SCDigest: Amazon.com in Hot Corner After Reports of Sweltering DC’s

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Oct 03, 2011
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Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Supply Chain Digest.

Amazon.com recently found itself in a real hot corner after an article in the local newspaper in Allentown, PA found working conditions at an Amazon distribution center (DC) approaching — if not reaching — third-world sweatshop levels.

The hubbub started when Allentown’s Morning Call published a story on Sept. 16 based on interviews it conducted with about 20 employees in the Allentown DC. According to the article, temperatures inside the DC regularly soared to 100 degrees or more this summer, causing a number of employees to experience health problems.

In June, a local emergency room doctor, after seeing a number of employees at the DC come in with health problems related to overheating, had called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" at the DC. The Morning Call interviews included one from a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat. Another said the extreme heat made him "light headed" at times and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. On other hot days, he claimed "paramedics brought people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers."

Employees also complained of productivity standards that were extremely difficult to meet, and that many workers were threatened with termination for failing to meet those standards, even in the stifling heat.

The jobs, many of which were run through a temporary staffing agency, pay around $11-12.00 per hour for temps. Temps were told by the agency that they could ultimately find full-time positions.

In the article, however, Morning Call said that "few people in their working groups actually made it to a permanent Amazon position. Instead, they were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, they quit or they got injured. Those interviewed say turnover at the warehouse is high and many hires don’t last more than a few months."

Amazon did not seem to dispute the article’s findings. In a public statement released on Sept. 22, the company said it spent $2.4 million "urgently" installing new air conditioning systems at four U.S. distribution centers, including the one in Allentown.

"These industrial air conditioning units were online and operational by late July and early August," Amazon said. "This was not mandated by any governmental agency, and in fact air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses. We’ll continue to operate these air conditioning units or equivalent ones in future summers."

Amazon’s statement also said: "At Amazon, the safety and well-being of our employees is our No. 1 priority. We have several procedures in place to ensure the safety of our associates during the summer heat, including increased breaks, shortened shifts, constant reminders and help about hydration, and extra ice machines."

However, a follow up article in the Morning Call said that the workers it interviewed claimed "the warehouses remained hot unless they were in close proximity to those systems."

Discussion Questions: What’s your take on this story on working conditions in the Amazon distribution center? Are DC conditions similar to this common in retailing and related industries?

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9 Comments on "SCDigest: Amazon.com in Hot Corner After Reports of Sweltering DC’s"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Amazon’s claim of employees being the #1 priority rings as hollow as Groupon’s claim they are the savior for small business.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
9 years 7 months ago

I have no first-hand knowledge of retail DC conditions but I know someone who worked in the DC of a major parcel delivery service who described similar conditions to these. It is unacceptable to operate a DC in this manner, particularly in the US. Perhaps the same type of 3rd-party monitoring systems many retailers use in their overseas DCs should be applied domestically, as well.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
9 years 7 months ago

DCs are a rough work environment. Anyone who thinks that it’s easy in a DC isn’t working in a busy and efficient DC. As for the heat, etc, it looks like Amazon is taking the steps necessary to fix the problem but I don’t agree with the hiring of temps. While they may save money in the short term, Amazon has go to know that it’s costing them to hire, train, fire and rehire, and retrain temps. Plus I question the overall quality of work and commitment by temps.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Working in a DC is not an easy job to begin with. In this case, I am led to wonder what took so long for it to surface if paramedics had previously had to bring people out in wheelchairs. It appears Amazon got caught with their best face “reddened.” I also think this will pass quickly. Amazon has too good a name to allow it to linger. They will make the needed changes.

Warren Thayer
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

Without a thorough, impartial investigation, it’s hard to know what really went on there. Everyone here knows how much I hate unions, but if this was a union shop, it’s hard to believe this was as bad as it says, unless the union steward was being paid off by management. But it’s hard work, as Doron said. When I was a kid I worked in a retailer DC that was roughly as described here. If the union steward didn’t like you, you got a “mule job” that was so hard it was designed to break you. Never can forget the day a guy dropped dead and a boss came over, covered the guy with a big cardboard box, and told us to stop looking and get back to work. Not making that one up, folks.

Doug Fleener
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

I’m not defending Amazon, but are the work conditions any different than the factories across the country? (Or maybe I should say those that remain.) I commend Amazon for adding the AC units.

To me the bigger issue is the use of temporary employees. I can understand that in December, but in the summer? Come on Amazon, I know you don’t want to charge state sales tax, but you can at least do a better a job of contributing to the state and local economy!

Kai Clarke
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

After many dealings with Amazon, this is a difficult article to believe…although it may indeed be true; the actual question is how much of the “hearsay” is valid and how much is subjective? Many of the quotes are very dubious about the true importance here; Amazon is already reacting and putting A/C in their warehouse. Whether these efforts are sufficient is another story. As a manufacturing president, who has installed A/C to keep the entire warehouse cool, determining effectiveness and employee comfort are often 2 different sides of the same coin. DCs are often in poor condition regarding temperature, but this is not unexpected when working in a DC compared to an office or another environment. Perhaps the true measure of this would have been to include interviews with the A/C companies who installed the units to get their perception on the units installed in these warehouses compared to other warehouses they have done over the years. Hmmmm….

James Tenser
Guest
9 years 7 months ago

It’s beginning to sound like Amazon’s underbelly may belie its facade. We all like the low prices, but the company’s obsessive focus on controlling operating costs can apparently have a dark side. If it is badly treating its thousands of employees and lobbying to delay paying state sales tax, some people are likely to be upset with that.

Amazon.com wanted to be the ‘Walmart of the Internet’ and now that it is approaching the pinnacle, it must expect to be subject to scrutiny and criticism in all its business practices. There are two ways to manage this: paper it over with PR or actually do the right thing.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
9 years 7 months ago
Having worked in warehouses and factories in the summer, I can testify they get hot and are notoriously tough to cool down. Ice machines are a vast improvement from the old Detroit auto plants where temperatures could rise to nearly 120 degrees and management addressed the issue by passing out salt tablets in an apparent effort to more rapidly dehydrate workers. That said, it sounds like these were temporary quarters for temporary workers opened in response to too much demand rather than well thought out work environments. Is Amazon worse than other employers? I suspect in many cases the answer is, “No.” In this economy, there are lines of workers (many well educated) willing to suffer conditions that are less than ideal in exchange for a weekly pay check. Does that make it right? Of course not. Is it ultimately wise to keep people working in substandard conditions? Only if you’re a big fan of high turnover, lawsuits, increased shrink and sabotage. But, again, it was a hot summer and Amazon apparently did eventually respond… Read more »
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