Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com's Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world's largest online retailer.
The 34-year-old Allentown resident, who has worked in warehouses for more than 10 years, said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the heat and demands that he work mandatory overtime. Working conditions at the warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when heat in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said.
He got light-headed, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.
"I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one," Goris said. "They can do that because there aren't any jobs in the area."
Goris' complaints are not unique.
Over the past two months, The Morning Call interviewed 20 current and former warehouse workers who showed pay stubs, tax forms or other proof of employment. They offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it's like to work in the Amazon warehouse, where temperatures soar on hot summer days, production rates are difficult to achieve and the permanent jobs sought by many temporary workers hired by an outside agency are tough to get.
Only one of the employees interviewed described it as a good place to work.
Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn't quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.
An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor's report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.
In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour moving inventory through a hot warehouse. But with job openings scarce, Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants in the swollen ranks of the unemployed.
Many warehouse workers are hired for temporary positions by Integrity Staffing Solutions, or ISS, and are told that if they work hard they may be converted to permanent positions with Amazon, current and former employees said. The temporary assignments end after a designated number of hours, and those not hired to permanent Amazon jobs can reapply for temporary positions again after a few months, workers said.
Temporary employees interviewed said few people in their working groups actually made it to a permanent Amazon position. Instead, they said they were pushed harder and harder to work faster and faster until they were terminated, they quit or they got injured. Those interviewed say turnover at the warehouse is high and many hires don't last more than a few months.
The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon's warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers' compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers don't work for Amazon, they work for the temp agency.
Amazon's priority and key competitive edge is quick delivery of products at low prices. Its Lehigh Valley location on Route 100 near Interstate 78 puts one-third of the population of the U.S. and Canada within a one-day haul. And the weak labor market helps keep employment costs down.
"We strive to offer our customers the lowest prices possible through low everyday product pricing and free shipping offers ... and to improve our operating efficiencies so that we can continue to lower prices for our customers," Amazon says about itself in documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say. Large companies such as Amazon can minimize costs for benefits and raises by relying on temporary workers rather than having a larger permanent workforce, those experts say.
"They can get away with it because most workers will take whatever they can get with jobs few and far between," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. "The temp worker is less likely to complain about it and less likely to push for their labor rights because they feel like they don't have much pull or sway with the worksite employer."
Amazon warehouse workers interviewed come from a variety of backgrounds, including construction, small business owners and some with years of experience at other warehouse and shipping operations. Several of them said it was their worst work experience ever.
Their accounts stand in sharp contrast to the "fun, fast-paced" atmosphere described in online help wanted ads for the Amazon warehouse. Amazon and ISS both said they take the safety of workers seriously, but declined to discuss specific concerns current and former employees voiced to The Morning Call. Both companies had three weeks to respond to multiple Morning Call inquiries for this story.
Of the workers voicing concerns, 13 were employed by ISS and seven directly by Amazon.
'I couldn't breathe'
Amazon has two warehouses at the end of Boulder Drive in Breinigsville, where work is done that few customers ever see. Workers on the receiving side unload trucks and unpack boxes of incoming inventory, which they store in bins throughout the warehouses. On the outbound side, pickers scurry through the aisles gathering products from storage bins and bringing them to packers, who box them and ship them to customers.
Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor's note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.
Not working fast enough, or failing to "make rate," is a common reason employees get disciplinary points, those interviewed said. Workers are expected to maintain a rate, measured in units per hour, which varies depending on the job and the size of inventory being handled. Products moving through the warehouse range broadly in size, from compact discs and iPods to chain saws. Workers use hand-held scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.
Goris, the Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature when it got too hot, he said. When Amazon workers asked in meetings why this wasn't done at the Amazon warehouse, managers said the company was worried about theft, Goris said.
"Imagine if it's 98 degrees outside and you're in a warehouse with every single dock door closed," Goris said.
Computers monitored the heat index in the building and Amazon employees received notification about the heat index by email. Goris said one day the heat index, a measure that considers humidity, exceeded 110 degrees on the third floor.
"I remember going up there to check the location of an item," Goris said. "I lasted two minutes, because I could not breathe up there."
Allentown resident Robert Rivas, 38, said he left his permanent Amazon warehouse job after about 13 months to take another job. He said he intensified his job search in May after the warehouse started getting very hot.
"We got emails about the heat, and the heat index got to really outrageous numbers," he said, recalling that the index during one of his shifts hit 114 degrees on the ground floor in the receiving area.
