60-hour weeks, ambulance call-outs, and 'swag bucks': 30 employees describe the intense reality of working for Amazon during its busiest time of the year
- Business Insider spoke to 30 current and former Amazon workers across the US, the UK, and Europe about what it's like to work during peak season.
- Amazon's unseen army of hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees ensures millions of parcels are delivered every day during peak, which runs from Black Friday through to Christmas.
- They described a "brutal" reality of long hours, physical labor, fears about taking time off, workplace injuries, and the pressure to keep the wheels turning, even when the weather is treacherous.
- BI obtained figures that show ambulance call-outs to three Amazon warehouses in the UK increased during the company's busiest weeks of the year.
- There were conflicting accounts about the benefits of Amazon's $15 minimum wage hike. Some workers said the wage boost benefitted them, while others said they were worse off during peak due to bonuses being axed.
- Workers also described an internal currency, known as "swag bucks," which are designed to boost productivity even during Amazon's most intense periods of activity.
- Amazon said was proud of its "great working conditions, wages and benefits, and career opportunities."
Nick Oates didn't feel like digging his car out of a heap of snow on Cyber Monday. That's why, as a blizzard barreled toward Kansas City, the former Amazon associate decided to hunker down in the warehouse's parking lot.
The storm ended up dumping more than a foot of snow on parts of the state, prompting then-Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer to preemptively declare a state of emergency on November 25, 2018, asking people to stay off the roads.As other Kansans were stocking up on supplies and bracing for power outages, Oates and his fellow Amazonians were receiving the news that they'd still be required to report for their Cyber Monday shifts. The fulfillment center would forgive workers who clocked in late due to the storm, but everyone scheduled to work still had to show up.
Oates was living in his car and working at the Kansas City fulfillment center at the time, a routine he'd maintained since June 2018 after taking medical leave from Amazon for depression.
He told Business Insider that he typically parked in front of his gym at night, but made an exception on account of the storm. "Just imagine having to pry your car out of tons of snow and ice," Oates said. "Then you have to risk your life going home, just to come back on Cyber Monday."
Amazon said staff are told to stay at home if they feel unsafe to travel, and can do so without fear of retribution. Oates said his experience is an extreme example of how far employees will go to keep Amazon's giant wheels turning during its busiest months of the year.
His is just one of the countless stories from Amazon's unseen army of hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees, who make sure millions of parcels are delivered on time, every day, all wrapped with Amazon's signature smiley logo.
Scarcely has the plight of these workers been so in the spotlight.Horror stories of shop floor working conditions flood the press, strikes have raged across Europe, and lawmakers like US Sen. Bernie Sanders have lobbied for pay rises. All of this on the watch of founder Jeff Bezos, whose "obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer" has turned Amazon into a $790 billion company and made him the richest man in the world.
The holiday season is a hectic and crucial time for all retailers, not to mention a chaotic, trying time for retail workers who have to deal with Black Friday stampedes or ramped-up online orders in the run-up to Christmas. But Amazon occupies a unique spot in the retail industry, thanks to its size and influence.
Business Insider interviewed more than 30 current and former Amazon workers about what it's like to work at the frontlines of the company during peak - the period it generally defines as being from Black Friday, which traditionally falls on the first Friday after Thanksgiving, to just before Christmas.
The majority of these employees worked in 18 warehouses across the US, UK, and Europe, while others held roles in other departments, including compliance and customer services.
More than 20 workers spoke to Business Insider without Amazon authorization through a mixture of on- and off-the-record conversations. They verified their Amazon employment in documentation sent to BI. Eight other members of staff spoke in the presence of an Amazon representative, both on the floor of a British warehouse, and over the phone from a facility in New Jersey.
Through the interviews, a picture emerges of grueling long hours, physical labor, fears about taking time off, workplace injuries, and the pressure to keep the wheels turning, even when the weather is treacherous."It gets brutal," one worker simply said.
There were also conflicting accounts about the benefits of Amazon's $15 minimum wage hike. Some workers said the wage boost benefitted them, while others said they were worse off during peak due to bonuses being axed.
