The Morning Call Revisits Amazon’s Work Conditions

Allentown workers baked in the summer, froze in the winter

Remember that Morning Call investigation a couple of months ago into an Amazon sweatshop outside Allentown, Pennsylvania? The paper showed that the company endangered temp employees in a warehouse where temperatures sometimes hit 110 degrees all while issuing difficult-or-impossible-to-meet productivity standards in order to keep from hiring them full time.

It turns out Amazon’s climate-control problem was year-round. The paper reports that workers at the warehouse were forced outside during fire alarms for hours at a time during the middle of winter:

Multiple warehouse workers were treated at hospitals for exposure after being outside, without coats, in temperatures below freezing for prolonged periods, including one night for about two hours, according to OSHA records.

Workers interviewed said Amazon forced them to remain huddled in the parking lot on frigid nights while many workers were wearing only shorts and T-shirts. After attendance was taken to make sure all employees evacuated, warehouse workers said they were not allowed to go to their cars to keep warm. Instead, they were instructed by warehouse managers to use one another’s body heat and told that anyone caught going to their cars would be disciplined and could be terminated, workers said…

One worker interviewed for this story who had to leave work early due to cold-related symptoms said his injury was considered non-work-related. He received demerit points for leaving before his shift was over, he said.

It had been 26 degrees and windy out, but the managers were apparently more concerned about preventing theft.

Amazon actually responded to the Morning Call this time, which was wise (last time it only sent a boilerplate statement about its “great place to work” and “fantastic group of employees.” The company points to OSHA stats showing that, nationally, the rate of injury at its warehouses is lower than average. That’s helpful context that show this warehouse may be an isolated problem, not a systemic one.

That doesn’t minimize this story, of course. National averages don’t mean much to the folks in Allentown. It’s how Amazon’s managers run the local warehouse that counts. And it’s clear from the Morning Call’s reporting that they haven’t been run right. The paper’s spotlight helps make it much more likely that these thousands of employees will be treated better now.

This, combined with the mistreatment of foreign students at Hershey raises questions for me about whether labor conditions have deteriorated more broadly since 2007.

Recall that the poor economy was the backdrop for the first story: a workforce, largely temp employees, struggling to hold on to work when labor supply far exceeds demand. It seems logical that workers would be treated more poorly on average in a depressed economy than they are during boom times, when management has much more trouble finding labor. Has it happened? How many OSHA and state OSHA reporters, much less labor reporters, do we have nowadays, anyway?

Good work by the Morning Call.


The Morning Call’s Amazon Sweatshop Probe. An excellent investigation exposes poor conditions at a big Pennsylvania warehouse

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,