Nick Oates didn’t feel like digging his car out of a heap of snow on Cyber Monday 2018. That’s why, as a blizzard barreled toward Kansas City, the Amazon associate decided to hunker down in the warehouse’s parking lot.
The storm ended up dumping more than a foot of snow on parts of Kansas, prompting the governor at the time, Jeff Colyer, to declare a state of emergency on November 25, asking people to stay off the roads.
As other Kansans were stocking up on supplies and bracing for power outages, Oates and his fellow Amazonians were receiving the news that they’d still be required to report for their Cyber Monday shifts. The fulfillment center would forgive workers who clocked in late because of the storm, but everyone scheduled to work still had to show up.
Oates was living in his car and working at the Kansas City fulfillment center at the time, a routine he’d maintained since June 2018 after taking medical leave from Amazon for depression.
He told Business Insider that he typically parked in front of his gym at night but made an exception on account of the storm. “Just imagine having to pry your car out of tons of snow and ice,” Oates said. “Then you have to risk your life going home, just to come back on Cyber Monday.”
Amazon said staff members are told to stay at home if they feel it’s not safe to travel, and can do so without fear of retribution. Oates said his experience is an extreme example of how far employees will go to keep Amazon’s giant wheels turning during its busiest months of the year.
His is just one of the countless stories from Amazon’s unseen army of hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees, who make sure millions of parcels are delivered on time, every day, all wrapped in Amazon’s signature smiley logo.
Scarcely has the plight of these workers been so in the spotlight.
Horror stories of shop-floor working conditions have flooded the news, strikes have raged across Europe, and lawmakers like US Sen. Bernie Sanders have lobbied for pay raises— all this on the watch of Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, whose “obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer” has turned Amazon into a $790 billion company and made him the richest man in the world.
The holiday season is a hectic and crucial time for all retailers, not to mention a chaotic, trying time for retail workers who have to deal with Black Friday stampedes or ramped-up online orders in the run-up to Christmas. But Amazon occupies a unique spot in the retail industry, thanks to its size and influence.
Business Insider interviewed more than 30 current and former Amazon workers about what it’s like to work at the front lines of the company during peak, the period it generally defines as Black Friday, which traditionally falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to just before Christmas.
The majority of these employees worked in 18 warehouses across the US, the UK, and Europe, while others held roles in other departments, including compliance and customer services.
More than 20 workers spoke with Business Insider without Amazon authorization through a mix of on- and off-the-record conversations. They verified their Amazon employment in documentation sent to BI. Eight other staff members spoke in the presence of an Amazon representative, both on the floor of a British warehouse and over the phone from a facility in New Jersey.
Through the interviews, a picture emerged of grueling long hours, physical labor, fears about taking time off, workplace injuries, and the pressure to keep the wheels turning, even when the weather is treacherous.
“It gets brutal,” one worker said.
There were also conflicting accounts about Amazon’s $15 minimum-wage hike. Some workers said the wage boost benefitted them, while others said they were worse off during peak because bonuses were axed.
Underneath it all is bubbling rage from unions, which flared up in strikes and demonstrations across Europe late last year to protest working conditions. UNI Global Union, which has 20 million members globally, has an overarching tagline for its Amazon campaign: “We are not robots.” But Amazon does not recognize unions.
“In country after country, Amazon workers report brutal conditions,” UNI Global Union General Secretary Christy Hoffman told Business Insider in a statement. “A company that respects its employees listens and negotiates with them.”
Amazon said it was proud of working conditions for its lowest-paid employees. In a statement, a spokeswoman said:
“We strongly disagree with these unsubstantiated comments and laundry list of allegations. Cobbled together, they have created a false narrative around our employer practices and misrepresented the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of associates.
“We are proud of the great working conditions, wages and benefits, and career opportunities we provide for our associates all year round. Everyone is encouraged to come and see for themselves what it’s like to work in an Amazon fulfilment centre and have the ability to talk to associates directly by booking one of our tours across Europe and the US.”
Mandatory overtime means employees work up to 60 hours a week
Multiple sources told Business Insider that the arrival of Black Friday heralded the beginning of mandatory overtime.
Last year’s Black Friday and the following Cyber Monday were Amazon’s biggest on record, with the company saying it sold “millions” more products than it did in 2017. The more products sold, the more pressure to fulfill orders.
A former sort-center employee, whose job was to bring pallets of Amazon packages to dock doors so drivers could take them for delivery, said that on a normal day 70,000 to 90,000 packages might be put out for delivery. During peak, this would increase by 50%, potentially even doubling on its busiest day.