Underneath it all is bubbling rage from unions, which flared up in strikes and demonstrations across Europe late last year in protest at working conditions. UNI Global Union, which has 20 million members globally, has an overarching tag line for its Amazon campaign: "We are not robots." But Amazon does not recognize unions.
"In country after country, Amazon workers report brutal conditions," UNI Global Union General Secretary Christy Hoffman told BI in a statement. "A company that respects its employees listens and negotiates with them."
Amazon said it was proud of working conditions for its lowest-paid employees. In a statement, a spokeswoman said:
"We strongly disagree with these unsubstantiated comments and laundry list of allegations. Cobbled together, they have created a false narrative around our employer practices and misrepresented the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of associates.
"We are proud of the great working conditions, wages and benefits, and career opportunities we provide for our associates all year round. Everyone is encouraged to come and see for themselves what it's like to work in an Amazon fulfilment centre and have the ability to talk to associates directly by booking one of our tours across Europe and the US."
Mandatory overtime means employees work up to 60 hours a week
Multiple sources told BI that the arrival of Black Friday heralds the beginning of mandatory overtime.Last year's Black Friday, and the following Cyber Monday, were Amazon's biggest on record, with the company selling "millions" more products than it did in 2017. The more products sold, the more pressure to fulfill orders.
A former sort center employee - whose job it was to bring pallets of Amazon packages to dock doors so drivers could take them for delivery - said that on a normal day, 70,000 to 90,000 packages might be put out for delivery. During peak this would increase by 50%, potentially even doubling on its busiest day.
Sources told BI that throughout most of the year, associates - what the company calls its fulfillment center workers - work four 10-hour shifts, totaling a 40-hour work week. During peak, this jumps to six 10-hour day shifts, or five 12-hour night shifts, for a total of 60 hours.
US labor law permits employers to require employees to work unlimited amounts of overtime, as long as they are paid one-half their regular rate of pay. Companies have a right to fire workers who refuse.
Amazon employees confirmed to BI that they earn an extra 50% for overtime. "Associates are communicated to regularly prior to peak about the expected 40-60 hours work weeks as customer demand requires and there is a clear exceptions process for people who are unable to do so," a spokeswoman added.
In the UK, warehouse workers BI spoke to said they had 10 hours of compulsory overtime during peak, meaning 50-hour work weeks. UK law dictates that usually, people should not work more than 48 hours a week on average, although there are exceptions.
"You're a slave for the 60-hour work week," Jazzy Williams, a California-based Amazon associate of more than two years, told BI during the 2018 peak season. "I'm tired and annoyed and irritated."
Multiple Amazon workers said how physically grueling the work can be, including Vickie Shannon Allen. Allen works in an Amazon warehouse in Texas. She was evicted and started living in her car after she injured her back at a faulty workstation in October 2017. When BI spoke to her during peak 2018, she was still homeless.
"It's like doing 11-and-a-half hours of cardio five days a week ... You're going up and down stairs, squatting down, getting on your knees, getting back up," Allen said. Another warehouse worker said employees could end up walking up to 20 miles a day during peak.James Norris, a former Amazon associate who worked at an Indiana warehouse for 10 months before quitting in October, has never worked peak season himself. But he saw the toll it took on his girlfriend, a fellow Amazon employee. "It was like watching a ghost walk through the door," he said. "She would just come home and collapse."
One Amazon worker said it's possible for employees to apply to opt out of overtime in extenuating circumstances, for example, if they have a health problem. BI spoke to a packer in the UK warehouse who had her overtime removed because she was studying.
Amazon said it works with employees on a one-to-one basis to ascertain whether they're eligible to have their overtime removed. "Examples include family care, health appointments, and personal issues," a spokeswoman told BI.
Holidays are banned
For those clocking-up regular 60-hour weeks, there's no respite in the shape of a holiday. Multiple sources told BI that in mid-November, a ban on asking for time off kicks in - something that Amazon confirmed.
