Last September, Ann Castillo saw an email from Amazon that made no sense. Her husband had worked for the company for five years, most recently at the supersize warehouse on Staten Island that served as the retailer’s critical pipeline to New York City. Now it wanted him back on the night shift.
“We notified your manager and H.R. about your return to work on Oct. 1, 2020,” the message said.
Ms. Castillo was incredulous. While working mandatory overtime in the spring, her 42-year-old husband, Alberto, had been among the first wave of employees at the site to test positive for the coronavirus. Ravaged by fevers and infections, he suffered extensive brain damage. On tests of responsiveness, Ms. Castillo said, “his score was almost nothing.”
For months, Ms. Castillo, a polite, get-it-done physical therapist, had been alerting the company that her husband, who had been proud to work for the retail giant, was severely ill. The responses were disjointed and confusing. Emails and calls to Amazon’s automated systems often dead-ended. The company’s benefits were generous, but she had been left panicking as disability payments mysteriously halted. She managed to speak to several human resources workers, one of whom reinstated the payments, but after that, the dialogue mostly reverted to phone trees, auto-replies and voice mail messages on her husband’s phone asking if he was coming back.
The return-to-work summons deepened her suspicion that Amazon didn’t fully register his situation. “Haven’t they kept track of what happened to him?” she said. She wanted to ask the company: “Are your workers disposable? Can you just replace them?”
Mr. Castillo’s workplace, the only Amazon fulfillment center in America’s largest city, was achieving the impossible during the pandemic. With New York’s classic industries suffering mass collapse, the warehouse, called JFK8, absorbed hotel workers, actors, bartenders and dancers, paying nearly $18 an hour. Driven by a new sense of mission to serve customers afraid to shop in person, JFK8 helped Amazon smash shipping records, reach stratospheric sales and book the equivalent of the previous three years’ profits rolled into one.
That success, speed and agility were possible because Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, had pioneered new ways of mass-managing people through technology, relying on a maze of systems that minimized human contact to grow unconstrained.
But the company was faltering in ways outsiders could not see, according to a New York Times examination of JFK8 over the last year.
In contrast to its precise, sophisticated processing of packages, Amazon’s model for managing people — heavily reliant on metrics, apps and chatbots — was uneven and strained even before the coronavirus arrived, with employees often having to act as their own caseworkers, interviews and records show. Amid the pandemic, Amazon’s system burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages.
Amazon took steps unprecedented at the company to offer leniency, but then at times contradicted or ended them. Workers like Mr. Castillo at JFK8 were told to take as much unpaid time off as they needed, then hit with mandatory overtime. When Amazon offered employees flexible personal leaves, the system handling them jammed, issuing a blizzard of job-abandonment notices to workers and sending staff scrambling to save them, according to human resources and warehouse employees.
After absences initially soared and disrupted shipping, Amazon left employees mostly in the dark about the toll of the virus. The company did not tell workers at JFK8 or other warehouses the number of cases, causing them to worry whether notifications about “individuals” testing positive meant two or 22. While Amazon said publicly that it was disclosing confirmed cases to health officials, New York City records show no reported cases until November. The company and city officials dispute what happened.
Amazon continued to track every minute of most warehouse workers’ shifts, from how fast they packed merchandise to how long they paused — the kind of monitoring that spurred a failed unionization drive led by frustrated Black employees at an Alabama warehouse this spring. If productivity flagged, Amazon’s computers assumed the worker was to blame. Early in the pandemic, the online retailer paused its firing of employees for low output, but that change was not announced clearly at JFK8, so some workers still feared that moving too slowly would cost them their livelihoods. [Continue reading…]