Rivas said he received Amazon email notifications at his work station when employees needed assistance due to heat-related symptoms. He estimated he received between 20 and 30 such emails within a two-hour period one day. Some people pushed themselves to work in the heat because they did not want to get disciplinary points, he said.
"When the heat index exceeded 110, they'd give you voluntary time off," Rivas said. "If you wanted to go home, they'd send you home. But if you didn't have a doctor's note saying you couldn't work in the heat, you'd get points."
Some workers interviewed said that policy has changed.
During a July heat wave, Rivas said he felt he was going to faint. He went to an air-conditioned room for about half an hour and got drinks from safety workers in the warehouse.
"Then they said if you feel better you should go back to work," Rivas said. "I was surprised that it happened to me because I heard the horror stories, but I never was a part of one. It was surprising to me. I thought they would treat their employees better."
Heat prompted complaints about working conditions at Amazon to federal regulators who monitor workplace safety. The Morning Call obtained documents regarding the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's inspection through the Freedom of Information Act.
On June 2, a warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers collapsed. The employee also complained that workers who had to go home due to heat symptoms received disciplinary points.
"The 102-degree heat index only applied to the first floor and not in regards to the second or third floor ... I just believe that it is gross negligence for a company of this capacity to abuse and enslave their workers," the complaint states.
On June 3, OSHA told Amazon warehouse managers that the agency received a complaint about heat. OSHA officials said they did not plan to inspect the warehouse at that time, but wanted Amazon to investigate the situation, make any modifications needed to increase worker safety and report back to OSHA about its findings no later than June 13.
OSHA later decided to inspect the warehouse, which it did June 9.
On June 10, an OSHA worker heard the following message on the agency's complaint hotline from an emergency room doctor at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest: "I'd like to report an unsafe environment with a[n] Amazon facility in Fogelsville ... Several patients have come in the last couple days with heat-related injuries."
On June 13, OSHA received a letter from Allen Forney, Amazon's site safety manager.
"On June 3, 2011, the Lehigh Valley area experienced unusual, extremely high temperatures which caused the heat index inside our building to reach a temperature above 95 degrees in a few areas of the building," Forney wrote. "As a result of these high temperatures, 15 out of 1,600 employees experienced heat-related symptoms. Six of these employees were treated at a local hospital ER for non-work related medical conditions triggered by the heat. None of those employees was admitted to the hospital; each employee was treated and released the same day. The other employees received water and ice treatment ... by our facility's first-aid department. All employees returned to work the same day."
Forney wrote the warehouse had measures in place to manage heat risk before OSHA's inspection. Those measures included heat index sensors installed throughout the building in March that notify warehouse managers when the index exceeds 90 degrees, he wrote. Fans are installed throughout the building and louver doors provide ventilation, he wrote.
Amazon bought 2,000 cooling bandannas, which were given to every employee, and those in the dock/trailer yard received cooling vests, Forney said. Managers walk the building to make sure employees get enough water and to watch for heat-related symptoms, he said.
Workers "typically" get breaks extended by five minutes when temperatures range between 90 and 99 degrees, Forney wrote. When the heat index ranges from 100 to 114 degrees, Amazon "typically" gives hourly breaks of at least five minutes and shifts heavier work to cooler times of the day, Forney said.
Amazon workers interviewed for this story said they typically had one 15-minute break before lunch and another 15-minute break after lunch each 10-hour shift.
Forney wrote in a letter to OSHA that if the index hits 115 degrees, "the senior manager on duty will decide whether to close down the entire shift."
Since the OSHA inspection, Amazon installed 13 additional fans in the warehouse, planned to install a cooling system and temporarily hired emergency medical personnel to work on-site, Forney wrote.
No employees were penalized for leaving work early due to heat-related symptoms, Forney wrote. Amazon has an automatic record-keeping system that gives employees demerits if they leave early, he wrote.
"We went in and manually changed each employee's time, so we did not have any employee receive demerit points for leaving the site for a heat-related illness," Forney wrote.
Amazon and ISS workers said that policy changed earlier this year about the same time OSHA began asking questions, though precisely when the policy changed is not clear. When heat is excessive, workers can now go home early without pay and it won't jeopardize their jobs. Previously, workers who left early due to heat-related symptoms faced demerits that could ultimately result in termination if they didn't provide doctor's notes saying they can't work in excessive heat, workers said.