"Like many other businesses, Christmas is a busy time of year and holiday embargoes exist, but we understand that there are times when people cannot work and naturally, exceptions are made," a spokeswoman said.
Exceptions to the embargo are rare, but not unheard of, according to those who spoke to BI. One worker said they were able to take a holiday away during peak by booking months in advance.
Amazon workers get a certain amount of paid time off and unpaid time off (UPT) a year. Sources told BI that when workers dip into "negative UPT," meaning that they have taken more than their allotted UPT, Amazon can be ruthless.
"If you go negative, you're gone. I've seen people that have worked there five years, they went negative unpaid time, and they got rid of them just like that," a Tennessee-based warehouse worker told BI.
Minnesota-based former Amazon worker Layla Ahmed said she was fired on 26 November, four days after Thanksgiving, because she went into negative UPT.
Ahmed said she used up much of her unpaid time-off last year caring for her grandmother. After a string of 60-hour work weeks, including shifts on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, she came down with a fever.
She called into work, explained why she couldn't come in, and requested a call back from the fulfillment center's HR. But Ahmed said the call never came.
When she got back to the Shakopee warehouse, Ahmed said she worked two 12-hour shifts before she was called to a manager's office and dismissed.
"I was shocked," Ahmed said. "I thought, 'If they see the reason that I didn't come in they'll understand.' My manager, I thought he was going to help me out. I thought he would talk to HR and tell them, 'It was a mistake' and 'Give her a second chance.' But he didn't do anything."After over two years at Amazon, Ahmed was then escorted out of the building. An Amazon source told Business Insider that when Ahmed appealed the decision, it was upheld by an internal panel at Amazon.
Amazon said: "The intent behind UPT is to ensure associates have a bank of time available to handle unexpected issues or emergencies. Full-time associates are allocated up to 80 hours per year of unpaid time (the equivalent of two work weeks), in addition to paid time off for vacation, personal time, and holidays.
"If an associate does run into a negative UPT balance, in each case we have a seek-to-understand conversation to recognize the associate's situation and any mitigating circumstances."
Amazon's ruthlessness was noted by others, particularly in relation to seasonal workers. Amazon hired nearly 130,000 temporary workers across the US and Europe last year, and multiple sources told BI that they had seen some dismissed by text when work dried up. It corroborates a story from a Guardian op-ed written by an anonymous Amazon worker in December 2018.
In a statement about the Guardian op-ed last year, Amazon said firing people by text is "not company practice" and that it could find "no evidence this actually occurred." Amazon said it had nothing further to add.
Keeping going in treacherous weather
According to three former employees, fulfillment centers often don't want employees missing work even during dangerous weather conditions. Like Nick Oates, who was asked to report for duty during a Kansas storm, Ahmed said she was asked to work at her Minnesota warehouse in severely snowy conditions."They say they will give a day off if the weather is really bad, but they never did actually," Ahmed said. "There was one day that I called in and I said that I could not see the road. For my safety, I told them that I am not going to come in today. So they took hours from my UPT."
Indiana-based James Norris said of his warehouse: "The building's not going to shut down. If enough employees come to work late because of weather, they'll excuse time. But Amazon doesn't stop."
One way Amazon workers can get time off during peak is if they get sent home. If there's not enough work to go around, managers will sometimes offer unpaid voluntary time off, or "VTO."
"There never seems to be a problem in getting enough people to take voluntary time off. That in itself speaks a lot, that people are willing to leave early and not get paid," a warehouse worker told BI in mid-December 2018. The previous day, they'd seen management VTO people three times during a day shift.
Amazon emphasized to BI that VTO is entirely voluntary. "We offer associates voluntary time off to provide additional flexibility and associates choose whether to take this time off, or to work their regular schedule," a spokeswoman said.
Injuries and electrolyte popsicles
Two Amazon warehouse workers told BI that the rate of injuries goes up during peak. Five more thought physical exhaustion, plus the chaos of peak season was bound to have an impact on injury rates. Others said they noticed no real difference between peak and the rest of the year.
