business news in context, analysis with attitude

Reuters reports that "internal Amazon documents, previously unreported, reveal how routinely the company measured workers’ performance in minute detail and admonished those who fell even slightly short of expectations - sometimes before their shift ended. In a single year ending April 2020, the company issued more than 13,000 so-called 'disciplines'" in a single Staten Island, New York, warehouse alone, a facility that had about 5,300 employees around that time."

The story goes on:  "The records and interviews of current and former employees show the enormous pressure faced by Amazon line workers to complete tasks as accurately and quickly as the company demands - creating an environment that some workers told Reuters has fueled unionization efforts around the country."

Indeed, the Staten Island warehouse is one that voted this past spring to unionize, the first Amazon facility in the US to do so.

The numbers came to light in a lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of Gerald Bryson, who was fired from his job at the warehouse - Amazon says it is because he made consistent mistakes, while Bryson argues it was because of his union activity.

Reuters notes that in 2018, Bryson received a "Supportive Feedback Document" from his manager, pointing out that he had made "22 errors … including tallying 19 products in a storage bin that in fact had 20. If Bryson erred like this six times within a year, the notice stated, he would be fired from the Staten Island warehouse."

According to Reuters, "In a statement, Amazon said the goals it sets are 'fair and based on what the majority of the team is actually accomplishing.' The company says it delivers more praise to workers than criticism. 'We give a lot of feedback to employees throughout the year to help them succeed and make sure they understand expectations,' Amazon said."

Here's some context from the Reuters piece:

"Amazon told the judge in Bryson’s case that it could not meet NLRB demands in a subpoena to provide the thousands of disciplinary notices it delivered to employees that year, calling the requirement 'unduly burdensome.'

"However, it provided statistics for what it called 'disciplines' - which include firings, suspensions and warnings - at three warehouses, and it turned over scores of personnel files. These included more than 600 notices for workers between 2015 and 2021 that were positive, negative or neutral. It is not clear from the records whether the notices were a representative sample of the company’s feedback. Also in the records were worker affidavits and email exchanges between Amazon and government lawyers.

"Among the documented violations for which Amazon faulted employees:  Being off task for six minutes in June 2018, resulting in a reprimand that a Carteret, New Jersey, warehouse worker received at 2:57 a.m. during the same shift … Meeting 94% of the company’s productivity goal instead of 100% … Exceeding break time by four minutes … Making four errors grabbing items shoppers ordered in a single spring 2019 week, during which a New York City warehouse worker picked more than 15,800 goods correctly for customers."

Amazon also said, however, that "these write-ups did not accurately reflect its current policies."

KC's View:

I have to be honest - when I saw all these disciplinary write-ups and threats by Amazon, I flashed back to second grade, when Sister John Aquin essentially terrorized me with essentially the same volume of disciplinary notices.  At least, that's how I remember it.  (I also still have some explained welts…)

Which is my way of expressing some level of sympathy with the Amazon workers.  I simply cannot imagine being able to function, much less excel, with that kind of scrutiny in that kind of culture.

Even if Amazon has adjusted its policies, the question is whether the basic environment has changed.  Hard to believe.

Add to the probability possibility that there is a certain amount of anti-union animus playing out here, and the recent story that Amazon expects to run out of available people to hire in the not too distant future, and you have the makings of a potential flaw in Amazon's business model.  It'll be like a game of Jenga … and Amazon may find that by pulling out the wrong building block, the structure could topple.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - if Amazon just applied the same level of innovative thinking to labor issues that it does to everything else, it would be a game changer.