OSHA said it had no jurisdiction over the complaint about workers getting disciplinary points for leaving on hot days.
On July 21, Forney called OSHA to report that the heat index in the warehouse ranged between 108 and 112 degrees. Amazon initiated voluntary time off, allowing employees to go home if they wished and ice cream was available.
On July 22, Forney told OSHA that Amazon again instituted voluntary time off and most workers left. They didn't have enough people to run the warehouse, so they may shut down until the temperature drops, Forney told OSHA.
On July 25, a security guard at the Amazon warehouse called OSHA and said the temperature exceeded 110 degrees. The guard reported seeing two pregnant women taken to nurses and that Amazon would not open garage doors to help air circulation.
"They do have ice pops going around and water everywhere," the guard reported to OSHA.
OSHA issued recommendations to Amazon Aug. 18 about how it could improve its heat-stress management plan and closed its inspection.
"Several conditions and practices were observed which have the potential to adversely impact on employee safety and health," OSHA's area director Jean Kulp said in a letter to Amazon.
The agency recommended that Amazon reduce temperatures and humidity in the warehouse, but did not give a target temperature. The agency also recommended that Amazon provide employees hourly breaks in a cool area, inform workers and supervisors of the actual heat index or temperature so that they can increase monitoring as it gets hotter, and provide personal fans at each work station.
OSHA does not mandate that work cease when temperatures exceed a specific degree. Instead, the agency gives employers guidelines about what they should do in specific ranges of the heat index.
There is a moderate risk of worker heat stress when the heat index ranges between 93 and 101 degrees, according to OSHA. At such times, employers should take precautionary measures that include reminding workers to drink water, giving frequent breaks in cool areas and ensuring that adequate medical services are available.
When the heat index ranges from 103 to 115 degrees, there is a high risk of worker heat stress, according to OSHA. The agency recommends employers adjust work activities to reduce the risk of heat stress. The recommendations include reducing the pace of work or, if that isn't possible, increasing the amount of break time.
Workers said Amazon has installed cooling units and fans since the inspection, but the equipment doesn't keep upper warehouse levels cool on hot summer days. One employee said it's now like "working in a convection oven while blow-drying your hair." They said they received extra break time when it was hot, but production rates were not reduced.
Ambulances responded to multiple medical assistance calls at the Amazon warehouse during hot days in May. So Amazon paid Cetronia Ambulance Corps to have ambulances and paramedics stationed at its two adjacent warehouses during five days of excessive heat in June and July.
Cetronia provides ambulance service in Upper Macungie Township, where a large number of warehouses are concentrated. Cetronia did not have ambulances stationed outside any other warehouses during summer heat waves, said Chris Peischl, the nonprofit's director of operations. However, he noted that Amazon has a large number of employees compared with other warehouses.
"The majority of people we saw were heat-related," Peischl said. "We saw 20 to 30 people who cooled down, we helped hydrate them and they went back to work."
Another 15 people were transported from the Amazon warehouse to hospitals for further treatment, according to Cetronia, but none was in critical condition.
The Morning Call forwarded concerns of workers to Amazon. The company didn't answer specific questions about the number of people working in the warehouse, the turnover rate or the working conditions. Instead, Amazon spokeswoman Michele Glisson emailed a statement, which she attributed to Vickie Mortimer, general manager at the Upper Macungie warehouse.
"The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously," Mortimer said. "We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment, with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer. I am grateful to work with such a fantastic group of employees from our community, and we partner with them every day to make sure our facility is a great place to work."
Warehouse workers said Amazon and ISS both emphasized safety measures and passed out fruit and water on hot summer days when the warehouse got warm.
Allentown resident Ron Heckman, 60, said he started working at the Amazon warehouse in June 2010. He was glad to get the job, he said, because he had been out of work for more than a year after the package-delivery company DHL closed its Lehigh Valley distribution center in early 2009.
When he saw an advertisement that Amazon was recruiting workers, he tailored his resume to emphasize that he was a motivated worker who understood the fast-pace demands of the shipping industry, and got a job.
"I like it," he said. "It's a job."
Heckman works mostly as a picker. But he's also worked packing boxes and trained new employees during peak season.
He works the overnight shift when the warehouse isn't as hot as during the day shift. He said he's seen co-workers get dizzy and leave during heat waves, but they would return to work the following day, he said.
Heckman said he never had any heat-related problems and he drank a lot of water, which managers advised.
