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HomeFall 2018From Retail to Robots: The Amazon Invasion

From Retail to Robots: The Amazon Invasion

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Amazon warehouse jobs are labor-intensive, with workers reporting minimal breaks and long periods on their feet. “Don’t work here,” one New Jersey warehouse worker warned a new colleague. “It’s basically paid slavery.”

A quick click of the mouse and two days later the Amazon package you’ve been waiting for is sitting at your doorstep. That was easy, right? Well, it depends on who you ask.

In recent years, Amazon has successfully monopolized not only the retail industry, but our daily lives. And while the company’s expansion may create more jobs, it takes away just as many from other retailers. From the accounts of Amazon warehouse workers across the country, it has also become clear that Amazon jobs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, as many feel the company puts profitability before the needs of its workers.

According to a 2016 Institute for Local Self-Reliance Report, “Half of all online shopping searches start directly on Amazon, and Amazon captures nearly one in every two dollars that Americans spend online.”

Amazon clearly dominates retail, both by maintaining the convenience and cheap prices it is known for, and by squeezing out other competitors. The company has eliminated about 149,000 more jobs in the retail sector, according to the report, than it has created in its warehouses, and “the pace of layoffs is accelerating as Amazon grows.”

Amazon’s hold over the online retail market entices retailers to become third-party sellers on the website, to stay viable. When this happens, Amazon gains control over its competitors, and is in effect “supplanting an open market with a privately controlled one.”

As for the retailers who choose to stay independent, they are constantly competing with Amazon for revenue, or even to survive, and many have lost that battle. Macy’s, for example, took a major hit in recent years, and 10,000 workers have lost their jobs as a result. Thousands more jobs disappeared at Sears – which in October filed for bankruptcy —  and at the Sears-owned Kmart, which was forced to close 150 of its stores. The parent company said it would shutter another 142 Sears and Kmart stores before the end of 2018.

Amazon’s reach is extensive, and some might say disturbing. Its warehouses currently employ roughly 90,000 warehouse workers, and those are just the full-time employees.

Each year, the company fills some 100,000 seasonal or temporary positions to meet the higher holiday demand for products.

But are the Amazon jobs that threaten millions of retail positions equally beneficial to workers? Amazon employees don’t seem to think so.

Former Amazon associate Phillip Pellegrino was injured lifting a heavy package at Amazon’s Cranbury, N.J., facility, and tore a tendon in his left arm. His worker’s compensation complaint was denied by Sedgwick, Amazon’s insurance carrier, without a medical examination to determine the extent of the injury, or even “a detailed explanation as to why the claim was denied.” Sedgewick makes it nearly impossible for employees like Pellegrino to get worker’s compensation for injuries, which are quite common.

On its corporate website, Amazon boasts the many benefits employees receive for working for them. Their healthcare options, for example, allow workers to enjoy “the flexibility to select the right health care coverage for you,” whatever that means.

Amazon also promises financial security and a network of support, to which the description reads, “Amazon cares about your health and well-being on and off the job.” But according to Pellegrino and others, that is not the case.

Aja Bradley, a former warehouse worker, recalls her first day on the job at Amazon’s Avenel sortation center when a fellow employee warned her: “Don’t work here; it’s basically paid slavery.”

Amazon jobs provide better than poverty-level wages, at roughly $13 an hour, but those wages come at a cost. The work is labor intensive with minimal breaks and long periods of standing. In fact, Amazon’s Robbinsville warehouse received an OSHA citation for, among other things, forcing workers to stand during entire shifts. The citation also includes a long list of warehouse injuries that were never reported, such as one case where “an employee was pushing a cart and felt a pop in his knee which later gave out.”

Robots now work alongside humans in Amazon warehouses.

Another former warehouse employee, who chose to remain anonymous, remarked that Amazon without a doubt values productivity over worker safety.

Akash Chauhan, Amazon’s vice president of North America Fulfillment Operations, raved about adding 2,000 new full-time positions in New Jersey with the opening of Amazon’s Carteret and Florence facilities in 2016. However, the kind of jobs Amazon is creating do not seem up to par with those it is taking away.

Some of the promises Amazon offers may be real, but workers say that the nature of the work obviates many of those benefits.

This is problematic, as many of those thousands of jobs Amazon offers often go to people who have no other source of income. It seems that Amazon, known for its rapid expansion in low-income areas, takes advantage of individuals who need their jobs to get by. When the choice is Amazon or nothing for communities living in poverty, Amazon may be the better choice, but that doesn’t make it a good one.

