon to investigate the situation, make any modifications needed to increase worker safety and report back to OSHA about its findings no later than June 13.

While at first telling Amazon that they did not plan to visit the plant, OSHA inspected the warehouse June 9.

Employees treated

The following week, Amazon's site-safety manager Allen Forney reported back to OSHA that extremely high temperatures caused 15 out of 1,600 employees to experience heat-related symptoms; six were treated and released from the emergency room. He said other employees received water and ice treatment from its first-aid department and returned to work.

Goris, the former warehouse worker, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked.

For instance, loading-dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature, he said. When Amazon workers asked why this wasn't done, managers said the company was worried about theft, Goris said.

"Imagine if it's 98 degrees outside and you're in a warehouse with every single dock door closed," he said.

OSHA issued recommendations to Amazon on Aug. 18 about how it could improve its heat-stress management plan and closed its inspection.

Since the OSHA inspection, Amazon has installed 13 fans, planned to install a cooling system and temporarily hired emergency-medical personnel to work on-site, Forney wrote.

Amazon paid Cetronia Ambulance Corps to have ambulances and paramedics stationed at its two adjacent warehouses during five days of excessive heat in June and July.

Cetronia provides ambulance service in Upper Macungie Township, where a large number of warehouses are concentrated. Cetronia did not have ambulances stationed outside any other warehouses during summer heat waves, said Chris Peischl, the nonprofit's director of operations. However, he noted that Amazon has a large number of employees compared with other warehouses.

"The majority of people we saw were heat-related," Peischl said. "We saw 20 to 30 people who cooled down, we helped hydrate them and they went back to work."

An additional 15 people were taken to hospitals for further treatment, according to Cetronia, but none was in critical condition.

Job one

Amazon's priority and key competitive edge is quick delivery of products at low prices. Last year it had revenues exceeding $34 billion, more than triple its sales just five years earlier. Its stock price has recently hit $240 a share.

The company has become a household name as time-strapped consumers grow more comfortable shopping online and cash-strapped customers look for bargains. Along the way, Amazon vastly expanded its product line.

What began as an online bookstore now sells consumer products of all kinds. You can buy CDs, DVDs, toys, lawn mowers, electronics, kitchen items, clothes and beauty products from Amazon.

Its Lehigh Valley location on Route 100 near Interstate 78 puts one-third of the population of the U.S. and Canada within a one-day haul. When Amazon announced in May 2010 plans to open a new shipping hub in the Lehigh Valley and hire hundreds of people, officials greeted the news as a sign the economy was on the mend and good news for thousands of residents left unemployed by the Great Recession. (The local unemployment rate hovers around 9 percent.)

It is one of the few companies regularly recruiting and hiring.

The company announced another hiring binge in July but would not clarify if it was expanding its operation or replacing people.

In a statement released Thursday, Amazon said it uses temporary employees "to manage variation in customer demand throughout the year and as a way of finding high-quality full-time employees. There are 1,381 full-time employees in Breinigsville, all of whom receive full-time benefits including health care. Since January of this year, 850 temporary employees in Breinigsville have been converted to full-time employment."

Employment at the warehouse ranges from about 900 to 2,000 during peak season. Amazon uses Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS) to supply temporary hires.

In its recruiting efforts, ISS' ads read: "Looking for a new direction? Are you interested in working in a fun, fast-paced atmosphere earning up to $12.25 per hour? Let Integrity be your guide to a rewarding career with Amazon, the Internet superstore." ( Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.)

The ads say applicants should be able to lift and move up to 49 pounds. They also say warehouse temperatures range between 60 and 95 degrees and "occasionally exceed 95 degrees."

The use of temporary workers to minimize the costs and liabilities associated with a permanent workforce is not unique to Amazon. And the warehouse and shipping industry is known for its fast-pace expectations and physical demands.

But one staffing-industry recruiter whose company serves the Lehigh Valley shipping industry said he has interviewed roughly 40 job applicants who complained of difficult working conditions at the Amazon warehouse.

Ordinarily, if someone lasted only a few months in a warehouse job, it would raise questions about his or her abilities, he said. But he has placed former Amazon warehouse workers in other warehouse jobs and they were able to meet expectations, he said.

"A lot of places spend time and money to make something ergonomically designed so that the average person can do the work. They don't have to be a professional athlete to do the work," he said.

The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say.

"They can get away with it because most workers will take whatever they can get with jobs few and far between," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers.

"The temp worker is less likely to complain about it and less likely to push for their labor rights because they feel like they don't have much pull or sway with the work-site employer."

Disciplinary system

Both (blue badge) permanent and (white badge) temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule. If they get too many points, they can be fired.

In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor's note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.

Workers are expected to maintain a rate, measured in units per hour, which varies depending on the job and the size of inventory being handled.

Products moving through the warehouse range broadly in size, from compact discs and iPods to chain saws. Workers use handheld scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.

Productivity rate jumps

Mark Zweifel, 22, of Coopersburg, Pa., worked in the warehouse as a permanent Amazon employee for more than a year until he was fired Sept. 9, he said. His primary job was on the receiving line, unloading inventory from boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes so stowers could store them in bins.

He had previous shipping-industry experience and liked the job for the first six months, but then he said the productivity rate abruptly doubled one day from 250 units per hour for smaller items to 500 units per hour.

"I'm a young guy. I could keep up with it. But I saw the older people working there; they were getting written up a lot. I didn't think it was fair," he said.

Kutztown, Pa., resident Stephen Dallal said he worked at the warehouse for about six months as a picker before he lost his job for not meeting productivity requirements. He left a job as a meat cutter to get full-time hours with Amazon, hoping the temporary assignment would lead to a permanent position.

"It just got harder and harder," Dallal said. "It started with 75 pieces an hour. Then 100 pieces an hour. Then 125 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster and faster."

Dallal said he felt relieved when he lost the job.

"I didn't want to quit," he said. "I tried the best I could. But that job was really getting to me."

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