Sources told Business Insider that through most of the year, associates — who the company calls its fulfillment-center workers — work four 10-hour shifts, totaling a 40-hour workweek. During peak, this jumps to six 10-hour day shifts or five 12-hour night shifts, for a total of 60 hours.
US labor law permits employers to require employees to work unlimited amounts of overtime, as long as they are paid 1 1/2 times their regular rate of pay. Companies have a right to fire workers who refuse.
Amazon employees confirmed to Business Insider that they earn an extra 50% for overtime. A spokeswoman added that “associates are communicated to regularly prior to peak about the expected 40-60 hours work weeks as customer demand requires and there is a clear exceptions process for people who are unable to do so.”
In the UK, warehouse workers Business Insider spoke with said they had 10 hours of compulsory overtime during peak, meaning 50-hour workweeks. UK law dictates that people should not work more than 48 hours a week on average, though there are exceptions.
“You’re a slave for the 60-hour workweek,” Jazzy Williams, a California Amazon associate of more than two years, told Business Insider during the 2018 peak season. “I’m tired and annoyed and irritated.”
Multiple Amazon workers described how physically grueling the work can be, including Vickie Shannon Allen, who works in an Amazon warehouse in Texas. She said she was evicted and started living in her car after she injured her back at a faulty workstation in October 2017. When Business Insider spoke with her during peak 2018, she was still homeless.
“It’s like doing 11 1/2 hours of cardio five days a week … You’re going up and down stairs, squatting down, getting on your knees, getting back up,” Allen said. Another warehouse worker said employees could end up walking up to 20 miles a day during peak.
James Norris, who worked at an Indiana warehouse for 10 months before quitting in October, has never worked a peak season. But he saw the toll it took on his girlfriend, a fellow Amazon employee. “It was like watching a ghost walk through the door,” he said. “She would just come home and collapse.”
One Amazon worker said it’s possible for employees to apply to opt out of overtime in extenuating circumstances — for example, if they have a health problem. Business Insider spoke with a packer in the UK warehouse who had her overtime removed because she was studying.
Amazon said it works with employees one-on-one to ascertain whether they’re eligible to have their overtime removed. “Examples include family care, health appointments, and personal issues,” a spokeswoman told Business Insider.
Holidays are banned
For those clocking regular 60-hour weeks, there’s no respite in a holiday. Multiple sources told Business Insider that in mid-November a ban on asking for time off kicks in — something Amazon confirmed.
“Like many other businesses, Christmas is a busy time of year and holiday embargoes exist, but we understand that there are times when people cannot work, and naturally, exceptions are made,” a spokeswoman said.
Exceptions to the embargo are rare but not unheard of, according to those who spoke with Business Insider. One worker said they were able to take a holiday during peak by booking months in advance.
Amazon workers each year get a certain amount of paid time off and unpaid time off, or UPT. Sources told Business Insider that when workers dip into “negative UPT,” meaning they have taken more than their allotted UPT, Amazon can be ruthless.
“If you go negative, you’re gone. I’ve seen people that have worked there five years, they went negative unpaid time, and they got rid of them just like that,” a Tennessee warehouse worker told Business Insider.
Layla Ahmed, a former Amazon worker in Minnesota, said she was fired on November 26, four days after Thanksgiving, because she went into negative UPT.
Ahmed said she used up much of her unpaid time off last year caring for her grandmother. After a string of 60-hour workweeks, including shifts on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, she came down with a fever.
She called into work, explained why she couldn’t come in, and requested a call back from the fulfillment center’s human-resources department. But Ahmed said the call never came.
When she got back to the warehouse in Shakopee, Ahmed worked two 12-hour shifts before she was called to a manager’s office and dismissed, she said.
“I was shocked,” Ahmed said. “I thought, ‘If they see the reason that I didn’t come in, they’ll understand.’ My manager, I thought he was going to help me out. I thought he would talk to HR and tell them ‘It was a mistake’ and ‘Give her a second chance.’ But he didn’t do anything.”
After over two years at Amazon, Ahmed was escorted out of the building. An Amazon source told Business Insider that when Ahmed appealed the decision, it was upheld by an internal panel at Amazon.
Amazon said: “The intent behind UPT is to ensure associates have a bank of time available to handle unexpected issues or emergencies. Full-time associates are allocated up to 80 hours per year of unpaid time (the equivalent of two work weeks), in addition to paid time off for vacation, personal time, and holidays.
“If an associate does run into a negative UPT balance, in each case we have a seek-to-understand conversation to recognize the associate’s situation and any mitigating circumstances.”