Ironically, Amazon will soon be accepting grocery orders purchased through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, while many of their own employees rely on the program to feed their families. Recent data suggest that a third of Amazon employees in Arizona, and about one in ten in Pennsylvania and Ohio, “depend on SNAP to put food on the table.” While some Amazon employees struggle to make ends meet, the retail giant will profit more than any other retail company when the $70 billion program moves online.

The co-director of the Institute of Local Self-Reliance, Stacy Mitchell, sums up the pattern by saying, “There’s this way in which Amazon’s warehouses are perceived to be a good thing for a community, but that’s only because the context in which they are being proposed and built is so devoid of better opportunities.”

And despite Amazon promoting itself as a team environment, the jobs are also competitive. Employees competing “against an average time are in essence competing against each other.”

Many Amazon employees will tell you that while the work is hard, the worst part is the constant pressure. By the end of the day, employees can hear the words “work faster, work faster” ringing in their ears.

Some warehouse workers are also in constant fear of being “written up” and losing the jobs they so desperately need.

Amazon seems more concerned with taking over the retail market in every major city in America than with its employees’ well-being. Amazon’s expansion, into New Jersey has occurred at breakneck speed. Since setting up shop in 2012, the company now provides more than 13,000 full-time jobs in the state.

Three recent warehouse additions to New Jersey in Cranbury, Logan Township, and Edison were installed in 2017. Amazon facilities typically employ about 1,000 workers each, but that figure doesn’t include the legions of temporary workers constantly brought in and out of warehouses.

The temp workers at Amazon account for roughly 40% of the total employees, and up to 75% during the holidays. Incorporating temp workers into the warehouse machine has allowed Amazon to absolve themselves of responsibility and liability through temporary staffing agencies like Integrity Staffing Solutions.

Amazon temp positions pay about fifty cents to a dollar less per hour than their full-time counterparts. And unlike direct hires, temp workers do not receive any of Amazon’s benefits. A survey of 319 warehouse workers found that 96% would prefer a direct hire position, versus being hired through a staffing agency.

Among the many benefits Amazon reaps from its temp workers is keeping its full-time employees in line. Eric Hatton, an expert on the temp industry, explains that by using temporary workers, “the very clear and explicit message to employees is that you’re replaceable.” Message received, at least for former employee Amanda Winckelman, who noted “productivity is number one, everyone is expendable.”

Spearheaded by company CEO Jeff Bezos, the economic reach of Amazon is seemingly endless, as it rapidly continues expansions into the retail sector, which accounts for roughly one in eight jobs in the United States, and many others.

The company has recently announced a collaboration with JPMorgan Chase and Co. and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. to “form a company to cut health costs for hundreds of thousands of their employees.” This healthcare entity would benefit their more than 500,000 employees, the companies say.

Investors fear Amazon will disrupt the healthcare industry much as it did the retail sector. U.S. healthcare spending accounts for a whopping 18% of the economy, give or take. The venture will have sweeping effects on insurance companies and investors alike, threatening the U.S. healthcare system.

Stocks of drugstore operators like Walgreens and CVS have already taken a hit, and shares of U.S. healthcare companies “fell across the board.”

As Jeff Bezos takes on the world, the next stop on Amazon’s expansion train may be a new headquarters right here in New Jersey. Amazon is searching for a place to put its second headquarters, an estimated $5 billion project, and the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO) was eager to submit a proposal for its construction in New Brunswick.

While New Brunswick is no longer in the running, Newark is fighting for Amazon too. Former Gov. Chris Christie even offered Amazon $7 billion in tax breaks to choose New Jersey. Amazon claims that the second headquarters will bring 50,000 jobs with it.

But despite Amazon’s emphasis on how many jobs it creates and will continue to create with further expansions, the company is actually moving towards a more automated and less human-reliant future. Since2014, Amazon has begun adding robots to the ranks of its warehouse staff through companies like Kiva Systems, which they bought and renamed Amazon Robotics.

According to the New York Times, the robots “scurry around with vertical shelves loaded with merchandise weighing up to 3,000 pounds on their backs.” While the robots certainly make life easier for them, warehouse employees must wonder if their new co-workers will eventually take their place.

Amazon executive Dave Clark explains that no one was laid off when the robots came to work, and some employees have even left their more tiresome warehouse tasks to become robot operators. But if Amazon employees are truly as disposable as they feel, the future generation of bots may not need any help in the company’s thousands of warehouse locations.

About the Author

Rosa Haleva

Professor: Juan González
Class: Investigative Reporting

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