Aug 22, 2023
I'm the Amazon Worker the Media Doesn't Want You to Meet
I appear to be that rarest of working-class Americans: a gruntled Amazon employee. Judging from what you read in the press or see on TV news, Amazon has mostly disgruntled employees working in its
I appear to be that rarest of working-class Americans: a gruntled Amazon employee.
Judging from what you read in the press or see on TV news, Amazon has mostly disgruntled employees working in its warehouses, staffing its fulfillment centers, and driving its delivery vans. In a new book on Amazon, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America, we meet people like Hector Torrez (a pseudonym), an Amazon warehouse worker who was exposed to the coronavirus at his workplace, forced to live in his own basement so as to avoid infecting the rest of his family; he learned from his coworkers about the outbreak, not from Amazon, he says. We also meet Bill Boldani, Jr., another warehouse employee who is occasionally forced to pee in a quiet corner of the warehouse because Amazon doesn't give him breaks long enough for him to make it to the bathroom and back.
Maybe I got lucky and found myself working in the only Amazon warehouse where employees are treated decently, but the experiences of Hector Torrez and Bill Boldani, Jr., are nothing like my own experiences at Amazon.
Far from getting no communication from Amazon about the coronavirus, I've gotten hundreds of communications about it. Every time someone in my warehouse tests positive for COVID-19, I get a text and an email from Amazon informing me of the fact, though the worker's name is never divulged. Amazon also sends me communications about the steps they are taking to make their workplaces safer during the pandemic.
Amazon set up a COVID-19 testing station in my warehouse back in September, and my co-workers and I are encouraged (though never forced) to get tested at least once a week. We can do this on company time and get paid for it. I've been tested roughly twenty times since last fall, always with a negative result.
Not everyone tests negative, though. Dozens of workers at my facility have tested positive for COVID-19. But all the workers I know of who have tested positive were experiencing no symptoms. Had they not been tested, they might have gone about their daily lives in normal fashion, infecting everyone they came in contact with. And after testing positive, they were paid by Amazon to stay home and self-quarantine for 14 days. No wonder when COVID-19 caused massive layoffs in early 2020, my warehouse took on dozens of new employees.
Again, maybe I just got lucky enough to work at the only decent Amazon warehouse. But my experience just does not line up with what I read about in the news, which consistently paints Amazon as a horrible place to work. Recently, the New York Times published an op-ed by a member of its editorial board, Greg Bensinger, who wrote that the Amazon workers he's interviewed have consistently painted "a grim picture." "The job typically includes miles of walking each day, heavy lifting, and mindless and repetitive sorting tasks, all under the watchful eye of corporate efficiency sticklers, who convey the impression that dignities like sufficient bathroom and meal breaks are anathema to their daily quotas," writes Bensinger.
I'm not sure when walking became a grim task. And the work is hardly mindless. I work at a smaller warehouse facility called a sortation center. As the name indicates, we do a lot of sorting there, which is anything but a mindless task. Some of the sorters in my warehouse have to make dozens of sorting decisions every minute. The diverter, for example, stands beside a conveyor belt in the unloading dock and as envelopes and packages speed by, she has to quickly look for the yellow label that tells her which of the three off-ramps each package needs to be diverted towards.
It's not a job you can do with your eyes closed or with your mind disengaged. It is a repetitive task, and it can also be a tedious one, but it isn't mindless. On the plus side, it isn't very strenuous either, at least not for a reasonably fit worker. Compared to picking cotton or mining coal or catching Alaskan King Crab, a shift at my warehouse is a walk in the park. And I generally enjoy it.
Before taking a job at Amazon, I was working part time at a Sacramento bookstore for $11 dollars an hour. Elite leftwing pundits pooh-pooh Amazon's $15 an hour minimum wage as barely an improvement on the various state minimums. But California has one of the highest minimum wages in the country, and Amazon's wage still represented a 36 percent increase in my hourly pay. Is there any working-class individual in America who would sneer at a 36 percent raise in pay?
When I first got hired at Amazon, I was eager to mention it to people. After all, Amazon is one of the iconic brands of the 21st Century. Working for Amazon in 2019 struck me as being analogous to working for Chevrolet in the 1950s or IBM in the 1960s. But I learned quickly that a lot of Americans have been conditioned by the media to believe that all Amazon employees are pathetic wage slaves, forced to work in sauna-like warehouses and required to beg their overseers for the right to pee.
Even some of my closest friends didn't believe me when I told them that I liked my job. They seemed to think I was putting a brave face on an embarrassing situation. This is because elite national reporters at the Atlantic and the New York Times have very little actual experience among working-class people and don't know how to report on labor issues except as a battle between villains (the capitalist ownership class) and victims (me and my ilk). It's insulting. And it's inaccurate.
I work a four-and-half-hour shift every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Essentially, my job is to help load local delivery vans by filling up metal carts with packages and then dragging them outside to the "staging area," a parking lot where the drivers can easily access them.
To avoid getting sacked, workers on my shift are required to "pick" no fewer than six routes per day. This is a ridiculously easy bar to clear. I'm 62 and don't have any difficulty picking at least ten routes a day. I've done as many as 15.
For months, Amazon has been encouraging part-time workers like me to convert to a full-time shift (40 hours per week) or at least a reduced-time shift (more than 30 but less than 40 hours per week). I've seen a lot of young people take a job at the warehouse merely as a stopgap while they look for something better. Many of them found they liked the work, racked up huge production numbers, and soon were promoted up and out of my sortation center. It's a fairly common occurrence, though I have a hard time convincing people that it's true.
Alas, the mainstream media in America don't want to hear from an Amazonian unless he's unhappy. You can write positively about your Amazon experience only if you first establish that you don't really need the job, like Austin Murphy did in a December 2018 article for the Atlantic about his job as an Amazon delivery driver. He was a longtime Sports Illustrated writer and editor. He took a job as an Amazon driver after getting laid off from S.I. It turned out that he kind of enjoyed the job. The gatekeepers of contemporary journalism allowed him to write positively about his Amazon job only because he assured his readers that he didn't need the money. He is now a successful freelance writer, his wife is a successful attorney, and he took the job mainly because they were trying to refinance their house and thought it would look better on a loan application if they both had regular, salaried employment.
I, on the other hand, am not a successful freelance writer. My wife is not an attorney. And I do need the money from my Amazon job. I don't sneer at the $16 an hour I get paid.
The media stereotype of an Amazon worker is someone who is forced to work long hours at a fulfillment center where she is run ragged by an uncaring boss and isn't even allowed to go to the bathroom when she needs to.
It's possible that this description fits some Amazon workers. But there are others, like me, who are perfectly gruntled with their Amazon job. Amazon pays plenty of attention to us. But the media? Not so much.
Kevin Mims works at a an Amazon warehouse. He was not paid by Amazon to write this OpEd.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.