"A lot of people say it's hot and you feel aggravated at times and you wish it wasn't as hot as it was, but it's the nature of the job," Heckman said. "Not many people felt it was unbearable."
Heckman said there is a lot of turnover at the warehouse, but Amazon has been hiring more permanent employees since the summer began. Previously, a majority of the warehouse workers were temporary employees and many grew frustrated waiting to learn whether they would get permanent positions, he said. Now the ratio is closer to half permanent employees and half temporary workers, he said.
"A lot of people got disappointed," Heckman said. "Earlier this year it was for good reason, because a lot of people left. But that definitely has changed. ... It's a good company. They're sincere in what they do."
'End slavery at Amazon'
Karen Salasky, 44, was out of work for two years after getting laid off from a secretary job with a home builder. The Bethlehem resident got a postcard from ISS saying it was hiring people to work at the Amazon warehouse, so she applied.
"At first, I loved it," she said. "I started in November. We worked 11-hour days because of Christmas. It was hard, but I pushed myself and I got used to it."
Salasky had worked as a waitress, so she didn't mind being on her feet all day. And she enjoyed the walking, which she considered good exercise. But she said she grew frustrated when she received a warning letter in March from a manager stating she had been unproductive during several minutes of her shift. Salasky said she was working as hard as she could, and she declined to sign the warning letter.
She wrote a letter to Amazon's human resources manager at the Breinigsville warehouse about the working conditions, saying sometimes minutes go unaccounted for in the system because workers use the restroom, their scanners stop working and they have to log back into the system, aisles get crowded requiring workers to take longer routes to retrieve inventory, or workers move at a slower pace if they are not feeling well. Salasky invited the human resources manager to contact her about the concerns. She said she never received a response.
When the weather got hot in May, Salasky said, her work pace dropped, which prompted questions from supervisors.
"I just kept pushing myself," she said. "They asked me why my rates were dropping, and I said my rates are dropping because it's hot and I have asthma."
Salasky said she would cry herself to sleep at night. She and her colleagues lamented about the heat, often chanting sarcastically "End slavery at Amazon."
Salasky said she informed ISS and Amazon that she was not interested in a permanent position, but wanted to complete her 1,200-hour temporary term.
One hot day in June, Salasky said, she wasn't feeling well. Her fingers tingled and her body felt numb. She went to the restroom. An ISS manager asked if she was OK, and she said no. She was taken by wheelchair to an air-conditioned room, where paramedics examined her while managers asked questions and took notes.
"I was really upset and I said, 'All you people care about is the rates, not the well-being of the people,' " she said. "I've never worked for an employer that had paramedics waiting outside for people to drop because of the extreme heat."
Supervisors told Salasky to go home and rest. She reported to an ISS office the next day to drop off medical paperwork, and she was asked to sign papers acknowledging she got irate and used a curse word on the day she suffered from the heat. She refused to sign the papers because she said she didn't curse. A few days later, she called ISS and found out her assignment had been terminated.
"I don't know how they can treat people this way," Salasky said. "I think the faster you work, the bigger raise they get, and they're just benefiting themselves and not caring about people. I used to shop Amazon all the time. I will never shop Amazon again."
'I hated this job'
Mark Zweifel, 22, of Coopersburg worked in the warehouse as a permanent Amazon employee for more than a year until he was fired Sept. 9, he said. His primary job was on the receiving line, unloading inventory from boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes so stowers could store them in bins.
He had previous shipping industry experience and liked the job for the first six months, but then he said the productivity rate abruptly doubled one day from 250 units per hour for smaller items to 500 units per hour.
"One day we came into work and they said, 'Your rate is now 500 units per hour. Get to it.' " Zweifel said. "No warning or nothing. I'm a young guy. I could keep up with it. But I saw the older people working there, they were getting written up a lot. I didn't think it was fair."
Employees were threatened with termination on a daily basis during meetings at the beginning of their shifts, Zweifel said. Amazon managers used tough talk to motivate workers, he said.
"They would say, 'If you don't make rate, we will walk you out of the building and give your job to somebody who wants a job,'" Zweifel said. "I saw a 65-year-old guy get fired for not making stow rate. I saw him get talked to and then a manager walked him out of the building."
Zweifel said he began his job at Amazon in a group of 16 people and he was among only two left at the start of the summer. When he was there, new temporary workers would come in for training each week, he said, and most of them wouldn't last more than a month or two.