Others described Amazon’s ruthlessness, particularly related to seasonal workers. Amazon hired nearly 130,000 temporary workers across the US and Europe last year, and multiple sources told Business Insider they had seen some dismissed by text when work dried up. Their accounts corroborate a Guardian op-ed article by an anonymous Amazon worker in December.
In a statement about the Guardian op-ed article last year, Amazon said that firing people by text is “not company practice” and that it could find “no evidence this actually occurred.” Amazon said it had nothing further to add.
Continuing in treacherous weather
According to three former employees, fulfillment centers often don’t want employees missing work even during dangerous weather conditions. Like Oates, who was asked to report for duty during a storm in Kansas, Ahmed said she was asked to work at her Minnesota warehouse in severely snowy conditions.
“They say they will give a day off if the weather is really bad, but they never did, actually,” Ahmed said. “There was one day that I called in and I said that I could not see the road. For my safety, I told them that I am not going to come in today. So they took hours from my UPT.”
Norris said of his warehouse: “The building’s not going to shut down. If enough employees come to work late because of weather, they’ll excuse time. But Amazon doesn’t stop.”
One way Amazon workers can get time off during peak is by getting sent home. If there’s not enough work to go around, managers will sometimes offer unpaid voluntary time off, or VTO.
“There never seems to be a problem in getting enough people to take voluntary time off. That in itself speaks a lot, that people are willing to leave early and not get paid,” a warehouse worker told Business Insider in mid-December, adding that the previous day they’d seen management give people VTO three times during a day shift.
Amazon emphasized to Business Insider that VTO is entirely voluntary. “We offer associates voluntary time off to provide additional flexibility and associates choose whether to take this time off, or to work their regular schedule,” a spokeswoman said.
Injuries and electrolyte popsicles
Two Amazon warehouse workers told Business Insider that the rate of injuries goes up during peak. Five more said they thought physical exhaustion, plus the chaos of peak season, was bound to affect injury rates. Others said they noticed no real difference between peak and the rest of the year.
Amazon said that the rate of injury does not go up during peak. “Because of our robust safety management and diligent record-keeping, we know for a fact that recordable incidents do not increase during peak,” said a spokeswoman, who declined to provide records.
But not all workers make their health concerns known. “You’ve got these health and safety rules, but when you’re exhausted and you’ve been standing and crouching all day, you’re in pain,” a UK warehouse worker said.
The worker said employees have to handle potentially dangerous objects, including unpackaged knives and mousetraps, adding that during a career of more than 30 years, including time spent in slaughterhouses, they had never seen so many ambulances called to one place. “This is the one place where I feel the most unsafe,” the source said.
Amazon disputed the placement of dangerous unpackaged objects. “We have a dedicated team in our fulfillment center where staff wrap, protect and check all products before they are stowed in bins,” a spokeswoman told Business Insider.
Business Insider submitted freedom-of-information requests to UK ambulance services to determine callout rates during Amazon’s peak period. The callouts pertained to all medical emergencies, not just physical injuries.
Amazon’s warehouse in Rugeley, England, made eight emergency calls in November and December, according to the West Midlands Ambulance Service. Two of these were eventually canceled, but it was an average of one call a week. Amazon told Business Insider that Rugeley has more than 1,000 workers.
The ambulance service provided a monthly breakdown of callouts to Rugeley over the past three years. It showed a spike in incidents in November.
Information in a previous, publicly available FOI document showed that in 2015 there were 19 ambulance callouts to the warehouse in November and December.
In another example, the North West Ambulance Service provided a breakdown of callouts from the Manchester warehouse, which has more than 1,200 workers. According to 27 months of data, up to last December, the facility made an average of 1.2 emergency calls a month, rising to 2.1 during November and December.
In a third example, the Welsh Ambulance Service revealed emergency-call numbers from the Swansea warehouse, which also has more than 1,200 workers. Over the past three years, the facility made an average of 1.6 calls a month, rising to 3.6 during November and December. The number of incidents attended was slightly lower, with a three-year average of 1.1 per month and 2.8 during peak.
Brittany Turner, who worked in a Florida facility until June 2017, said she noticed ambulances arrive at her fulfillment center about once a month. “It was actually kind of a joke,” she told Business Insider. “We would get our little 15-minute break before and after lunch. I would go outside to smoke cigarettes with some people from my team. The ambulance would show up, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, Amazon claimed another.'”
Amazon said ambulance numbers do not give a good overview of health and safety during peak. “Using absolute ambulance numbers to suggest that a workplace is not safe is simply wrong because it does not take into consideration hours worked and population size,” a spokeswoman said.
