Editor’s Note: For this article in New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” series, columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed William Stolz, who has worked at the Amazon fulfillment center in Minneapolis for over three years. In 2018, he helped to organize walkouts among his fellow warehouse workers and has continued to organize with assistance from a worker center in the Twin Cities.
I started working at Amazon after college. I had a history degree and needed a job. Amazon was running a bus from my neighborhood in Minneapolis to its warehouse out in the suburbs of Shakopee. I didn’t have a car, so that was very convenient. Our warehouse is a fulfillment center. We receive products from various vendors that then get stowed on these big robotic storage pods. There is a process of keeping inventory where workers have a scanner to verify the contents of each bin in the storage pod. When an item is placed, or when a customer places an order for an item, a picker picks the item and puts it in a tote. I am a picker. I’m trained in other roles, but that’s my main job. The robots will bring the pod to my station, tell me which item to pick. I grab that item, put it into a bin that goes to a packing area in another part of the warehouse. The biggest problems Amazon workers have had are speedup and unfair write-ups. In December 2018 we organized a protest. It was about fifty or so workers who walked off the job. Through the course of the protest, about a hundred workers participated. After that, some people got discouraged, but we did another protest around Prime day, six months later in July. Since our protests, Amazon started propaganda tours of sorts. Anyone can visit. The biggest part of the warehouse is the place where stowers put merchandise into storage pods that are out on a field. I am not a sports fan so I’m not sure how many football fields or soccer fields, but it’s huge. My station, the people doing inventory, and the stowers are on the perimeter of that field. Pickers will pick items out of the pods when we get prompted that someone has ordered the item. The packing and shipping areas are smaller.
The biggest problems Amazon workers have had are speedup and unfair write-ups.
My regular schedule is four days a week, ten hours a day. The biggest monitoring of workers is about our speed. Usually that’s tracked by how many items we are scanning. That’s something that’s gotten better at our warehouse since we started organizing. When I started, the warehouse had only been open for a year. Things were really crazy. I’d show up to work, and someone would say “Did you hear what happened? They just fired ten people out of count [the inventory department]” or they were giving out many more write-ups, disciplines, and firing people. The speeds at that time were all set at specific numbers. As time went on, management would increase those numbers, sometimes tell us, sometimes not. Or just sometimes make it unclear what the actual speed was so that workers would be afraid and go beyond it. After our protests, Amazon changed their rate system. Instead of everybody being judged to a fixed number we’re all on a curve. If you’re in the bottom 5 percent, you get disciplined; if you’re not in the bottom 5 percent you’re ok. Things have eased up a bit, but only because of worker pressure. It’s not just because of what’s going on at Amazon in Minnesota, but also because similar stories are coming out of California, New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. The more attention we brought to these issues, the more pressure it created for Amazon to change. Now, if you are in the bottom percentage, the discipline would be a written warning. You’re on probation for thirty days. Another write up extends to sixty days, and another is ninety days. If you get four write-ups within ninety days or if you get six write-ups within a year, you get fired. Now, with the coronavirus, Amazon is not giving out any write-ups for speed.
But, even with all the tracking, the managers have control. Take coding time. Every second that we are on the clock gets coded. All my picks will automatically get coded in the computer as time I spent picking. If I perform a different role in a different department, that gets coded as other work. But if there are gaps in my time, managers code time in the computer to fill in the gaps. So, if somebody has to spend more time in the bathroom or their machine went down, they have to rely on managers to code that time correctly. A lot of the job of managers is navigating between all the systems in the building that are supposed to run automatically and efficiently to keep things going. It can be stressful, but even [in] jobs that aren’t tracked, you could still have a manager that’s looking over your shoulder all the time. The way I look at it, if my numbers and speed are good, then nobody can have a problem with me. There can be positives and negatives to a system that’s less subjective than a non-automated system. It just comes down to who has power, and how the decisions about data get made. Amazon used to have power hours, they would instruct us to “Go as fast as you possibly can for the next hour,” and the top three people would get some measly prize. I think Amazon’s safety department must have put a stop to it.
Amazon used to have power hours, they would instruct us to “Go as fast as you possibly can for the next hour,” and the top three people would get some measly prize.