Zweifel said he had trouble earlier this month when he was temporarily transferred to another job, stowing, which entails putting products in bins in the warehouse. He was written up for not stowing items quickly enough, he said. Making rate was difficult because bins were so cluttered he couldn't find space to place things, he said.
"They kept saying I was screwing around, but the bins were so packed I had to go from one end of the aisle to another," he said. "You could have a tiny item like an iPod, which is easy, or a huge bowl where you have to search for adequate space."
Zweifel said on two days he had a large number of big items and his rate dropped both days. His manager accused him of taking long breaks and being "off task," he said. He tried to pick up the pace the next day, he said, but he was written up again for being off task and was let go.
Zweifel said he worked half of his shift and his manager told him they had to go to human resources, where he waited for an hour to speak with someone.
"They said here's your termination letter and they wanted me to sign it, and I said absolutely not." Zweifel said. "The manager in stow never even talked to me. They just slapped me with a write-up. They never asked, 'Looks like you're taking excessive breaks, is something wrong?' Never once did she talk to me. I just got two write-ups and I was gone."
Zweifel said he felt he was treated unfairly because he never had an opportunity to explain his rate, but he said he was smiling when he left the warehouse.
"I hated this job so much," he said.
A business success story
Outside the warehouse, Amazon is a booming business success story. Founded in 1994, the company is the world's largest online retailer.
Amazon had 2010 revenues exceeding $34 billion, more than triple its sales just five years earlier. The company has become a household name as time-strapped consumers grow more comfortable shopping online and cash-strapped customers look for bargains. Along the way, Amazon vastly expanded its product line. What began as an online bookstore now sells consumer products of all kinds. You can buy CDs, DVDs, toys, lawn mowers, electronics, kitchen items, clothes and beauty products from Amazon.
The company has upended the retail industry, and Amazon's competitors are no longer just bookstores. It's now considered a key competitor to Walmart, which has seen its growth slow considerably while Amazon's sales have skyrocketed.
Amazon's founder and CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, keeps climbing the ranks of the world's wealthiest people. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be $18.1 billion this year, making him the 30th wealthiest person in the world. That wealth is tied to the value of Amazon stock, which has grown about eightfold to nearly $240 per share over the past five years.
A main difference between Amazon and such stores as Barnes & Noble or Walmart is that the entire operation is invisible to customers, other than what they see on their computer screens.
When Amazon last year announced plans to open a new shipping hub in the Lehigh Valley and hire hundreds of people, officials greeted the news as a sign the economy was on the mend and good news for thousands of residents left unemployed by the Great Recession.
It is one of the few companies regularly recruiting and hiring.
'Chart your course to Amazon'
As of December, Amazon had 33,700 employees globally. But that did not include temporary workers it hired through staffing firms. The number of temporary employees who do Amazon's work is not clear. The company issues press releases about employment opportunities but gives no specifics and hasn't responded to The Morning Call's inquiries.
When it announced its new Lehigh Valley shipping hub in May 2010, the company said it would be hiring "several hundred" workers. The company announced another hiring binge in July, but would not clarify if it was expanding its operation or replacing people.
Some interviewed for this story requested anonymity because, they said, Amazon employees are instructed that speaking with the media can result in termination. They say employment at the warehouse ranges from about 900 to 2,000 during peak season. And, they say, many in the workforce aren't employed by Amazon at all. Instead, Amazon leases the workers from ISS, which is based in Wilmington, Del.
But one worker said Amazon has begun hiring more people as permanent employees in recent months.
ISS also declined to answer specific questions from The Morning Call regarding employee concerns about working conditions and the rate of employee turnover at the Amazon warehouse. It also issued a statement:
"ISS respects the privacy of our employees and laws regarding employee privacy, therefore we cannot address the specific situations you have mentioned," company spokeswoman Megan Couch said in an email. "With all of our temporary assignments, we explain the requirements for the position, as well as the criteria for becoming a full-time Amazon employee. Our employees' safety is a top priority for us, and the focus on employee safety from Amazon leadership is impressive. We support our employees with a variety of programs to ensure their well-being, including light duty and leaves of absence."
ISS recruits temporary workers for positions at Amazon warehouses throughout the country. Recent job postings on the company's website include positions in Hazleton, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Reno, Nev.
Integrity Staffing Solutions Chief Executive Officer Todd Bavol writes a blog called "HR Ninja," which includes items about navigating employment laws and recognizing when employees are burning out.