Oates said his back gave out on one shift during last year’s peak season. He said the blame was partly on his warehouse’s faulty conveyances that malfunctioned and forced him to manually lift containers.
“They didn’t want to let me go home, even though I was in really bad pain,” Oates said. “All they did was ice my back and ask what pain level I was at.”
In November, Oates said, he fell ill while living in his car. He said that when he reported to AmCare, Amazon’s onsite first-aid department, to request to leave his shift early, he was given an electrolyte-rich popsicle and told to get back to work.
Amazon said AmCare does not have the power to send workers home.
“Amazon associates would never be sent directly home due to an illness or injury at the direction of our AmCare leadership teams. Associates have the ability to use their UPT at their discretion and can request to seek outside medical services at any time, which may then result in time away from work,” a spokeswoman said.
“We rely on the direction of medical professionals to define whether an employee can/cannot perform or to what degree they can perform their job duties and our UPT and personal time benefits provide what would be called ‘sick time’ in other organizations.”
A minimum-wage hike led to slashed bonuses
Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in November, a move seen as Amazon acceding to public pressure from politicians such as Sanders. Amazon’s senior vice president in charge of operations, Dave Clark, posted a video of warehouse workers jumping and cheering at the news.
A US seasonal worker working in customer service told Business Insider that for them the minimum-wage hike was a real boost. Four workers from the warehouse in Edison, New Jersey — Keion Burgess, Melonie Fabiano, Angelina Tramontano, and Peter-Gideon Okello — also enthusiastically spoke of the pay rise.
“We haven’t really lost anything,” Burgess said on a call in the presence of an Amazon representative. “Actually, we’ve gained more than we’ve lost. It’s been a great addition for us.” Tramontano noted that the minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.85 an hour, $6.15 less than Amazon’s $15 minimum hourly wage.
But other permanent workers told a different story: Slashed bonuses have actually hurt their pay packets.
Previously, staff could earn bonuses in the form of “variable compensation pay,” or VCP, based on attendance and productivity, which usually doubles during peak weeks. VCP got axed along with employee stock options when the minimum wage was raised.
Instead, Amazon offered workers a $100 bonus if they worked all the peak period without taking time off. One worker said that with VCP they’d been able to earn bonuses of several hundred dollars and that in the last quarter they could even get up to $1,000.
“It’s kind of a joke,” they said.
A UK warehouse worker told Business Insider that when they joined six years ago, workers could get four or five shares in stock options that would vest after two years. As of Tuesday, a single Amazon share was worth more than $1,600.
“When you think that we’re working for the richest man on earth and you look at the profits they’re making every year, it’s not right, is it?” they said.
A US warehouse worker said that until the stock options were scrapped last year, the company awarded one share to warehouse employees. The source said this was worth “about a dollar an hour for the year.”
In October, when Amazon announced that the minimum-wage rise was on the way, Wired spoke with an Amazon employee who estimated they would lose at least $1,400 as a result. The worker told Wired that the timing of the wage hike was suspect. “November and December were the months where they would double the attendance and productivity bonuses,” they said.
In a statement at the time, Amazon denied that the wage increase would adversely affect workers’ pay packets. “We can confirm that all hourly Operations and Customer Service employees will see an increase in their total compensation,” an Amazon representative said. They did not dispute the anonymous worker’s calculations as presented to Wired.
At the time, the GMB Union, one of the largest worker’s unions in the UK, representing just under 2,000 Amazon workers, also criticized the slashing of bonuses and stock options, calling it a “stealth tax” on Amazon workers.
Amazon’s fourth-quarter earnings showed that its operating costs of $68.6 billion were barely dented by the change, with expenses rising at a similar or slower rate than during the rest of the year. It suggests Amazon swallowed the cost of the pay raises without a significant effect on its outgoings.
“That whole ordeal between Jeff Bezos and Bernie Sanders was nothing but a publicity stunt,” Vickie Shannon Allen said. “When they took away the stocks and the bonuses, you don’t know how bad that hurt the employees. People depended on those bonuses every paycheck to put gas in their car, to buy food for their family, to buy Christmas for their kids.”
Amazon stood by the minimum-wage increase.
“When the $15 minimum hourly wage was implemented, everyone saw an increase in their compensation and for some this was significant. For example, employees at the Staten Island fulfillment center now earn between $17 and $23 an hour,” a spokeswoman said.
“The attendance bonus [of $100] was intended to be an extra incentive on top of the wage increase. Employees have told us for years that they would prefer the predictability and immediacy of cash to other compensation benefits.”
Allen told Business Insider that at the beginning of February she left Amazon.
