Amazon can’t even accept limits when it comes to its own self-created holiday.
Despite the name, Prime Day is not one day. This year, it will take place on June 21 and 22. When the “holiday” was conjured into existence in 2015 to boost sales during the relative lull of the summer season, Prime Day marked twenty years of Amazon and ten years of Amazon Prime. It lasted all of two years before the length of the day began expanding: in 2017, Prime Day went on for thirty hours. In 2018, it was thirty-six hours. By 2019, it had reached its current duration: forty-eight hours.
By then, the exercise was observed in eighteen countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Singapore, the Netherlands, Mexico, Luxembourg, Japan, Italy, India, Germany, France, China, Canada, Belgium, Austria, Australia, and, for the first time, the United Arab Emirates. That was the year Taylor Swift headlined the Prime Day concert, an aggressive amalgam of ads for Amazon products occasionally interrupted by music. Naturally, people could watch the event live on Amazon Prime Video. The figures were huge: 175 million items purchased, with sales reaching over $7 billion.
But if Prime Day means deals for consumers, it has a different valence for the hundreds of thousands of people who work in Amazon’s warehouses. For those people, Prime Day means mandatory overtime, with shifts extended from ten to twelve hours, or extra shifts added to their schedule. One worker recently told me he’ll be mandated to work fifty-five hours this week. He’s in pain and a doctor told him it’s carpal tunnel syndrome, but he hasn’t filed paperwork with Amazon because that requires him to go to another doctor to get diagnosed, and he doesn’t have time to do that. Another person, who has since left the company, told me she was pressured to work for over twenty-four hours straight on Prime Day.
Amazon is notoriously secretive about its data, but recent reporting shows the extent of the holiday pressure, and the danger that accompanies it. In a report in 2019, as well as a follow-up in 2020, journalist Will Evans got his hands on internal safety reports and weekly injury numbers, publishing his findings with Reveal News.
“Just five months earlier, in June 2019, the monthly report from the Amazon safety director in charge of robotic warehouses across the country was frank about the risks,” writes Evans. He continues: “Warehouses in the region that encompasses New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Connecticut were ‘expecting an increase in injuries across all sites during Prime Week.’” Injuries had already increased in the lead-up to Prime Day, a trend Evans attributes to mandatory overtime and bringing in 1,200 to 2,000 seasonal employees to each robotic site in that region. Both the overtime and the influx of new workers were labeled “high-risk situations.”
Evans’s 2019 investigation looked at internal injury records from 2018 for 23 of the company’s then 110 US warehouses. He found the rate of serious injuries for the facilities whose records he had was more than double the national average for the warehousing industry: 9.6 serious injuries per 100 full-time workers, compared with an industry average that year of 4.
Those rates are uneven: one of the warehouses, in Eastvale, California, had a rate four times the national average. Of the records Evans obtained, most of the warehouses with the highest rates of injury deployed robots. While Jeff Wilke, one of Amazon’s top executives, has said that robots “make the job safer,” robots actually increase, rather than decrease, injury rates, according to David Michaels, former head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
And these are the company’s own records. Amazon, like many companies, is prone to keeping injuries off the books so as to avoid scrutiny from OSHA or journalists like Evans, as well as to minimize workers’ comp claims. Indeed, investigators have found that AmCare, Amazon’s on-site clinics, often send injured workers back to work instead of referring them to another doctor for in-depth medical attention. Medical providers told Evans they were discouraged from giving Amazon workers treatment that would lead to their injuries being on the books.
While many of these are repetitive stress injuries or strains, the type of hazard that often accompanies warehousing work, there are other threats, too, borne of Amazon’s commitment to wringing as much productivity out of workers as humanly possible, regardless of circumstances. For instance, Evans writes of a gas leak in the Eastvale warehouse: managers wouldn’t slow the pace “even though [workers] were dizzy and vomiting,” workers told him. “They were told that they’d have to use personal time off if they wanted to leave.”
He documents a particularly horrifying incident in which fifty-five-year-old Phillip Lee Terry, a maintenance worker, was crushed to death by a forklift at an Indiana warehouse. Indiana OSHA sent an investigator, who found it was Amazon’s fault, and, at first, the agency issued four citations, a fine of $28,000. But then the state’s OSHA director called Amazon and explained to the company how it could shift the blame. There were political considerations: the state was hoping to be selected as the location for Amazon’s HQ2 site. So, a year after Terry’s death, the state deleted the citations.
These problems are only getting worse. While Amazon touts figures for how much money it spends on safety practices — the company is currently on a PR push about its new wellness program, which has been met with widespread ridicule online and indifference or disdain by every warehouse worker with whom I’ve spoken — Evans’s reporting found that injury rates are only going up. Robotized warehouses continue leading the pack, as robots mean a quicker pace of work, as well as more isolated, repetitive motions. Meanwhile, a recent report by the Strategic Organizing Center — published in time for Prime Day 2021 — finds that Amazon workers are not only injured more frequently than in non-Amazon warehouses, they also endure more serious injuries.
Amazon does advise workers on how to safely move their bodies and handle equipment, but workers characterize these instructions as a joke. It’s understood they must violate the rules to keep up with the rate, even if Amazon makes them sign paperwork saying they’ll follow the guidelines. The reality of these working conditions is better suggested by Amazon telling workers to think of themselves as “industrial athletes” (the company claims the pamphlet that used this phrase was mistakenly distributed, though workers say it was available on-site for months, so that’s unlikely).
In the face of all this evidence of how ill-equipped the company is to ensure workers’ safety, and how uninterested Jeff Bezos is in providing workers with time to see a doctor or care for their children, Amazon Prime Day is once again upon us. Let’s hope it doesn’t kill anyone.