The Abuses of Amazon: When Workplace Efficiency Overcomes Employee Rights

by Brian Kotkin

Over the past several years, it has been gradually revealed that Amazon.com, one of the world’s largest retailers, has an extraordinarily bad record when it comes to the welfare and safety of the employees in its warehouses (known internally as “fulfillment centers”).[1] Managers constantly track employees’ movements with satellite-navigation tags throughout their warehouses, punishing their employees for even a few minutes of wasted time.[2] In addition, conditions within Amazon’s warehouses are often dangerous: in one warehouse, Amazon employees were forced to work in the summer heat without air conditioning, resulting in enough workers going to the hospital and prompting a doctor to report it to federal regulators.[3] On top of that, it has been alleged in several lawsuits around the nation that Amazon has not provided employees with sufficient breaks or time to eat lunch, and has also deprived employees of overtime pay.[4]

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act,

no employer shall employ any of his employees who in any workweek is engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or is employed in an enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.[5]

In theory, Amazon.com has attempted to adhere the above standard, and has denied all allegations that it has violated any laws.[6] However, it has attempted to get around the requirements for overtime by establishing a very strict time-management system that favors Amazon, accruing many hours of effective work over a period of time due to such things as favorable rounding policies for when employees clock in early or late.[7]

Amazon has also found other ways to deprive employees of deserved pay, such as by forcing employees to undergo security checks before their mandatory breaks, and at the end of their shifts each day, to make sure they are not stealing products from Amazon’s stock.[8] While such security checks are understandable, Amazon has failed to compensate employees for lost time, and employees do not receive additional time for their breaks for the time lost to the security checks.[9] This loss in pay, combined with the strict time schedule, has created an extremely stressful, and potentially hazardous, work environment for anyone who works at an Amazon warehouse.

What is most alarming about all of this, however, is that Amazon claims it is necessary to fulfill consumer demand for cheap and fast deliveries.[10] Rather than hiring more workers to fulfill their massive demand, they instead push efficiency on their existing workers, relying on the threat of unemployment to keep their workers at constant peak efficiency (a strategy known as “management by stress”).[11] This allows them to keep costs down while keeping productivity high, relegating the actual cost of Amazon’s business model to inside its warehouses, where they can remain hidden from the public.

The question is whether the public is willing to put up with Amazon’s abuses for the sake of low costs and fast delivery. The cost for this sort of procedure, right now, is laid on the shoulders of employees, who must pay for it in blood, sweat, and tears. This sort of efficiency is not worth it—not if the result is so heinous.

[1]   Simon Head, Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers, Salon.com (Feb. 23, 2014, 6:59 AM), http://www.salon.com/2014/02/23/worse_than_wal_mart_amazons_sick_brutality_and_secret_history_of_ruthlessly_intimidating_workers/.

[2]   Id.

[3]   Angelo Young, Amazon.com’s Workers Are Low-Paid, Overworked And Unhappy; Is This The New Employee Model For The Internet Age?, International Business Times (Dec. 19, 2013, 8:25 AM), http://www.ibtimes.com/amazoncoms-workers-are-low-paid-overworked-unhappy-new-employee-model-internet-age-1514780.

[4]   See In re: Amazon.com, Inc., FLSA and Wage and Hour Litigation, 2014 WL 3695750 (W.D. Ky., 2014) (documenting Amazon’s labor abuses as attempts to toll the statute of limitations on abuse allegations).

[5]   29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1) (2010).

[6]   Young, supra note 3.

[7]   Austin v. Amazon.com, Inc., 2010 WL 1875811 (W.D. Wa., 2010).

[8]   Dave Jamieson, More Amazon Warehouse Workers Sue Retailer Over Unpaid Security Waits, The Huffington Post (Sept. 10, 2013, 7:41 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/more-amazon-warehouse-workers-sue_n_3950295.html.

[9]   Id.

[10]  Head, supra note 1.

[11]  Young, supra note 3.

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