In the Spring of 2016, I began work as a full-time employee with benefits at a brand new Amazon.com warehouse. At Amazon, I was assigned to the Inventory Count Quality Assurance Department (ICQA), standing by myself at a workstation while robots brought pods—which were six and a half feet tall, filled with numerous small, rectangular bins, each containing a variety of Amazon products. Directed by a computer, I took items from a particular bin, counted them, entered the count into a handheld device and put the items back. Then I repeated the process for an entire day, an endless stream of robots carrying pods travelling past my workstation. It was repetitive and could get dreadfully mind-numbing and physically exhausting. Nonetheless my accuracy in counting the correct numbers in each bin allowed me to obtain metrics substantially above the minimum threshold set by management. Moreover, working by myself at a workstation—with an occasional visit by a manager—was something that suited my loner personality just fine. After a few months, I made the decision to quit the Amazon gig and return full time to a former employer—in hindsight probably not the wisest decision.
In July 2017, I was ready for a change of scenery: I left that employer and returned to the same Amazon warehouse, again as a full-time employee with benefits. I thought—incorrectly it turned out—that I’d obtain the same level of comfort and success as I did during my 2016 tenure. I was assigned to the most difficult department in the warehouse: order picking. In this warehouse, as with ICQA labor, the order picker stands at a workstation while robots stream by with pods containing many small rectangular bins filled with the wonderous array of items sold by Amazon. A computer directs the picker to pick an item in a particular bin on the pod, the picker puts the item in an adjacent tote, and–after appropriate scanning is performed on barcodes on the item and near the tote–the picker punches something on the hand held and the computer moves onto the next pick. Once the tote is filled with an appropriate amount of picked items, the picker sends it down one of roughly five gateways to a conveyor belt system spanning the entire warehouse.
At the outset, we new pickers were informed that we were expected to reach a pick rate of 1 pick per 8.2 seconds over the course of a six-week learning curve. Failure to reach milestones towards the rate over the six weeks would result in a first written warning, a second written warning, a final warning and then termination.
The work was even more physically grueling than during my 2016 tenure. My muscles were dreadfully sore at the end of each day and it was not uncommon for me to find myself dragging during the labor; sometimes I grew slightly delirious, uttering a great deal of profanity under my breath. For a substantial period, my pick rate hovered in the 14.5 to 17 second range. I quickly received my first and second written warnings and in consequence received frequent visits from my manager as well as co-workers who had the job of peer mentor as a result of their own superior order picking skill. These persons would watch me pick, offer tips for improvement and sometimes pick themselves for five minutes at my workstation to demonstrate superior technique while I watched.
Gradually my rate improved to twelve, eleven and ten seconds per pick. Toward the end of my tenure, I even spent parts of days working in the 9.5 to 9.1 second range. Sometimes the computer ordered one to pick multiple of the same item in a bin. Getting a multiple pick order did wonders for one’s rate. I remember late one morning when my computer kept popping up with an endless stream of orders of six, seven, eight or nine for a highly unusual item: a penis ring! That day was one of the instances where my rate skyrocketed up to 1 pick per 9.1 seconds.
However much my rate improved, the work remained dreadfully hard. Gradually, with repetition, one obtained familiarity with the outward packaging of particular items and thus could grab them on sight without having to waste time rummaging through all the items in a bin while trying to read their labels. However, it was often tough to maneuver boxes containing heavy items in and out of bins and into totes. Sometimes it was difficult to find the appropriate barcode on the item to scan. Covering each of the bins were two thin straps to keep the items from falling out. Reaching between, above or below the straps and frequently physically exhausted, I did not always possess the level of strength and manual dexterity required to retrieve the items within the bins in a speedy manner. I frequently found it difficult as I attempted to quickly rummage through the over-stuffed bins to not accidently cause one or more items to fall out of the bins onto the “robot floor” in front of my workstation. It was forbidden for us to attempt to pick up anything from the robot floor because of safety concerns—doing so could result in termination. In such situations, we were required to push an alert on our computer screen which summoned a co-worker wearing an orange vest from a department called “Amnesty” These co-workers would then pick up the fallen items on the robot floor. Late in one work shift, a department manager arrived at my workstation as I was picking to inform me that I was “in the top ten” among the warehouse’s associates in terms of the number of items I caused to be dropped onto the robot floor. This manager proceeded to watch me pick for several minutes to see how I removed items from the bins and the best advice he came up with was that I should reach between the straps to pick items within the bins instead of reaching above or below them. The advice was not particularly helpful—attempting to quickly rummage through so many items stuffed into a small bin made it particularly easy—at least in my case—for items to fall out.
