Amazon workers: factory conditions are dangerous

Faith Merino · September 23, 2011 · Short URL:

Does California want more Amazon jobs when workers say they're working in dangerous conditions?

Reading the latest reports about working conditions in an Amazon warehouse is like something out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  Workers in an Allentown, Pennsylvania facility are complaining about dangerous working conditions that include fast-paced work in 110 degree temperatures, mandatory overtime, and the constant threat of termination if they don’t speed up.

The reports don’t help Amazon’s case as it attempts to haggle with states over online sales tax by promising more factories and lots more jobs.  California has spent the last several months playing chicken with Amazon, daring it to pack its bags and leave the state and thus sever ties with the thousands of affiliates it does business with.  But after reading these reports, states like California should be second-guessing whether the jobs Amazon offers are worth hanging on to.

Amazon was not immediately available for comment.

This month, Amazon reached the market cap of dreams: $100 billion, which CEO Jeff Bezos credits to the success of the Kindle.  The company has been a glittering success story as its second quarter sales climbed a whopping 51% to $9.91 billion, compared to $6.57 billion in the second quarter of 2010.  And while many other major companies are laying off employees by the hundreds due to the uncertain economic outlook, Amazon is continually hiring.  The company currently employs 33,700 employees.

With a net worth of $18.1 billion, Jeff Bezos was named the 30th wealthiest person in the world by Forbes Magazine.

But all that success looks like it comes at a high cost.

In an Amazon facility in Allentown, PA, workers have complained about extreme working conditions, including soaring temperatures that routinely cause employees to faint.  The workers told reporters that the facility has paramedics stationed outside around-the-clock to whisk away any employees who lose consciousness from dehydration or overheating.

One worker, 44-year-old Karen Salasky, said she took a job at the Allentown factory after she was laid off from her job as a secretary.  Things looked fine at first, she said, and then a few months after starting, she received a warning letter from a manager claiming that she had been “unproductive” for several minutes of her shift. 

As the weather warmed up in the summer, Salasky’s work pace dropped, as the factory was hot with no air conditioning.  She said she was pushed to work faster, but she complained that she had asthma and was going as fast as she could.  Finally, in June, Salasky said the heat was so intense that her fingers began to tingle and her body went numb. 

She was quickly wheeled to an air conditioned room, and then was told to go home and rest.  But a few days later, she was asked to sign paperwork stating she had become hostile and cursed.  She refused to sign the papers, arguing that she hadn’t cursed, but not long after, she found out her position had been terminated.

The problem, several workers told reporters, is that employees are hired as temps and promised to be employed permanently if they can meet certain quotas.  But that promise is wielded over them as a threat if they don’t work harder and faster, and once they injure themselves or are terminated for not meeting their quota, there are plenty more new temporary employees ready to take their place.

The reports cast a new slant on the California-Amazon battle over online sales tax.  Recently, Amazon promised to bring 7000 jobs to California and open six new distribution centers if the state agreed to drop the “Amazon tax” bill, which would force Amazon and other online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made in California.

California lawmakers weren’t sold, but they managed to meet in the middle, giving Amazon one year to wait for a federal online tax bill to pass before they will start forcing the company to collect sales taxes or get out of California.

Other states have already reached agreements with Amazon to let them operate in the state if they promise to employ a certain number of people and invest money back into the state.

But the new reports make Amazon’s position questionable.  Are those types of jobs the kind that states need?  Do states want more low-skilled, low-pay workers while high-skilled workers like teachers, police officers, and other professionals are being laid off? 


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