As far as gender, it’s fairly balanced; it might be like sixty-forty. I think the building is between 30-40 percent East African workers, then probably 40 percent white, and the rest something else. It skews younger, with most under fifty. Probably a majority are thirty-five or under because the job is physically taxing. Workers at my warehouse were able to get Amazon to set aside prayer spaces for Muslim workers within the building. One of the prayer spaces is on hold due to concerns about gathering during coronavirus. We wanted respect for workers during the month of Ramadan—the pace of the work as you’re fasting all day long—being able to take time to use the restroom, and more options to have time off. The issues on rate affect all workers. That was a part of why I would always join in supporting the people that wanted these changes. I would try to explain to my non-Muslim coworkers that, if we win this, it benefits us too. We should be together.
There’s more chance of promotion than in other companies I’ve seen, but usually for those who are fast at their jobs. It’s just as often the case that people who are friends with the existing managers get promoted
Assistant managers make $1.50 [per hour] more than regular workers. There’s more chance of promotion than in other companies I’ve seen, but usually for those who are fast at their jobs. It’s just as often the case that people who are friends with the existing managers get promoted. They start eating lunch or are hanging out with the managers. Then, all of sudden, they’re wearing a vest too. Every warehouse worker in Amazon is either a direct hire by Amazon or a temp, hired by Integrity Staffing Solutions, an outside employment agency. Temp workers have white badges, and direct hires have blue badges. Blue badges and white badges do the same jobs. But blue badges are paid slightly better, get more benefits, and have slightly more job security.
Paid sick days either come out of your paid time off or vacation time.
At my warehouse, the base wage for a blue badge direct hire is $16.25 [an hour]. Temps start at $15.75. Four times a year, full-time direct hires get an allotment of twenty hours of unpaid time. We get forty-eight hours of paid time off that accrue over six months or so that we can use how we want. Our first year of employment, we get an hour and a half or so of vacation every other week. Your second year, and every subsequent year, you get approximately 3.5 hours of vacation every other week. Temps are on a different system. Around Prime day and holidays, there is mandatory overtime. Throughout the year, there is voluntary overtime that you can pick up. As you can imagine, there is a lot of voluntary overtime with the virus. Paid sick days either come out of your paid time off or vacation time.
When I started, they were hiring temps and direct hires at the same time, so I’ve always had a blue badge. Now, everybody comes in as a white badge for an indefinite amount of time. They can eventually become direct hires and be official Amazon employees, but it always depends on the shifting circumstances in the building and the needs of management rather than any timetable the employees can count on. They tell people 90 days, but no one really knows when they are going to get converted. Some are white badges for 6 to 9 months.
Most of the safety training is the actions you take in your workstation: reach and bend this way, use your ladder. The main injuries we see come from repetitive motion, spraining, and straining. If we’re all graded on a curve, the people who are the fastest are not following all the safety guidelines. That obviously has an effect on people that are lower on the curve, feeling pressure to increase their speed. At my warehouse, the best investigation of this was done by The Atlantic magazine and a podcast called “Reveal.” Journalists worked with Amazon workers from around the country to pull the three hundred OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] logs of warehouse injuries. We requested the logs for our warehouse through our associate safety committee, which we reinvigorated, using a Minnesota OSHA law. It states that every large employer must have a joint labor-management health safety committee. I made a breakdown of the data, looking at the years 2017-2019. My two big takeaways: injuries did go down those three years while the number of workers also went down. Amazon safety managers would point to decreasing numbers insisting our injuries were down. The safety team and management said they kept very detailed records of all injury data and looked to see the root causes of injuries. But the OSHA forms with reported injuries were not standardized when indicating what department or where the injury took place. There is no way to analyze the root causes with that kind of data. The bigger picture is the injuries at Amazon warehouses are a lot more frequent than at other comparable warehouses.
If you get injured, all of sudden this company that demanded so much from you just isn’t there for you.
When you’re working and doing your job, things can run smoothly. You’re giving your all to Amazon, you get your check, and you just keep going. But if you get injured, all of sudden this company that demanded so much from you just isn’t there for you. You go through a rigamarole, negotiating with the leave and accommodations team, local HR, managers, and maybe worker’s comp. Sometimes after all that stress, you get the time and money you need, but it all depends on whether or not Amazon and its insurer, Sedgwick, accepts your case as a work-related injury. When they don’t, you could have a lot of out-of-pocket expenses and you might have to use vacation time for care.
