First there was Black Friday. Then there was Cyber Monday. And now every year we have Prime Day—a two-day online shopping blitz in which Amazon offers timed sales throughout the day, transforming an otherwise slow time for e-commerce into a money-minting holiday for the Everything Store. It’s also a time of year in which workers at Amazon fulfillment centers get very, very busy.
To get a sense of how Amazon’s warehouse personnel experience Prime Day, I spoke to a woman, Nicole C., who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center in Illinois until this June, when she quit after feeling exasperated over her experience there. (I first encountered her on a Facebook group for Amazon workers who share memes about the fulfillment centers. I am withholding her last name because she was unsure if she was allowed to speak to the press.) At the warehouse, Nicole packed boxes, picked items from shelves to be shipped out, and “stowed,” which means scanning products and placing them on shelves to be picked later.
On Monday, thousands of Amazon fulfillment center workers across the world went on strike during Prime Day, demanding better working conditions. Amazon has worked for years to quash employee efforts to unionize, and in a statement on the strikes, the company bashed unions for organizing around Prime Day as a way to “to raise awareness for their cause, in this case, increased membership dues.” Earlier this year, Amazon was sued by seven women who worked at their warehouses for firing them after they became pregnant. Several workers have died while working at Amazon fulfillment centers. In January, the wife of a man who had a heart attack and died while working in an Amazon warehouse filed a suit against the company for not contacting 911 fast enough, despite only being a half-mile from a fire station. As these stories have piled up, Amazon has tried to improve public perception of the fulfillment centers, tasking some warehouse employees to defend the company on Twitter as “Amazon FC ambassadors” and offering fulfillment-center tours.
In my interview with Nicole, we discussed the floor conditions she experienced at Amazon, why the quota system there can be so brutal, and what happens to workers on Prime Day—one of the biggest online shopping days of the year. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
April Glaser: When did you work at the Amazon fulfillment center and what did you do there?
Nicole: I worked there September of 2017 to last month. I actually packed most of the times, but I also picked and I also stowed, so I cross-changed in three different departments.
What were the working conditions like?
At first, I really loved my job. They had quotas, which you would expect, but all of a sudden it just seemed like they kept getting higher and higher. And after, like, six months, they started with, like, “You’re not meeting your quota.” I’m like, “I haven’t changed anything that I’m doing.” I mean, yeah, I had some health stuff come up, but I am not changing my pace. I’m not doing anything. So that was just continuous.
It’s also so darn hot there. They couldn’t ever regulate their heating and air conditioning. It’s just—it’s unbearable.
So like, when you’re in pick, depending on what you’re picking, you know, there are different rates for everything. If you don’t meet your rate—like, if you’re not above 100 percent—you get written up. So anytime you fell below the mark, you would get written up and then they had this thing—it was like a sliding scale that depends on what everybody does in the building. And if you are at the lower 5 percent, you would get written up. In a rolling 12 months, I think you could only get six write-ups. So this could happen within six weeks—you could end up getting terminated if you’ve fallen below the mark because you could get written up every week.
They do have a corrective action, where you would be retrained. And someone, like a trainer or an ambassador, would sort of watch what you’re doing and say, “OK, well this could speed it up,” or “Try this to see if there’s anything that you’re doing that could just help your rate go up.” I had that done to me and the trainer was like, “Well, she’s not doing anything different. It’s not like she’s slow at her pace.”
I ended up quitting before even any corrective action could be taken. I was on, like, a fifth write-up, and I ended up leaving because I actually mentally could not handle it because it’s like, the managers, they have no empathy. There’s just the quota. They don’t care what’s going on. And I was on an overnight shift—Thursday, Friday, Saturday—and it doesn’t matter what’s going on medically unless you actually have a doctor’s note. No one wants to talk to you, and there’s no people skills whatsoever. It’s like you’re a number. You’re a robot, and you know, that’s how it goes.
Did things get worse over time?
