Justine Frantz has spent $1,483.31 over the past several years buying gifts for her grandchildren from online retailer Amazon.com. But the Lower Macungie resident said she won't give the Seattle company another penny after reading about working conditions in its Lehigh Valley warehouses.
"Your company is taking advantage of our weak economy," Frantz said in an email last week to Amazon that she shared with The Morning Call. "You have people who want to work, who want to do a great job and earn their day's pay and you are treating them like they are interchangeable parts of a machine, easily replaced."
The online retailer has been responding to such complaints from customers throughout the country since The Morning Call published an article last Sunday about working conditions in Amazon's two warehouses in Breinigsville. Workers interviewed for that story said the facility got brutally hot in the summer and that many were terminated for failing to meet rapid production expectations. Ambulances parked outside transported some workers to hospitals during heat waves.
Amazon would not say how many customers contacted the company to express concerns since the article was published. But the company emailed a response to customers who raised the issue.
"At Amazon, the safety and well-being of our employees is our No. 1 priority," Amazon told customers in the email. "We have several procedures in place to ensure the safety of our associates during the summer heat, including increased breaks, shortened shifts, constant reminders and help about hydration, and extra ice machines.
"July 2011 was a highly unusual month and set records for the hottest temperatures during any single calendar month in cities across the East Coast. As a result of the abnormally high temperatures, we took many additional precautions to ensure the safety of our associates, including closing our Breinigsville facility three times during the summer heat wave ... We are looking at additional measures we can take in the future, including permanent cooling solutions for our Breinigsville facility."
Thousands of comments were posted in online debates after the story was highlighted by national media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Yahoo and Huffington Post. Several Amazon customers from around the country forwarded to The Morning Call email exchanges they had with the company. In addition, national labor groups such as the Teamsters and American Rights at Work have orchestrated letter-writing campaigns, encouraging members to let Amazon know they are concerned about worker treatment.
Industry analysts say the world's largest online retailer will have no trouble deflecting the attention.
Amazon responded to the media coverage on Thursday by posting a statement on its website. The statement provided some new information.
The company "spent more than $2.4 million urgently installing industrial air conditioning units in four of our fulfillment centers, including our Breinigsville facility," Amazon said Thursday. "These industrial air conditioning units were online and operational by late July and early August. This was not mandated by any governmental agency, and in fact air conditioning remains an unusual practice in warehouses. We'll continue to operate these air conditioning units or equivalent ones in future summers."
The company hadn't said before how much was spent on air conditioning, that the units were installed "urgently," and when the air conditioning became operational. The Morning Call's Sept. 18 story said Amazon installed cooling systems in the summer and workers interviewed said the warehouses remained hot unless they were in close proximity to those systems.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected Amazon's Breinigsville facility over the summer after an employee complained that 15 workers collapsed on the job when the warehouse heat index, a measure that considers humidity, exceeded 100 degrees. The agency did not issue any fines, but recommended that Amazon reduce heat and humidity and take other measures to address heat.
Amazon also responded Thursday to customer criticism about the company's use of temporary employees. Workers interviewed by The Morning Call said many in the warehouses are hired by the Wilmington, Del., firm Integrity Staffing Solutions, or ISS. Some of those temporary workers told The Morning Call they were encouraged to work hard to earn permanent positions, but they saw few temporary workers go on to permanent positions with Amazon.
In its statement, Amazon said:
"We have temporary employees working in our facilities for two reasons -- to manage variation in customer demand throughout the year and as a way of finding high-quality full-time employees," Amazon said. "There are 1,381 full-time employees in Breinigsville, all of whom receive full-time benefits, including health care. Since January of this year, 850 temporary employees in Breinigsville have been converted to full-time employment."
Amazon spokeswoman Michele Glisson said Saturday that all 1,381 are permanent company employees. Glisson would not say how many temporary workers are employed in Breinigsville. Amazon also declined to provide employee turnover rates at the facility.
One former Amazon warehouse worker who read the company's statement said he was disappointed because it did not address major concerns among workers, namely, the rapid production rates they are expected to achieve to avoid being terminated, and the frequent turnover.
"Amazon didn't address the concerns with the speed of processing," said Steve Pratt, 53, of East Stroudsburg, who worked in the warehouse as a temporary employee for one month before being terminated, he said, for not working fast enough. "They defended their hiring of temps, and claimed that more than 800 were converted to full time, but they still didn't address the speed of processing. ... They still have a huge turnover rate."
Current Amazon warehouse workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no changes have taken place in the facility since The Morning Call article ran.
On Sept. 19, the day after the story was published, Amazon posted a help wanted ad on its website for an on-site medical representative at its Breinigsville location. The job duties include "proactively analyze tasks for potential safety issues ... and implement a site wellness program."
Amazon would not say if this is a new position or if the company is filling a vacancy.
Working conditions in the warehouses could ding Amazon's image, said Internet retail experts, but probably won't hurt the company's bottom line.
Amazon's strength is customer service, said Donna Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California, Riverside.
It has responded effectively to the story, she said, by voicing concerns for worker safety and communicating directly with concerned customers via email. The company has weathered previous crises involving "juiced" product reviews and a prolonged service outage by tackling them head-on and addressing customers directly, she said.
Some consumers might look for alternatives in the short term, she added, but research has shown most will return in time.
"They have a really good relationship with their customers," she said. "People like Amazon."
Amazon's rapid growth has subjected it to scrutiny and higher standards, said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst who follows the company for Forrester Research, a business and technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass. If Amazon's working conditions are viewed as less than "exemplary," customers will perceive them negatively, she said.
It's similar to Walmart's constant public relations battle, she said.
"If there are conditions that are violations of OSHA or even borderline questionable, Amazon absolutely will need to fix them, particularly since [The Morning Call] story showed that people have significant interest in reading about things like this," she said.
Richard Fague of Enfield, Conn., told The Morning Call he's spent several thousand dollars with Amazon over the past six or seven years. He emailed Amazon to express his displeasure about worker treatment, particularly the heavy reliance on temporary workers, and received a "canned response" that he said did not address his concerns. He emailed the company again.
"Lo and behold, I got another email just like the first one, except this one was signed using a different name," Fague said. "I am now officially boycotting Amazon, who I used exclusively last year for all of my Christmas shopping."
Trishia Jacobs of Mosier, Ore., said she wrote Amazon a letter saying she and her husband won't be patronizing the company anymore.
"I spend my money to reflect my values," she said.
The Morning Call article was a conversation topic last week at the Midwest Booksellers Association trade show in Minneapolis, said Bruce J. Miller of Chicago, who represents publishers. He mentioned the story to a group of about 50 book sellers, some of whom have to compete with Amazon's low prices, abundant inventory and quick delivery.
"The conversation has been that people are horrified by Amazon's treatment of its workers and they want people to understand that when they order books online they are supporting this kind of company when they could be supporting local independent bookstores," Miller said.
Amazon and ISS have declined to answer specific questions from The Morning Call regarding the Breinigsville facility.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun