Amazon Is Too Large to Sustain

Amazon’s 855,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Staten Island. Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon is massive. So massive, in fact, that it is “on pace to become the nation’s largest private employer within a year or two,” observes a new investigation from the New York Times. But what does that mean for the people it hires? According to the same Times investigation, confusing policies, arbitrary terminations, and high turnover. In some cases, the problems exist by design. Jeff Bezos “did not want an entrenched workforce, calling it ‘a march to mediocrity,’” one former executive told the Times. The executive, David Niekerk, added that Amazon’s growth threatens a healthy workplace environment. “It is just a numbers game in many ways,” he told the Times. “The culture gets lost.”

The result is often a chaotic workplace. Despite Amazon’s size, it appeared unprepared for a crisis the scale of COVID-19. The Times investigation, which examined conditions in the company’s JFK8 fulfillment facility on Staten Island, found that workers weren’t always notified when someone fell ill, that the company’s shifting policies often took workers by surprise, and that its disability and leave system wasn’t able to handle demand. Such complaints helped motivate worker protests at the Staten Island facility last year. Amazon would fire Christian Smalls, a protest leader, for allegedly violating a quarantine order; a Vice News article later reported that Amazon’s general counsel, David Zapolsky, had said that Smalls, who is Black, was “not smart or articulate” at a company meeting that included Bezos.

The Times report depicts a company whose growth outpaced its ability to take care of its enormous workforce. That trajectory didn’t occur entirely by accident, either. It reflects corporate priorities and, to an extent, the mentality of its billionaire founder, Bezos. According to Niekerk, Amazon also “intentionally limited upward mobility for hourly workers” in favor of hiring managers who’d completed college. Perhaps that’s why the Times discovered widespread racial disparities at the JFK8 facility. Managers were “more than 70 percent white or Asian,” the Times reported. “Black associates at JFK8 were almost 50 percent more likely to be fired — whether for productivity, misconduct, or not showing up for work — than their white peers, the records show.”

Some workers told the Times they’d been terminated by mistake, victims of a heavily automated workplace with few human beings available to process requests for help or decide their futures with the company. Amazon has outsourced some human-resource functions to self-service kiosks and an app. A spokesperson for Amazon said those measures weren’t intended to replace human interaction, but rather to give workers more options; the company has also hired more HR staff for the JFK8 location. But problems appear widespread. When COVID-19 left a JFK8 worker incapacitated, his short-term disability payments mysteriously stopped for ten weeks. Documents submitted by his wife to a company case manager “never made it,” an issue “that had affected others as well.” The facility’s human-resources manager later intervened and made sure the missed payments reached the worker’s family.

When the company loosened restrictions on personal leave for the pandemic, its system “couldn’t keep up,” the Times reported. Problems predated the pandemic, too. A “buggy” case-management system plagued workers before anyone had to worry about COVID-19; during the pandemic, the system buckled under demand. “Approved leaves that were supposed to be directly reflected in worker attendance programs instead had to be input by hand at another back office, in Pune, India,” the Times said, and of course, things went wrong. When they did, workers who’d had leave approved were sometimes fired for not reporting to work.

The full Times story is worth reading, if only to understand more fully what it’s like to work in an Amazon fulfillment center. But there are unavoidable political implications, too. Cities often court Amazon aggressively in the hopes the company will deliver much-needed jobs. But it’s clear, from the Times story, that Amazon has no interest in developing a stable workforce; it can afford its rate of attrition and indeed even sees turnover as part of its business plan. The idea that Amazon may also become the nation’s second-largest private employer is thus reason for concern. The company’s growth is extreme; its workplace policies, however, are nothing to envy. Maybe Amazon can maintain its priorities for the near future, worker unrest notwithstanding. But its pace isn’t so sustainable for workers. The company’s growth risks monopoly status and has clearly come at the expense of worker well-being. That’s bad news for everyone, not just the workers of JFK8.

Amazon Is Too Large to Sustain