Amazon said that the rate of injury does not go up during peak. "Because of our robust safety management and diligent record-keeping, we know for a fact that recordable incidents do not increase during peak," said a spokeswoman, who declined to provide records.
Not all workers make their health concerns known, however. "You've got these health and safety rules, but when you're exhausted and you've been standing and crouching all day, you're in pain," said a UK warehouse worker.
The worker said employees have to handle potentially dangerous objects, including unpackaged knives and mousetraps, adding that during a career of more than 30 years, including time spent in slaughterhouses, they had never seen so many ambulances called to one place. "This is the one place where I feel the most unsafe," the source said.
Amazon disputed the placement of dangerous unpackaged objects. "We have a dedicated team in our fulfilment centre where staff wrap, protect and check all products before they are stowed in bins," a spokeswoman told BI.
BI submitted freedom of information requests to UK ambulance services to determine call-out rates during Amazon's peak period. The call-outs pertained to all medical emergencies, not just physical injuries.
Amazon's warehouse in Rugeley, England, made eight emergency calls between November and December 2018, according to the West Midlands Ambulance Service. Two of these were eventually canceled, but it's an average of one call a week. Amazon told BI that Rugeley has more than 1,000 workers.
The ambulance service provided a monthly breakdown of callouts to Rugeley over the past three years. It showed a spike of incidents in November.
Information available in a previous, publically available FOI, showed that in 2015 alone, there were 19 ambulance callouts to the warehouse between November and December.
In another example, the North West Ambulance Service provided a breakdown of call outs from the Manchester warehouse, which houses more than 1,200 workers. According to 27 months of data up to December 2018, the facility made an average of 1.2 emergency calls a month, rising to 2.1 during the months of November and December.
In a third example, the Welsh Ambulance Service revealed emergency call numbers from the Swansea warehouse, which also houses more than 1,200 workers. Over the past three years, the facility made an average of 1.6 calls a month, rising to 3.6 during the months of November and December. The number of incidents attended was slightly lower, with a three-year average of 1.1 per month, and 2.8 during peak.
Brittany Turner, who worked in a Florida facility until June 2017, said she noticed ambulances arrive at her fulfillment center approximately once a month. "It was actually kind of joke," she told BI. "We would get our little 15-minute break before and after lunch. I would go outside to smoke cigarettes with some people from my team. The ambulance would show up and we'd be like, 'Oh, Amazon claimed another.'"
Amazon said ambulance numbers do not give a good overview of health and safety during peak. "Using absolute ambulance numbers to suggest that a workplace is not safe is simply wrong because it does not take into consideration hours worked and population-size," a spokeswoman said.
Nick Oates said his back gave out on one shift during this year's peak season. He said the blame was partly on his warehouse's faulty conveyances, which malfunctioned and forced him to manually lift up containers.
"They didn't want to let me go home, even though I was in really bad pain," Oates said. "All they did was ice my back and ask what pain level I was at."
In November, Oates said he fell ill while living out of his car. He said that when he reported to AmCare - Amazon's onsite first aid department - to request to leave his shift early, he was given an electrolyte-rich popsicle and told to get back to work.
Amazon said AmCare does not have the power to send workers home.
"Amazon associates would never be sent directly home due to an illness or injury at the direction of our AmCare leadership teams. Associates have the ability to use their UPT [unpaid time off] at their discretion and can request to seek outside medical services at any time, which may then result in time away from work," a spokeswoman said.
"We rely on the direction of medical professionals to define whether an employee can/cannot perform or to what degree they can perform their job duties and our UPT and personal time benefits provide what would be called 'sick time' in other organizations."
A minimum wage hike led to slashed bonuses
Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour in November last year, a move which was seen as Amazon acceding to public pressure from politicians such as Bernie Sanders. Amazon's senior vice president in charge of operations Dave Clark posted a video of warehouse workers jumping and cheering at the news.
A US seasonal worker working in customer service told BI that, for them, the minimum wage hike was a real boost. Four workers from the Edison, New Jersey, warehouse - Keion Burgess, Melonie Fabiano, Angelina Tramontano, and Peter-Gideon Okello - also spoke of the pay rise enthusiastically.