Working for ‘swag bucks’
In addition to cash, Amazon workers can be rewarded with “swag bucks,” a kind of company currency that can be spent only inside Amazon. The incentives are designed to further increase productivity and are popular with some employees.
The physical description of swag bucks — also known as “Amazon bucks” — varied wildly. Allen said that in her warehouse they looked like a Monopoly bill with Bezos’ face. Brittany Turner, the former associate in Florida, described swag bucks as slips listing specific dollar amounts, cardboard scratcher tickets, or just money to spend in the fulfillment center’s cafeteria.
A German worker showed Business Insider an image of their equivalent, “swaggis,” which are small, red, plastic tokens. While touring the UK warehouse, Business Insider found that they were also called “swaggies.”
Using swag bucks, workers can buy items like T-shirts, lanyards, and water bottles from Amazon. The company currency is available all year round, but sources told Business Insider there’s more up for grabs during peak, especially during what’s known as “power hours.”
Power hours are when managers try to pump up warehouse workers to work even harder for 60 minutes, sometimes motivating them by saying workers in other departments have been talking smack or outperforming them. At the end of the hour, staff members can be rewarded with swag bucks or prizes.
“I’ve personally won a 50-inch television,” Keion Burgess said during the interview organized by Amazon. “It’s been great. We can win power hours in teams, or we can win them individually. It’s a really great thing for us as associates. We love it.”
During that same interview, Angelina Tramontano added: “After you work eight hours and you’re really, really tired, I use it as an incentive to push myself to challenge myself to see if I can do it.”
Tramontano also described witnessing colleagues win TVs, Xboxes, gift cards, and extra breaks. She once won an Echo Dot, Amazon’s best-selling product last year.
Others said they found the incentives less enticing. “It’s insulting, because around this time of year the managers, if their targets are met or exceeded, they get a bonus,” a warehouse worker told Business Insider.
Oates and Allen expressed a similar disenchantment.
“All the new employees that are clueless about the work culture, they buy into that,” Oates said.
“What they’re trying to do is get more work out of you for the same amount of pay,” Allen added.
“They can try to get you going — try to be positive and really upbeat,” a third associate said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s probably what every manager in every job should do. But sometimes it seems a little excessive. I’m not going to get that excited about $16 an hour.”
Hafsa Hassan, an Amazon employee in Minnesota, said workers could also receive scratch-off tickets for excelling in “mini-competitions.” Prizes can include laptops, headphones, or even Chipotle gift cards. Hassan said one manager in her warehouse would list employees’ hourly rate from slowest to fastest to get people “fired up.”
“Some people are OK with it; some people hate it,” she said. “The part that sucks is when someone’s not packing up to the standards of the manager or the rate that’s been put up. I’ve seen the manager make fun of people.”
Other incentives are less valuable. Business Insider spoke with a packer in a UK warehouse who had earned enough swaggies in seven months to buy a small foam toy version of Amazon’s robots used to ferry shelves of items around the shop floor.
Another way Amazon tries to boost company morale during peak is through events and competitions. Warehouse workers described games like “Wheel of Fortune” where employees could win swag bucks or gifts. One worker said everyone in the warehouse was surprised with a free lunch one day in December.
“On Thanksgiving Day, they handed us each a pumpkin or apple pie as we walked out the door, to bring home to our families, which was very considerate and kind of them,” said Melonie Fabiano, a warehouse worker who spoke in the presence of an Amazon representative.
Office workers had similar stories. Employees are encouraged to take part in games such as “dress your manager,” in which employees put their managers in whacky outfits.
“It can help, but if after that [peak] they come back to normal and they start pushing people, they start asking questions — ‘Why are you doing this, why are you doing that, what is your target?’ — it’s not going to help,” one former associate said.
The end of peak 2018
Peak 2018 came and went, and Amazon clocked record earnings of $72.4 billion in the final quarter of the year, with net sales increasing by 20%. It marked the occasion with some cheerful posts on its Instagram page.
Touring the UK warehouse in Tilbury, England, Business Insider saw signs saying “a big peak thank you,” as well as ads for a February “post-peak party” — tickets were about $7 and good for three drinks plus food, an Amazon warehouse tour guide told BI.
But Oates didn’t stick around to see the end of peak. He told us he ended up quitting for good on December 15. Before he left he weighed requesting a transfer to an Amazon warehouse in California but ultimately decided against it.
He drove away from Kansas City without clocking in for his shift. On the road, he got an email confirming his voluntary resignation due to job abandonment. Amazon’s HR department wished him the best in his future endeavors.
Ruqayyah Moynihan, INSIDER’s associate translation editor, also contributed to this report.
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