ISS has supervisors stationed in the Amazon warehouse to manage temporary workers, so contact between temporary employees and Amazon managers is minimal.
In its recruiting efforts, ISS accents the prominent Amazon name to lure applicants. One of its online help-wanted ads says: "Chart your course to Amazon with ISS Warehouse positions in Allentown, PA."
The ad continues: "Looking for a new direction? Are you interested in working in a fun, fast-paced atmosphere earning up to $12.25 per hour? Let Integrity be your guide to a rewarding career with Amazon, the Internet superstore."
The ads say applicants should be able to lift and move up to 49 pounds. They also say warehouse temperatures range between 60 and 95 degrees and "occasionally exceed 95 degrees."
'It just got harder and harder'
The 13 ISS employees interviewed said at first, they were excited to get jobs. But their hopes turned to disappointment when they experienced what they considered harsh conditions and saw how few temporary employees were hired to permanent positions. Of the seven Amazon employees interviewed by The Morning Call, none started as temporary workers.
Several workers said the longer a person worked in the warehouse, the stricter the rules became, and the pace at which they were expected to work increased. Employees were written up for breaking safety rules, such as keeping two hands on a cart. Such infractions could impede their getting hired as permanent Amazon employees until they improved their work records.
Often, their temporary assignments ended before their work records were clear.
Kutztown resident Stephen Dallal said he worked at the warehouse for about six months as a picker before he lost his job for not meeting productivity requirements. He left a job as a meat cutter to get full-time hours with Amazon, hoping the temporary assignment would lead to a permanent position.
"It just got harder and harder," Dallal said. "It started with 75 pieces an hour. Then 100 pieces an hour. Then 125 pieces an hour. They just got faster and faster and faster."
Temporary workers were told by ISS their jobs could lead to permanent positions, which helped motivate them to meet production expectations, Dallal said.
"They make a lot of promises that they're going to keep everyone here," he said. "If you're here five months, you'll have a job here. Then it was half of the people would be hired. Then it was 'You'll all have interviews.' The story kept changing."
The longer he worked there, the less promising the job was, Dallal said. He started getting written up for not meeting production rates.
"I told the manager I was doing the best I can, but they kept writing me up," Dallal said. "After the third one, I got fired. It was getting hotter and hotter, so it was hard for me to keep up."
Dallal said he felt relieved when he lost the job.
"I didn't want to quit," he said. "I tried the best I could. But that job was really getting to me."
Sharon Faust said she took a temporary job with ISS, hoping it would lead to a permanent position with Amazon.
Then in June, the 57-year-old Breinigsville resident was diagnosed with breast cancer. She notified ISS that she needed surgery. They told her she would need a note from her doctor saying when she could return.
Faust had surgery July 20 and reported to the Amazon warehouse with a doctor's note saying she could return to work Aug. 17. When she arrived to deliver the note within a week of her surgery, she found out the doctor's note wasn't necessary.
"They said my assignment with them is terminated. I was just flabbergasted," Faust said. "I devoted nearly a year of my life trying to get a job and that whole time was a waste. They kept me on and kept me on until I handed in that medical paper, and they said, 'See ya.' "
One temporary warehouse worker who started last year said a major selling point was that the assignment could lead to a permanent job with Amazon. Workers had meetings with their ISS managers at the start of each shift. During those meetings, Amazon managers would come and deliver a pep talk, encouraging the temporary workers who wore white badges to work hard if they wanted to get permanent positions and wear a blue badge, she said.
"They said, 'We don't care if you've been here for two months or for two weeks. If you work hard, we'll notice and you'll get converted to a blue badge,' " she said.
The number of permanent positions available was always vague, and it was difficult to get a straight answer about hiring, she said. Managers would say Amazon would be hiring "a significant number" of ISS employees to permanent positions.
"They said it on a semi-daily basis," she said. "They really dangled it and made it seem like this wonderful possibility if we just worked harder ... especially when there were a bunch of new hires hungry for a new job."
She worked in the warehouse for six months and didn't see any of her temporary colleagues converted.
ISS promoted her to ambassador, a position that trains new workers. Still, she was terminated shortly after the holiday rush ended for missing work during snowstorms, she said.
"It became clear that they did not want to hire people. They wanted to let people go," she said. "They said they wanted the best people for ambassadors. I was an ambassador and I was not hired."