"We haven't really lost anything," Burgess said on a call in the presence of an Amazon representative. "Actually, we've gained more than we've lost. It's been a great addition for us." Tramontano noted that the current minimum wage in New Jersey is $8.85 an hour - $6.15 less than Amazon's $15 minimum hourly wage.
But other permanent workers told a different story: Slashed bonuses have actually hurt their pay packets.
Previously, staff could earn bonuses in the form of "variable compensation pay," better known as VCP. This was based on attendance and productivity, which usually doubles during peak weeks. VCP got axed along with employee stock options when the minimum wage was raised.
Instead, Amazon offered workers a $100 bonus if they worked all of peak without taking any time off. One worker said that with VCP they'd been able to earn bonuses of several hundred dollars, and in the last quarter they could even get up to $1,000. "It's kind of a joke," they said.
Employee stock options were axed alongside VCP bonuses. A UK warehouse worker told BI that when they joined six years ago, workers could get four or five shares in stock options, which would vest after two years. At the time of writing, a single Amazon share is worth more than $1,600.
"When you think that we're working for the richest man on Earth and you look at the profits they're making every year, it's not right is it?" they said.
A US warehouse worker said until the stock options were scrapped last year, the company awarded one share to warehouse employees. The source said this was worth "about a dollar an hour for the year."
Back in October, when Amazon first announced the minimum wage rise was on the way, Wired spoke to an Amazon employee who estimated they would lose at least $1,400 as a result. The worker Wired spoke to said the timing of the wage hike was suspect. "November and December were the months where they would double the attendance and productivity bonuses," they said.
Responding in a statement at the time, Amazon denied that the wage increase would adversely affect workers' pay packets. "We can confirm that all hourly Operations and Customer Service employees will see an increase in their total compensation," an Amazon spokesperson said. They did not, however, dispute the calculations made by the anonymous worker as presented to them by Wired.
At the time the GMB Union - the largest worker's union in the UK which represents just under 2,000 Amazon workers - also criticized the slashing of bonuses and stock options, calling it a "stealth tax" on Amazon workers.
Amazon's fourth-quarter earnings revealed that its operating costs of $68.6 billion were barely dented by the change, with expenses rising at a similar or slower rate than during the rest of the year. It suggests that Amazon swallowed the cost of the pay rises without it having a significant impact on its outgoings.
"That whole ordeal between Jeff Bezos and Bernie Sanders was nothing but a publicity stunt," Texas-based Vickie Shannon Allen said. "When they took away the stocks and the bonuses, you don't know how bad that hurt the employees. People depended on those bonuses, every paycheck to put gas in their car, to buy food for their family, to buy Christmas for their kids."
Amazon stood by the minimum wage increase.
"When the $15 minimum hourly wage was implemented, everyone saw an increase in their compensation and for some this was significant. For example, employees at the Staten Island fulfillment center now earn between $17 and $23 an hour," a spokeswoman said.
"The attendance bonus [of $100] was intended to be an extra incentive on top of the wage increase. Employees have told us for years that they would prefer the predictability and immediacy of cash to other compensation benefits."
Allen later told BI that at the beginning of February she left Amazon.
Working for 'swag bucks'
In addition to cash, Amazon workers can be rewarded with "swag bucks," a kind of company currency which can only be spent inside Amazon. The incentives are designed to further increase productivity, and are popular with some.
The physical description of swag bucks varied wildly from Amazonian to Amazonian. Vickie Shannon Allen said in her warehouse, they look like a Monopoly bill with Jeff Bezos' face emblazoned on them. Florida-based associate Brittany Turner described swag bucks - also known as "Amazon bucks" - as slips listing specific dollar amounts, cardboard scratcher tickets, or just money to spend within the fulfillment center's cafeteria.
A German worker showed BI an image of their equivalent, "swaggis," which are small red plastic tokens. While touring the UK warehouse BI also found they were also called "swaggies."
