Jeff Bezos: We Need to Do Better by our Employees
Following a brutal union campaign, the CEO's words come across as hollow
While the union campaign at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer Alabama was unsuccessful at giving the workers a larger voice on the job, it did shine a spotlight on the working conditions within Amazon. The light shone so brightly that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spent much of his final letter to shareholders addressing these concerns.
In his letter, Bezos said that the company has to “do a better job for our employees.” To “do better” the company will develop new staffing schedules “that use sophisticated algorithms to rotate employees among jobs that use different muscle-tendon groups to decrease repetitive motion and help protect employees from MSD risks.” He said the technology will roll out over the next year. Bezos also addressed the union campaign saying “Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees. While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”
Amazon has come under fire in recent years for treating their workers like robots, often setting extremely ambitious goals for their warehouse pickers and delivery drivers. Many drivers have said that the schedule doesn’t even allow them time for bathroom breaks, and they are often forced to resort to peeing in bottles in the back of their vans. Amazon is facing dozens of NLRB complaints and a lawsuit over workers' missed lunch breaks.
Bezos did address this in his letter claiming that workers are able to take informal breaks during their shifts “to stretch, get water, use the restrooms, or talk to a manager, all without impacting their performance.” Bezos also claimed that that the performance goals that are set are achievable and derived from years of data that tracks performance and claimed that if workers don’t meet their goals, they are not fired but rather “coached.” He claimed that the company only had a 2.6% termination rate. Yet at the Bessemer warehouse, one of the issues that the union ran into was that within the year the warehouse was opened there was a 100% turnover meaning that just as many people left the job as were hired. While they might no be fired, this would seem to indicate that the work is too hard or that the coaching is really a way to let the workers know they need to resign before they are fired.
According to Bezos’ letter, employees were paid $80 billion. In 2020, Bezos’ net worth is estimated to have increased by $75 billion. In the letter, he touted the company’s $15 minimum wage, although this is no longer a groundbreaking wage since rivals like Target and Best Buy also pay $15 and states like New York and California are instituting a $15 minimum wage for all businesses.
In looking towards the future, Bezos declared that Amazon wants to become the Earth’s Best Employer and the Earth’s Safest Place to work. They will have some work to do since there have been numerous OSHA complaints against the company and even deaths in the company’s warehouses. Bezos claims that 40% of the injuries in warehouses are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and to prevent these injuries he is proposing a program called WorkingWell which will coach groups of employees on body mechanics, proactive wellness, and safety.
While this letter shows a rosy picture of working at Amazon, many workers have said that the reality is much different. Rina Cummings, a warehouse worker at JFK8 in New York, told The Guardian in February of 2020 that she works 3, 12-hour shifts a week, inspecting and scanning 1,800 packages an hour or about 30 per minute. JFK8 has an injury rate of over 3 times the national average. Another worker in the warehouse, Raymond Velez who was a packer at JFK8 said workers were regularly fired for missing the 700 items an hour they were expected to pack. “That’s all they care about. They don’t care about their employees,” Velez added. “They care more about the robots than they care about the employees. I’ve been to Amcare [the company’s on-site medical unit] a couple times for not feeling well, and you’d get an aspirin and sent back to work.”
This was backed up by another worker Juan Espinoza who quit because of the grueling conditions. “I was a picker and we were expected to always pick 400 units within the hour in seven seconds of each item we picked,” said Espinoza. “I couldn’t handle it. I’m a human being, not a robot.” This is not exclusive to JFK8 either. Linda Burns a worker at the Bessemer warehouse said that she was forced out on leave because of tendonitis developed on the job. “They are treating us like robots rather than humans,” said Burns.
Bezos will be stepping down this year as CEO of the company he founded in 1997. He will continue to work with the company as the Executive Chair.