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Sorry, Mr. President, Amazon Isn't the Place to Go for Good Jobs

Photo courtesy Scottish Government

In his speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., yesterday, President Obama rightfully called out for an increase in jobs that pay high wages and offer good benefits, what he called "middle class jobs," and for a focus on creating manufacturing jobs.  While those are laudable goals, Obama chose to give a speech about these topics at the Amazon Chattanooga Fulfillment Center, a location that neither pays those good wages and benefits nor is a place that offers manufacturing jobs.

According to various reports, many of the 15,000 jobs at the 70-plus warehouses around the world pay $12.50 per hour.  Most workers have no health care (unless they pay for it themselves) or paid leave.  Full-time employees do have health insurance, 401(k) funds and get stock shares, but most employees are not full-time.

Work conditions at the fulfillment centers are widely reported to be horrible.  Workers report walking 10 miles or more on the average day, often in blistering heat. Workers were regularly sent to the emergency room after working in temperatures that sometimes exceeded 110 degrees.  Morning Call reported that at least one location hired a paramedic to wait outside closed warehouse doors to treat employees who fainted or were suffering from dehydration.

Productivity is tracked by a scanner database that automatically issued demerits regardless of how bad working conditions got in the warehouse.  If it got too hot, employees can choose to leave, but the computer gives them demerits for doing so.  Enough demerits would lead to firing and the only way around the heat-related demerits was a doctor's note and a medical waiver from the warehouse managers.  A doctor's note is a little harder to obtain when you don't have paid sick days to visit a doctor and don't have insurance and can't afford a doctor on your low salary.

Workers are pressured to keep up dangerous levels of work for shifts that last 12 hours or more.  Workers say they are constantly in fear of being written up or fired for not working fast enough.  Employees reportedly have to participate in phone conferences where there was screaming and constant complaints that production numbers weren't high enough, regardless of how high they were.  Several former managers said they were retaliated against for complaining about work conditions.

The Seattle Times reported that at a Kentucky warehouse, workers were pressured not to report injuries to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  A Pennsylvania worker filed a lawsuit after allegedly being told to lie about a workplace injury.  Also, the warehouses have such elaborate security procedures to prevent employee theft, Huffington Post reports, that leaving work can be a 25-minute unpaid ordeal.  Employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the practice.

As for "manufacturing" jobs, Amazon fails on that aspect, too.  By their nature, manufacturing jobs in the United States have traditionally paid well and had good benefits, which we've already seen don't apply here.  But manufacturing jobs are supposed to be permanent jobs, as well.  Manufacturing jobs offer job stability, where you know that if you work hard, you'll always have a job.  That's not how Amazon works.

According to the Morning Call, many of Amazon's fulfillment center jobs are temporary jobs hired through Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS).  By hiring the workers as temps, they can, of course, be paid less and not given benefits.  But more importantly, it means that there is no job security.  Amazon reportedly offers the best workers permanent positions, but workers report that isn't the way things usually happen.  Normally, after a designated number of hours, the jobs expire.  A few are given permanent jobs, but most are let go and have to apply again a few months later.  The permanent job carrot is dangled in front of temp workers to get them to work harder and harder, until the jobs end, people quit or they get injured.  Morning Call was told that turnover was very high at fulfillment centers.

Another key for manufacturing jobs is the right to organize and collectively bargain with management. The Seattle Times notes that unions are unwelcome at Amazon.

Early on, Amazon took a hard line against unions. A high-profile organizing effort by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at an Amazon call center in Seattle ended in 2001, when the center was shut down and some 400 workers were laid off as part of a larger company restructuring.

Fulfillment center workers say that they were forced to attend a meeting once a year where the company would denigrate unions and warn employees against joining them. The use of a largely temporary workforce also undercuts union organizing efforts, since the workforce is constantly changing and few workers are there long enough to participate in or lead organizing efforts.

So, while it is laudable that the president is pushing policies that would expand good jobs, he should pay a little more attention next time around to where he's giving such a speech and make sure that the company he's gracing with his presence isn't part of the problem.

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