The Morning Call’s Amazon Sweatshop Probe

An excellent investigation exposes poor conditions at a big Pennsylvania warehouse

What’s going on with labor in Pennsylvania?

It was just last month that foreign students working at Hershey’s for the summer went on strike over poor labor conditions.

Now, a huge investigation in the Allentown Morning Call shows Amazon treating its local warehouse workers like dirt—and endangering their health.

Spencer Soper’s terrific piece of reporting goes around the company, which wouldn’t respond to his interview requests, and uses interviews with twenty workers as well as open records requests to show how the company ran a modern-day sweatshop. Literally.

Workers say Amazon refused to open loading bay doors to circulate air because they feared theft, and it drove its largely temp workforce with ever-increasing, and impossible-to-meet, productivity demands. And so you get scenes like this:

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

That last sentence shows The Morning Call pushing the story beyond a simple one about ill-treated workers into a broader piece that shows readers the labor and power dynamics involved. Along those lines, this paragraph is terrific:

The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon’s warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers don’t work for Amazon, they work for the temp agency.

The reporting we get on work environment itself is also great. On the ambulances, this quote from a former employee sums it up pretty well:

“I’ve never worked for an employer that had paramedics waiting outside for people to drop because of the extreme heat.”

This would have been a very good story even if The Morning Call had stuck with its twenty workers as sources. But its Freedom of Information Act request for OSHA records takes it up a notch.

On June 2, a warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers collapsed. The employee also complained that workers who had to go home due to heat symptoms received disciplinary points…

On June 10, an OSHA worker heard the following message on the agency’s complaint hotline from an emergency room doctor at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest: “I’d like to report an unsafe environment with a[n] Amazon facility in Fogelsville … Several patients have come in the last couple days with heat-related injuries.”

The OSHA FOIA is particularly important because the paper finds an Amazon safety manager telling OSHA that it “typically” extends breaks when the heat index hits a certain level, and The Morning Call’s sources say that wasn’t true. It also reports that Amazon would give overheated workers demerits from going home. Particularly for the temp employees, that could mean the difference between having a job and not having a job. While the company changed its policies to let people go home after OSHA started sniffing around, but some things didn’t change:

On July 25, a security guard at the Amazon warehouse called OSHA and said the temperature exceeded 110 degrees. The guard reported seeing two pregnant women taken to nurses and that Amazon would not open garage doors to help air circulation.

“They do have ice pops going around and water everywhere,” the guard reported to OSHA.

And is this even legal?

Sharon Faust said she took a temporary job with ISS, hoping it would lead to a permanent position with Amazon.

Then in June, the 57-year-old Breinigsville resident was diagnosed with breast cancer. She notified ISS that she needed surgery. They told her she would need a note from her doctor saying when she could return.

Faust had surgery July 20 and reported to the Amazon warehouse with a doctor’s note saying she could return to work Aug. 17. When she arrived to deliver the note within a week of her surgery, she found out the doctor’s note wasn’t necessary.

“They said my assignment with them is terminated. I was just flabbergasted,” Faust said. “I devoted nearly a year of my life trying to get a job and that whole time was a waste. They kept me on and kept me on until I handed in that medical paper, and they said, ‘See ya.’ “

That was after the company started getting visits from OSHA.

The Morning Call also notes the relationship between a temp company called Integrity Staffing Solutions and Amazon. ISS does a lot of work for Amazon but doesn’t show up much in previous press clippings in Factiva:

ISS recruits temporary workers for positions at Amazon warehouses throughout the country. Recent job postings on the company’s website include positions in Hazleton, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Phoenix, Ariz., Las Vegas and Reno, Nev…

ISS has supervisors stationed in the Amazon warehouse to manage temporary workers, so contact between temporary employees and Amazon managers is minimal.

I’d like to read more about that company and its relationship with Amazon.

Another thing worth noting about this story is that it shows a newspaper taking on one of its hometown’s biggest employers at a time when jobs are scarce. That’s worth some points.

This, of course, is not just a Pennsylvania story. If this, and the Hershey’s fiasco last month, can happen in a relatively pro-labor state, what’s going on in the rest of the country?

So this is a call to all you reporters out there in Amazon towns. How does Amazon treat its workers in your town? Is Allentown a one-off or is this a systemic problem within the company?

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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: , , , ,