It’s no secret that Amazon’s human resources operation is a disaster. Tales of the patchwork system shutting off workers’ disability benefits without notice or automatically firing those on approved leaves for taking too much unpaid time off (UPT) circulate widely among the company’s million-strong workforce in the United States.
“I got so many calls from warehouse employees who were on disability leave and then were terminated,” says one woman who recently worked in Amazon’s HR department, as part of the Employee Resource Center, for roughly a year — she requested anonymity to speak freely about the department’s internal workings. Here’s how she describes her former job:
I’m on the phones for thirteen hours a day, and it’s back-to-back calls. People are calling, crying, screaming, cursing me out, suicidal. On my second day, I had a caller who was suicidal and threatening to kill himself.
The former employee says that she did such a good job defusing that situation on her second day, thanks to prior training from the National Alliance on Mental Health, that her boss had her help create an internal resource for the department on how to handle suicidal callers, as there were so many of them.
“Those calls were, ‘Yes, I’ve been terminated. I was receiving benefits and I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t pay my bills. I can’t get a hold of anyone. They won’t even let me into the building. I can’t speak to anybody. What do I do? Nobody’s getting back to me,’” she recounts.
The problem, she says, stems from a disconnect among Amazon’s internal systems and a lack of communication across the company. She and her coworkers might be able to see in their internal system that a worker is on a leave, but the HR team at the warehouse might not, resulting in termination. Frequently, employees like herself were forbidden from giving warehouse workers their case manager’s information, leaving many of them without benefits or a job, and with no further means of recourse.
The extent of the problem is well-documented. Here’s a sampling of what the New York Times found in its reporting on the problems: workers at as many as a hundred eighty Amazon warehouses were paid incorrectly for more than a year, with an internal report finding that Amazon “had been shortchanging new parents, patients dealing with medical crises and other vulnerable workers on leave”; attendance software frequently marks people as no-shows and fires them accordingly, even when they are on medical leave; workers cannot access their case managers, and spend the entirety of their meager break time waiting to speak to HR, often in vain; countless workers never receive incorrectly docked pay, nor gain reinstatement after being mistakenly fired.
HR employees themselves have sued Amazon, alleging discrimination inside the department. Those who staff the company’s back offices, in Costa Rica and India, have described the system as failing, leaving them faced with “insurmountable tasks,” as Dangelo Padilla, a Costa Rican case manager, told the Times. During the pandemic, the company’s faulty systems left HR employees scrambling to manually handle flooded inboxes and input approved leaves. Padilla said that he saw situations every day of “people getting UPT deducted for no reason, people being terminated for no reasons.”
In the case of the former HR employee who spoke to Jacobin, her high performance quickly led to assignments on “stretch projects,” extra tasks without any extra pay — she made just over $20 an hour at the time. This new role required her to work as early as 4 AM to as late as 10 PM, seven days a week. Being taken off the phones was seen as a reward in itself within the department, given the grueling nature of the phone calls, but the demands of the job were untenable. Before long, she found herself on the other end of the HR system, filing for a mental health leave.
“After speaking to my therapist and my primary care physician, they both told me, ‘Do not go back to Amazon, or you will die,’” she says. “At the time, I would go days without eating, because I had to keep working.”
After being approved for leave, she, too, faced the same problems as the warehouse workers whose calls she had so recently answered.
“A few days after my leave began, the company sent me an email saying, ‘We don’t know what’s going on. This is a no call, no show. This is job abandonment.’” Even after sending extensive evidence of having followed the leave process, the problem was only resolved when she contacted her “boss’s boss’s boss.”
“He was the only person that cared to get back to me right away and say, ‘I’m going to figure this out, I’m sorry.’ And after that, they never talked to me again, which was great.”
She began looking for a new job while on leave, and has since found one.
Before ending our interview, I asked her what she thinks of unions — specifically, at Amazon.
“I’m supposed to say that unions are terrible,’ she responded, a nod to HR’s so-frequent role as an anti-union wedge, with employees like herself presented as the reason workers don’t need to unionize. “But it was very unfortunate that [the unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama] didn’t succeed. I’m very pro-workers’ rights and pro-union.”