A New Report Shows Just How Brutal Amazon Warehouse Work Can Get

A new report finds that Amazon warehouses in Minnesota have more than double the injury rate of non-Amazon warehouses, with a sky-high turnover rate and black workers making far less than their white counterparts.

Amazon Fulfillment Center MSP1 in Shakopee, Minnesota, where high rates of injury and turnover have been documented. (Tony Webster / Flickr)

A new report published by the National Employment Law Project and the Awood Center, a nonprofit workers’ center, finds that Amazon warehouse work continues to be dangerous and unsustainable. The report’s authors analyzed data from the US Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to evaluate the conditions at Minnesota’s Amazon warehouses.

The numbers show that the injury rate at Amazon warehouses from 2018 to 2020 is 11.1 per 100 workers, more than double the rate of 5.2 per 100 at non-Amazon warehouses in the state (and more than four times as high as the state’s rate for the average private industry worker). These numbers come from the 792 OSHA reports filed during the period.

Many of those injuries are musculoskeletal disorders that follow from the repetitive lifting required by Amazon warehouse work, with high quotas and inflexible enforcement. These are injuries that linger, sometimes for the rest of a worker’s life. As one worker says in the report, his hands go numb by the end of his shifts.

A 2019 investigation showed that Amazon had an injury rate of 9.6 per 100 workers, more than double the industry average of 4 per 100. While more recent numbers suggested a reduction in that rate, this latest report shows that at least at some facilities, there has been little if any change.

Amazon opened its first major fulfillment center in the state in Shakopee five years ago, and it has since added another in Lakeville. The company says it has invested more than $3 billion into Minnesota over the past decade. The report finds that in 2020, no industry in the state had a higher average rate of injury than the original Shakopee Amazon fulfillment center.

The Shakopee facility, known as MSP1, relies heavily on the local East African immigrant population to staff its operations, and the report finds that such workers are paid significantly less than their white counterparts in the state’s warehouse industry. Black workers constitute 38 percent of the warehouse workforce in Scott County, where Shakopee is located — the report’s authors note that most warehouses in the county are Amazon facilities. These workers constitute only 8 percent of the Twin Cities’ workforce. According to Census data from 2018, these black workers made 63 percent of white warehouse workers’ monthly wages — $2,108 compared to $3,339.25.

While Amazon often boasts of its high starting wages — the company instituted a $15-an-hour wage in 2018, following pressure from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, and in the current tighter-than-usual labor market, has pushed that number higher at many facilities — Amazon entering a county continues to lower wages at nearby warehouses. The report finds that real wages for warehouse workers declined 14 percent from 2015 to 2018, after MSP1 began operating.

At Shakopee, annual turnover in recent years has been as high as 170 percent, compared to 61 percent turnover at the state’s non-Amazon warehouses. This is in accord with a recent New York Times investigation that found 150 percent turnover at other Amazon facilities.

MSP1 has also been the site of organizing by Amazon workers themselves, often assisted by the Awood Center, which particularly focuses on improving working conditions for East African immigrants. In 2018, MSP1 workers became some of the first Amazon workers in the United States to convince the company to negotiate over productivity quotas that did not leave Muslim workers adequate time for prayer. Early last year, MSP1 workers walked off the job to protest the firing of a coworker; she was successfully reinstated. They did the same a few months later, this time to protest retaliation against a worker who spoke up about the need for additional health and safety precautions during the pandemic.

That kind of organizing will be crucial for Minnesota Amazon workers trying to push back against the untenable conditions outlined in the report. The authors’ recommendations include a statewide OSHA investigation into the company’s facilities, an investigation into and overhaul of Amcare (Amazon’s on-site emergency care), firmer mandates for rest periods, and a ban on the company’s oblique productivity quotas that govern every second of workers’ “time off task.” The latter might look something like AB 701, the recently passed California bill that requires warehouses to disclose productivity quotas to workers in writing and attempts to strengthen protections for workers who are disciplined for failing to meet such quotas because they took standard meal and bathroom breaks.

It’s a strong legislative agenda that can only be carried out with workers themselves organized inside the warehouses to monitor enforcement of such measures, holding contracts that upend Amazon’s dictatorial control over their every movement. That company control is what creates the intolerable, dangerous pressure that leads to such high injury rates, and ultimately forces many workers to leave Amazon jobs within weeks, before much of anything can change.