We were worked very strenuously. Along with a half hour lunch, we were granted two fifteen minute breaks—but the time for those events always began when we clocked out of our workstation meaning that the frequently lengthy walks to and from the breakroom were included in the break times and lunch times. We were supposed to remain signed into our workstations even if we needed to leave them to use the restroom or had to stop working because a manager stopped by to chat. That meant that the time you spent walking to the bathroom, doing your business and then returning to the workstation counted against you—your pick rate decreased all time you were away. Similarly your rate plunged when a manager stopped by to offer a critique of your work—or in one case, on my last day in the position, a manager from another department stopped by to chat about issues among order pickers with which his department might be able to help. While he discoursed for fifteen minutes about his vision for inter-departmental cooperation within the warehouse, my rate plunged and it could not be improved for the rest of the day.
I didn’t finish a full shift that day—about an hour after lunch, my manager—I’ll call him Jackson—arrived at my workstation and said to me: “sign out and lets take a walk to HR.” Having earned a final warning, for several weeks I’d been expecting to be terminated but nonetheless was a little shocked—I’d recently won a prize for showing significant improvement in my pick rate during the last quarter of my shift compared to the last quarter of my shift the same day a week earlier. Seeing me sigh with disappointment, he gave me a stern look and motioned me to follow. I knew what our trip to HR would be about—I would be fired—but not once in our walk to the HR office did he refer to my impending termination. Instead, he tried to sound cheerful and made small talk about what plans I had for the weekend and discoursed about his own plans.
Once we sat at a desk in front of an HR official—who looked very tensely at me as if she expected me to utter abrasive remarks or perhaps do something violent—he announced that I’d been fired for failure to reach the pick rate of 1 per 8.2 seconds. He started to say that I’d be allowed to work again at the warehouse as a temp in a few months but the HR lady interrupted to say that I’d be allowed back as a temp in a year. I was asked if I had any remarks to make and I replied no. Jackson escorted me to a time clock so I could clock out, then through the security gates by the front door. He wished me well and turned around back into the building with the satisfied and relieved look of someone who’d just successfully completed an unpleasant task.
I’m not a fan of Amazon.com. Its CEO is the richest man in the world while many of its temp workers are eligible for food stamps and other welfare services. It’s in a prime position to exploit the large number of low wage, under-employed workforce in this country, which is probably why it was so easy to fire me. It’s a leader in tax avoidance and threatens withdrawal of its jobs to municipalities which try to make it pay its fair share—for example in Seattle where it successfully terrorized the city council to overturn a recently passed “head tax” to fund homeless services.
In some instances its power to bully local governments may be less potent than it seems: after all the company did announce plans in late 2019 to establish office space for 1500 workers in Queens—albeit with a fraction of the jobs it previously planned–even after state and local government officials had successfully quashed the massive tax giveaway to the company offered by New York City mayor Bill De Blasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. If the company decided to move operations out of Seattle in protest of tax increases, the costs of moving might be prohibitive—after all one reason for the company being in Seattle is that the city and its surrounding municipalities house the knowledge workers upon whom the company crucially depends. The costs would be prohibitive to try to pay for those workers to be moved and rehoused in some other region.
After my involuntary termination at Amazon, I subsequently obtained warehouse jobs that I found to be much worse. I came to miss Amazon: my job had been straightforward, if incredibly difficult; communication with management was relatively easy and plenty of opportunities existed to receive training at aspects of order picking with which I had trouble. Compared to the many chaotic workplaces at which I’ve worked, the efficiency of the Amazon warehouse was admirable. Clearly defined structure in terms of policies and procedures is always something that I cherish in a workplace.