Using swag bucks workers are able to buy items from Amazon such as T-shirts, lanyards, and water bottles. The company currency is available all year round, but sources told BI that there's more up for grabs during peak, especially during what's known as "power hours."
Power hours are when managers try to pump up warehouse workers to work even harder for 60 minutes, sometimes motivating them by saying workers in other departments have been talking smack or outperforming them. At the end of the hour, staff can be rewarded with swag bucks or prizes.
"I've personally won a 50-inch television," New Jersey-based Keion Burgess said, during the interview organized by Amazon. "It's been great. We can win power hours in teams, or we can win them individually. It's a really great thing for us as associates. We love it."
During that same interview, Angelina Tramontano added: "After you work eight hours and you're really, really tired, I use it as an incentive to push myself to challenge myself to see if I can do it."
Tramontano also described witnessing colleagues win TVs, Xboxes, gift cards, extra breaks. She once won an Amazon Echo Dot, Amazon's best selling product last year. Extra breaks are also up for grabs.
Others find the incentives less enticing. "It's insulting, because around this time of year the managers, if their targets are met or exceeded, they get a bonus," a warehouse worker told BI.
Nick Oates and Vickie Shannon Allen expressed similar disenchantment.
"All the new employees that are clueless about the work culture, they buy into that," Oates said.
"What they're trying to do is get more work out of you for the same amount of pay," Allen added.
"They can try to get you going - try to be positive and really upbeat," a third associate said. "And there's nothing wrong with that. It's probably what every manager in every job should do. But sometimes it seems a little excessive. I'm not going to get that excited about $16 an hour."
Minnesota-based Amazon employee Hafsa Hassan said workers can also receive scratch-off tickets for excelling and "mini-competitions." Prizes can include laptops, headphones, or even Chipotle gift cards. Hassan said one manager in her warehouse will list employees' hourly rate from slowest to fastest as a way to get people "fired up."
"Some people are okay with it, some people hate it," she said. "The part that sucks is when someone's not packing up to the standards of the manager or the rate that's been put up, I've seen the manager make fun of people."
Other incentives are less valuable. Business Insider spoke to a packer inside a UK warehouse who had earned swaggies in seven months. It was enough to buy a small foam toy version of Amazon's robots, used to ferry shelves of items - known as "bins" - around the shop floor.
Another way in which Amazon tries to boost company morale during peak is through events and competitions. Warehouse workers described games like "Wheel of Fortune" where employees could win swag bucks or gifts. One worker said everyone in the warehouse was surprised with a free lunch one day in December.
"On Thanksgiving Day, they handed us each a pumpkin or apple pie as we walked out the door, to bring home to our families, which was very considerate and kind of them," said warehouse worker Melonie Fabiano, who spoke in the presence of an Amazon representative.
Office workers reported similar stories. Employees are encouraged to take part in games such as "dress your manager," in which employees put their managers in whacky outfits.
"It can help, but if after that [peak] they come back to normal and they start pushing people, they start asking questions 'why are you doing this, why are you doing that, what is your target?' it's not going to help," said one former associate.
The end of peak 2018
Peak 2018 came and went, and Amazon clocked up record earnings of $72.4 billion in the final quarter of the year, with net sales increasing 20%. It marked the occasion with some cheerful posts on its Instagram page.
Touring the UK warehouse in Tilbury, BI saw signs saying "a big peak thank you," as well as ads for a February "post-peak party" - tickets were £5 ($7) and good for three drinks plus food, an Amazon warehouse tour guide told BI.
But Nick Oates didn't stick around to see the end of peak. He told us that he that ended up quitting for good on December 15. Before he left, he weighed requesting a transfer to an Amazon warehouse in California, but ultimately decided against it.
He drove away from Kansas City without ever clocking into his shift. On the road, he got an email confirming his voluntary resignation due to job abandonment. Amazon's human resources department wished him the best in his future endeavors.
Ruqayyah Moynihan, INSIDER's Associate Translation Editor, also contributed to this report.