Amazon warehouse workers move to unionize amid allegations of being overworked and underpaid

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In a culture where customer is king, Amazon’s workers aren’t feeling the same kind of love

On Wednesday, Amazon brass went before New York’s City Council with a polished backstory of its recently announced move to establish a second headquarters in New York.

“Many people are surprised to learn that we already have thousands of employees in New York City across our retail, operations, and web services teams,” said Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, in his opening remarks, referring to the 2,500+ who work at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Huseman said those workers’ wages range from $17.50 to $23 per hour and and include “world-class benefits.”

Unfortunately for Amazon, its workers don’t share those same rosy views. Pointing to 12-hour shifts, low pay, and the company’s high bar on performance quotas, New York workers announced plans to unionize. As leverage, the disgruntled employees are using the $3 billion in tax breaks that Amazon will get from New York city and state governments

“Ever since they opened, management has forced everyone at the warehouse to work 12-hour shifts for five or six days a week,” said warehouse employee Rashad Long in a press conference employees held prior to Amazon’s meeting with the council.

Promise vs. performance

For some, Amazon might be a great place to work. The company’s recent #1 ranking as the best place in the U.S. to work in LinkedIn’s annual survey verifies as much.

“We're a company of pioneers. It's our job to make bold bets, and we get our energy from inventing on behalf of customers,” is what the company touts on its career site. “Success is measured against the possible, not the probable. For today’s pioneers, that’s exactly why there’s no place on Earth they’d rather build than Amazon.”

However, the people in the trenches -- the ones fulfilling the orders that makes Amazon go -- feel like the company doesn’t always deliver on its promises.

As an example, Long complained that Amazon promised warehouse workers transportation assistance, but the company has yet to fulfill that promise.

Getting to Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse is no cakewalk. The warehouse is a 40 minute bus ride from the Staten Island ferry terminal, which complicates matters for workers who live in other boroughs or don’t have a car. In Long’s situation, he said his commute takes two hours each way.

Long hours and safety concerns

Huseman’s reported top rate of $23 an hour adds up to $920 in a 40-hour week for Amazon’s warehouse workers. While a warehouse worker might not be able to demand the same as a Madison Avenue executive, it’s nonetheless a far cry from the average weekly pay of $3,087 that New York City workers make according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The council went right at Huseman about the “overworked” claims. When Huseman was asked if he could commit that Amazon workers in New York City would not be required to work for more than eight hours each day, Huseman took issue and said, “Right now, I’m not in a position to negotiate that.”

“Health and safety at the facility is also a huge issue,” Long added to his list of gripes. He cited safety concerns such as malfunctioning sprinklers and ineffective temperature control.

“Product bins are overstuffed and our breaks are few and far between,” he said. “The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my whole shift, even when it’s freezing cold outside. We have asked the company to provide air conditioning for us, but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in cold weather, so there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Amazon says, “Let’s talk.”

Situations like this aren’t new to Amazon. ConsumerAffairs reported on workplace dust-ups in both China and Europe earlier this year.

In the case of the New York workers’ beef, Amazon says it would like a chance to work out a win-win directly with its employees.

“Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution,” Amazon’s Rachael Lighty said in a statement to Vox. “We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”

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