When COVID-19 happened, the very first thing that they did at my warehouse was announce they were going to suspend the associate safety committee. That was before they canceled any of the other large gatherings that took place in the warehouse. In early or mid-March, they announced they would not be penalizing people for unpaid time: you could take as much unpaid time off as you wanted. They started staggering shifts and spreading tables out in the breakroom. When it got closer to April, we got temperature screenings, and then finally masks. They started enforcing social distancing, but also enforcing it as a pretext to target people who management didn’t like. There are certain jobs where it’s very difficult, and Amazon doesn’t present a lot of opportunities to stay six feet away in certain departments. There are some people who casually violate social distancing or people who are friendly with managers who never get in trouble for it. The main people I’ve seen who have gotten in serious trouble for it—and not just for a write-up, but a final written warning—are people who had disagreements with management. Using it forcefully against people who were organizing. Not just at my warehouse, but around the country. They fired a worker named Basheer Mohammed at my warehouse, two women in the Seattle tech office who had been organizing around climate change, Chris Smalls in New York, and others in Chicago and New Jersey. Ultimately, one of Amazon’s senior vice presidents resigned over it. I was just amazed to see that.
Nobody is thinking ‘oh what happens if I am going to get the virus.’ Everyone’s thinking about what they are going to do when they get it, and just managing that difficulty.
The biggest challenge during COVID-19 is always shift change, and break times. The way it is set up, even with the changes that Amazon has made, with some of the departments keeping six feet is very difficult. It’s no surprise that those are the areas in the warehouse where more of the outbreaks are happening. I think they come through with disinfectant fog twice a week between 3am and 6am, and there is more cleaning staff and wipes, but that’s the main thing they do. In the warehouse now, we have approximately 1300 or so people. During a shift, it’s hundreds of people. At 5 p.m., that’s when the biggest group out of night shift collides with the biggest group out of day shift. It’s not a safe situation around the only entrance and exit in the building. They have staggered shift times by 15 minutes to improve on that. Nobody is thinking “oh what happens if I am going to get the virus.” Everyone’s thinking about what they are going to do when they get it, and just managing that difficulty. As far as managers, it is really frustrating. They are worse than anyone else when it comes to violating social distancing rules, not being safe around others or wearing masks all the time. Some managers are good, but as a category, managers just tend to be more careless about it. A higher-up manager got in an argument with a worker who was concerned about bringing coronavirus home to their child. The higher up said to them “I’m pregnant, ok? I have a baby inside of me, and I’m not worried about my baby. And you shouldn’t be worried either.” At a certain point, if you can’t get a manager to even be super concerned about their baby, are they going to be concerned about the workers? Probably not.
at the start of coronavirus. . . [Amazon] did not immediately quarantine for two weeks to implement the appropriate safety changes. They were determined to stay open to scoop up a lot of the market share from people who were buying online in a frenzy in early April.
In hindsight, I really think the original sin of how Amazon handled this is right at the start of coronavirus. They [Amazon] did not immediately quarantine for two weeks to implement the appropriate safety changes. They were determined to stay open to scoop up a lot of the market share from people who were buying online in a frenzy in early April. It was busier than Christmas at my warehouse. I don’t know how big the ongoing outbreak is, but I know it’s so big Amazon isn’t telling us. In the same way it took them a while to figure out how to deliver announcements without big department meetings, it’s taken a while to figure out how to deliver feedback and coaching if it’s not safe to have a manager go to every station daily for their department just because of the risk of transmission. Right now, they’ve relaxed speed standards, which is one silver lining in a very big cloud. They just want people to come in, do the work, and have enough people in the warehouse to keep the orders going.
Organizing has become more difficult since the pandemic as we socially distance to keep each other safe. We don’t know what the future will bring. As workers, we still really feel for each other when something bad happens. In late April at my warehouse, fifty-two night shift workers from mostly one department did a walkout. We successfully pressured Amazon to rehire a woman from that shift. Amazon had fired her unfairly. It was just a breaking point. No matter how hard it is to be united, we have to support each other. My main involvement in organizing has been with the help of the Awood Center, a fairly new worker center in the Twin Cities, primarily focused on East African workers, worker education, and ways we can join together in the workplace. We have had an evolving committee of people and meet fairly regularly. I would say the most important thing that we need is paid leave for older workers or those in serious jeopardy because of preexisting conditions if they get sick. Worker safety should be the guiding principle behind all of Amazon’s social distancing enforcement rather than using it as a way to single out certain workers or giving a pass to others. The best thing people can do right now is support Amazon workers organizing in your area. Find out if there’s an organization that needs support or you can volunteer with. Amazon is a big company that touches so many parts of our lives. Anything that you can do to support efforts that are helping workers to organize and learn about their rights I would be in favor of.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925, and women organizing in the workplace.