About a year ago, Ash Jones grabbed a small box from a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse in Hebron, Kentucky. He has not been able to work since then.
The package, which Jones estimated at about 10 inches long, was deceptively heavy. As he turned to place it on the pallet, his wrist slipped.
“I felt something snap,” Jones said, noting the package had no warning label about its weight. He says his wrist later swelled to the size of an orange.
The injury was just the beginning of Jones’ problems. He initially received workers’ compensation benefits, but his benefits stopped after a few weeks because a doctor hired by Amazon classified him as permanently disabled. After months without pay, he says, Amazon said it couldn’t find a position for Jones that accommodated his disability. But Jones didn’t wait. He got a lawyer and a second opinion from a doctor who said the disability was not permanent.
In the afternoon when CNET inquired about the details of Jones’ case, Amazon offered him a settlement for nearly a year of unpaid workers’ compensation.
Jones isn’t the only worker who has had to fight Amazon to get benefits after a workplace injury at one of the company’s more than 800 North American warehouses. Workers, advocates and regulators blame the injuries on Amazon’s demanding productivity goals, often called “rates,” which determine how long each task should take, down to the second, and monitor whether workers stay on track. Injured workers, evaluated by doctors paid by Amazon, say they face a system that focuses on getting them back on the floor rather than helping them recover. They also describe a byzantine HR system that requires constant communication to ensure their cases don’t fall through the cracks.
Amazon warehouse workers are likely to be working hard long shifts next week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the e-commerce giant will hold an annual eventextravagant shopping. Prime Day, one of the company’s biggest buying drivers, will send already taxed warehouse workers into a frenzy as they face a rush of orders and two-day shipping requirements.
The labor battle with Amazon over health care and time off comes as the company struggles to manage a sprawling warehouse and logistics business that has grown rapidly during the pandemic. Consumers who stayed at home placed record orders online, crowding out the need for more warehouses.
Amazon will hire 300,000 people in its fulfillment services in 2021, with the company announcing that its global workforce has grown to more than 1.6 million people by the end of the year. The company’s logistics operations, which include warehouses and aircraft facilities, have tripled in size. (Amazon is now struggling with a drop in demand and a consequent glut of space.)
A large company workforce comes with a higher accident rate. Between 2018 and 2020, Amazon warehouses in Minnesota had more than twice the injury rate of other warehouses in the state, according to the National Employment Law Project. Similarly, there were serious injuries at all Amazon warehouses in the USin 2021, according to the Strategic Organizing Center, a union-affiliated task force, which also found the company had nearly seven injuries per 100 workers and 38,000 total reported injuries.
Amazon does not dispute the workplace injury numbers, which are based on the company’s own reports to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the increase in injuries was related to the company’s growing workforce, adding that new hires were more likely to get injured.
“We take the health and safety of our team seriously, and while we’re not perfect, we don’t believe these few anecdotes represent the experiences of our more than a million frontline employees,” Nantel said of the employees interviewed by CNET. on. “When a member of our team has a problem, we work hard to help them with their unique challenges, including compensation, benefits or housing issues.”
Workers’ compensation attorneys say claiming benefits is complicated because many injured workers don’t realize they’re entitled to them to begin with. Many injured workers wait months before seeking legal advice.
“Most people have no real idea of what they’re entitled to or the claims process,” said Bryant Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago who has had clients with claims against Amazon.
Christopher Johnson, another workers’ compensation attorney in Illinois, said workers may be afraid to report an injury even when they know they could receive compensation because they fear retaliation and potential job loss.
“They’re willing to almost give up a lot of the rights they have,” Johnson said.
Why Are Injuries So Widespread on Amazon?
CEO Andy Jassy reiterated the company’s claim that hiring has increased over the past two years. Speaking to investors in April, he added that Amazon’s internal analysis found the company’s injury rate to be slightly worse than the industry average, though he said he was not satisfied with that performance.
“I don’t take comfort in being average,” Jassy said. “We want to be the best in the business.”
Findings from regulators point to one practice that Amazon could change to improve security: the challenging rate system.
An agency in Washington state found that Amazon often did not provide the tools needed to perform tasks ergonomically. If a tool such as a step stool existed, the agency found, “employees often overlook it for fear of being reprimanded for failing to meet administrative rate targets for slowing their work pace to use such a device.”
At the time, Amazon told The Seattle Times it planned to appeal the citation.
When the rate system leads to injuries, workers say they are stuck in a maze of red tape that causes delays.
Minnesota Amazon worker Daad Ali, who spoke through a Somali interpreter at a press conference in December, blamed the rate demands for injuries at his warehouse. Ali says he missed more than seven weeks of pay after injuring his spinal discs in July 2021, causing financial pain for his family. Amazon says Ali’s address was out of date in the company’s system and he received the payments after signing up for direct deposit.
Less than two months after his injury, Ali says he was back at work after being deemed fit by a doctor recommended by Amazon. The company did not reduce his duties, although Ali says he was still in pain. Amazon, he said, “will run you until you give up.”
Employees say they are cut off from care
Many Amazon workers who have consulted with Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney, end up getting workers’ compensation and medical care without problems. But he says the process can go off the rails even after treatment.
Caley Tibbittz, a former warehouse worker who does not work with Greening, damaged ligaments in his spinal cord after two hard falls at an Amazon Fresh facility in downtown Portland, Ore. A few days after the first fall, he tried to get through the shift by boosting with painkillers. He ended up falling again.
Unable to work, Tibbittz saw an urgent care doctor who contracted with Amazon. The doctor sent Tibbittz to physical therapy, where he made progress until he was forced to miss several weeks of appointments because Amazon’s contracted care provider was late approving his sessions. The care manager later stopped the treatment altogether because a medical examination determined that Tibbittz was not improving.
Pressed for money, Tibbittz started driving for DoorDash. He says he eventually gained more mobility as he bent, twisted and lifted in the course of his work. Still, he didn’t fully recover.
“My back hurts all the time,” Tibbittz said.
In response to Tibbittz’s concerns, Amazon told CNET that it did not provide the additional information it requested in order to extend his case.
The company says it is still working with Jones, the Kentucky worker who injured his wrist. Last fall, as Jones waited to hear whether Amazon would accommodate his disability, he began receiving requests from various company representatives asking for paperwork from his doctor. Jones believed Amazon already had the paperwork on file, but he submitted it via email anyway because he feared the company would close his case if he didn’t.
As requests for the same paperwork continued, he says he set a reminder on his phone for 2:30 p.m. every day to send it. After a month, the company stopped asking for the documents and confirmed they were in his file.
When Jones asked for pain medication, he says the doctor treating him didn’t write a prescription because Jones couldn’t work his shift at Amazon while he was taking the medication. Medical records confirm that the doctor did not prescribe Jones medication, but they do not say why.
Jones, who soon found the pain too much to continue physical therapy, says he was surprised by the switch.
“Why do you care more about me going to work,” Jones said, he thought then, “and less about my injury?”