It got worse over time because the managers switch. I was there, let’s see, almost two years, and I think we went through six managers. They switch to different departments or they go to different shifts or they go somewhere else. It was very impersonal.
And was it difficult to do normal things like use the bathroom?
Oh yeah, you only had six minutes of time off-task. So if you know anything about an Amazon building, getting from point A to point B there, it’s almost impossible in six minutes. The thing’s like a mile long. Everything is extremely far away. You either walk from one building to another or you walk downstairs and go halfway and then there’s the bathroom. You have up to a half-hour that you can have time off-task before they say anything. Basically, they want you to go to the bathroom on your break or your lunch or on your own time.
As you’ve seen stories in the news about the difficult working conditions at fulfillment centers, which disclosed long hours, pressure to meet quotas that were always rising, no breaks, employees told to work despite health complaints—did any of that resonate?
Yes, I mean, you have people that it doesn’t affect and then people that it does. It all depends on your age too. If you have somebody who is 18 years old just out of high school or someone who is in their mid-20s, it might not be a problem. But if you have somebody who is even 35 and life has taken a toll on you, it is much harder. And some people can run circles around you. When they take the numbers, I don’t think they take age into consideration all that often. And you have people who are, like, killing themselves to get stuff done and people who work through their breaks just to get stuff done.
So after the news reports came out, did things improve at work?
No, not at all. I don’t think it affected anything.
Did workers talk about the news?
Yes, there were a lot of people who agreed with the reports. What did we call it? We’d call it the Amazon Sweatshop.
I saw there was a meme forum on Facebook. Is there a culture around, like, online jokes?
Yeah. There’s a Facebook meme page. It’s where people can ask questions, and it’s almost an outlet to kind of vent with people who are in the same boat as you and understand the culture.
Tell me about Prime Day.
I only went through one, and last year I didn’t actually think it was that bad. We were supposed to go on mandatory overtime for two extra days. We had all hands on deck. It was no different than a Christmas holiday. Like on Black Friday, you’re on mandatory 12 hours. And for holiday time my first year, I think it was busier than last year. I mean, it wasn’t bad. You had two shifts working at one time, like a front half and a back half. You might have more product and stuff that goes out. It all depends on what your fulfillment center carries. We had a lot of clothes and not a lot of large items.
So what’s the culture like there? Are people friendly to each other?
It all depends on where you’re at. It’s a noisy environment, so you can easily keep to yourself. There could be somebody working next to you that you might not see for a while because they often switch things up and they often don’t want you talking because your numbers stay up if you’re not talking.
A lot of people shop at Amazon because it’s cheap and because they don’t have time to shop. Do workers at Amazon find themselves in the same place? Are they also shopping at Amazon?
So our benefits were fabulous. I’ll give you that. Our benefits were fabulous. But when it came to a discount, you got 10 percent off $100 once a year, so that’s like basically, what, $10? And a lot of people do shop from Amazon online, because when you’re working during the holiday season, you don’t really have time for anything else because you’re working 60 hours a week. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family basically didn’t see me because you’re working 12 hours a day five days a week. I was either at home sleeping or coming home, eating, and going back to work.
Anything else about your job or something you remember that you want to share?
I mean, leaving was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I mean, I went to Amazon because I needed a job where I liked the hours and the pay ended up going up while I was working there, but my body … and mentally, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. My managers changed so much … and I thought I had a really good rapport with my one manager before I ended up taking a medical leave. And when I come back, she’s gone, my other manager’s gone, and it was like starting over fresh. So I went back at the beginning of April and I left at the beginning of June.
And there was no way to talk to people. I mean, I worked at the company two years and I couldn’t tell you a direct number to talk to a person. We had an employee resource line for talking to somebody. But I believe it’s in a different country because it’s never somebody that seems like they spoke very good English—and I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but that’s what it seems like. They’re not fully understanding where your fulfillment center is or what is going on and you’re starting again from square one.