'Set up to fail'
One former temporary warehouse employee said he worked seven months before he was terminated for not working fast enough. In his 50s, he worked 10 hours a day, four days a week as a picker, plucking items from bins and delivering them to packers who put them in boxes for shipment. He would walk 13 to 15 miles daily, he estimated, and was among the oldest pickers.
"At the beginning, I thought I was doing really well," he said. "I never missed a day, was never sick, never came in late. I was the model employee. But after a while, I could only achieve a certain rate and I couldn't go any faster. It was just brutal."
He said he was expected to pick 1,200 items in a 10-hour shift, or one item every 30 seconds.
The warehouse is organized like a library. Bins labeled "A" were on the floor. Dim lighting in the warehouse in which he worked made it difficult for him to find items stored in the low bins, especially novels with script titles or CDs with small writing, he said. Often, he got on his hands and knees to find things in the low bin, and would crawl to other bins rather than continuously stoop and stand, he said.
"The worst part was getting on my hands and knees 250 to 300 times a day," he said.
He got mixed messages from ISS managers, he said. He received gift cards and won a laptop as rewards for being a good worker. But he also got written up for not working fast enough. He started the temporary position with about 100 others. When he was terminated seven months later, he was one of five remaining. Three of the temporary workers with whom he started got converted to permanent Amazon positions, he said.
"I don't want to say anything bad, but they almost set you up to fail," he said. "They always stressed safety and drinking water, but I always thought the rate is not safe."
The man said he was relieved when his assignment was terminated. When he arrived to pick up his final paycheck this summer, he saw ambulances stationed outside the warehouse. He now works in a beverage distribution job, where he said the work pace is more reasonable.
The use of temporary workers to minimize the costs and liabilities associated with a permanent workforce is not unique to Amazon. And the warehouse and shipping industry is known for its fast-pace expectations and physical demands.
But one staffing industry recruiter whose company serves the Lehigh Valley shipping industry said he has interviewed roughly 40 job applicants who complained of difficult working conditions at the Amazon warehouse. Ordinarily, if someone only lasted a few months in a warehouse job, it would raise questions about their abilities, he said. But he has placed former Amazon warehouse workers in other warehouse jobs and they were able to meet expectations, he said.
"A lot of places spend time and money to make something ergonomically designed so that the average person can do the work. They don't have to be a professional athlete to do the work," he said.
'They just push'
One temporary worker said her vision got blurry, she had trouble standing and couldn't concentrate one shift when heat in some parts of the warehouse exceeded 110 degrees. She went to a nurse station in the warehouse because she was feeling dizzy.
Within minutes of her arrival at the nurse station, an ISS manager asked her to sign a paper saying her symptoms were not related to work, she said.
The employee takes medication for hypertension and signing the papers, she said, would allow her to return to work after cooling off.
People with hypertension can be more sensitive to heat.
"I think it was work-related, but I just signed the paper," said the employee, who still works in the warehouse. "I knew if I left through the nurse's station I'd get half a point. If you get six points within three months you get fired. ... I didn't want to start getting points."
She didn't read the paper she signed or get a copy of it.
"I need the money," she said. "I am looking for another job and as soon as I find one, I'm leaving. But I have to stay here until I do."
Workers injured on the job are legally entitled to medical costs and lost wages while they recover. But labor experts say temporary employees are less likely to know and assert their rights under workers' compensation laws.
Workplace injury lawsuits are difficult to justify with most temporary jobs unless injuries are extreme, because the pay is low, said Allentown labor attorney Steven Bergstein.
"The problem is at these low-level jobs, the lawsuits aren't worth it because there isn't much loss," Bergstein said.
One temporary employee who spent several months unloading boxes of books in the Amazon warehouse said: "Everybody gets backaches, but if you slow down, they reprimand you. They're killing people mentally and physically. They just push, push, push."
During one shift he hurt himself. After seeing a doctor, the worker went on "light duty." The staffing firm didn't have any such assignments available. So every scheduled work day he reported to the ISS office on Tilghman Street.
"You're not allowed to walk around," he said. "They put a chair in the corner and you sit there."
His job was to count the number of people coming into the office. Another person he observed on light duty had to count how many trains passed by outside the office window.
Another had to count how many people went to the restroom.
"A lot of people said [forget] this, I'm going back to work," the employee said.
The employee returned to the warehouse about two weeks later. About two weeks after returning, he got a call at home from ISS saying his work assignment was over.
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