December 17, 2012

Amazon somehow screws workers even after it fires them


“Yes, but I saved three cents on this toaster so it all works out.”

The Morning Call continued their excellent investigations into Amazon labor practices this week, this time looking at efforts by the company employing temporary workers for Amazon’s Lehigh Valley packing warehouse to deny unemployment benefits.

The Pennsylvania paper’s Spencer Soper began his ongoing investigations with an in-depth and widely circulated look at dangerous temperatures inside a local Amazon warehouse in September of 2011. The most memorable image: Amazon was keeping ambulances parked outside of the warehouse to carry away workers succumbing to temperatures that at times approached 110 degrees. The piece was so broadly covered, including on this blog, that Amazon subsequently spent a stated $52 million installing cooling units at their warehouses across the country.

The Call‘s coverage this year has included a piece in November about warehouse employees (not including management) being forced to stand outside in twenty degree weather for between two to three hours in shorts during a fire drill, and, this weekend, the investigation into former workers’ struggle for benefits.

Amazon’s Allentown plant, like many of its locations, hires new workers primarily through a temp agency. You may remember the excellent article by Mac McClelland in Mother Jones detailing her own experience getting a job as a temp worker in another unnamed Amazon plant. Additionally, Amazon inflates its workforce dramatically for the holiday shipping seasons, adding thousands of truly temporary jobs, unlike their longer-term temporary-in-name-only jobs. Soper quotes Amazon spokesperson Mary Osako as saying

As of July, Amazon had 2,180 workers in its Breinigsville warehouse operation, 1,937 of whom were full-time, permanent employees. Of the full-time workers in Breinigsville, 70 percent began as temporary employees, she said. The company expected to add 2,000 seasonal jobs in Breinigsville this year, temporarily doubling the size of its local workforce.

Using a temp agency — in this case a company with the heroically bland name Integrity Staffing Solutions — gives Amazon a veneer of deniability about labor practices in its warehouses. It also shields Amazon from increased taxes in cases of no-fault firings which, as the Morning Call reports, are endemic to Amazon warehouse culture.

Soper follows the cases of a handful of employees fired from the Leheigh Valley warehouse. They are by no means all model employees, but in most instances the conditions of their firing seem to be callous. Injured workers are let go, even if, as in some cases, they are injured on the job. As temporary workers they have no recourse to federal laws mandating short-term job safety in case of illness.

Soper is able to hear their stories because he attends a more or less clandestine adjudicated appeals hearings between the workers and their employers, in which an agent of ISS is sent to claim that in every case workers were properly fired even if, as in cases Soper witnessed, the employees were told to leave the warehouse for medical reasons. He explains,

Companies pay a payroll tax to support the unemployment compensation system. The tax rate is determined in a similar manner to rates for car insurance. A driver with lots of crashes and speeding tickets pays higher insurance rates than one without. Similarly, a company with a lot of employees collecting unemployment insurance pays more than one without. The idea is that a volatile employer puts greater demand on the unemployment compensation system, and should pay more to support it, than a stable employer.

That is, it is cheaper for ISS to pay someone to fight these battles rather than to simply allow the former workers to receive the mostly insignificant unemployment checks they are asking for. Cheaper, but of course not more humane. The entire article, as with all of the Morning Call’s Amazon coverage, is well worth a read.






Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.