Future Tense

Coronavirus Diaries: I’m an Amazon Worker Handling All Those Toilet Paper Shipments

We’ve been granted unlimited unpaid time off in case we’re sick.

a bunch of rolls of toilet paper
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This is as-told-to essay from J, 40, a mother of four who works part-time in an Amazon sortation center in California. It has been edited and condensed for clarity from a conversation with Emily Guendelsberger.

I’ve been here for about a year and a half. I was in graduate school—I’ve been trying to get my degree forever. I have four kids, and I’d lost my financial aid, and it was right before Christmas. I realized I wasn’t going to have any presents for my kids, so I needed to find a job really fast. And Amazon’s really fast—they just hire you, and that’s it. I started as a scanner—that’s just scanning packages going into pallets for the postal service. Then I got into their learning department as an ambassador, so now I train people for new roles and I train day-one and day-two new hires.

I do problem-solving, too. I deal with mashed-up packages, I actually get to see what people order because I go through people’s packages all day long. Our sortation center has a big automated element to it, and it is a package blender. So we have a huge quantity of packages that get mashed up or at least damaged to some degree. So yeah, I repackage people’s things all day long, and I reorder them if it’s not salvageable. It’s a weird job, honestly. You can develop whole life stories about people. For some reason, people like to order huge quantities of dog food with like one thing of contact lenses.

Amazon hired a lot of people for peak [during the holiday rush] and then they let them go. We started getting really nailed after peak [when people began worrying about the coronavirus]. For about two weeks, everything was elderberries, which I guess does something for your immune system? The smell of a broken elderberry bottle—you could tell from down the street because they start to ferment really fast.

Hand sanitizer started going crazy a couple weeks ago, too. After I picked up on it, I felt bad, because I’d been damaging out [marking damaged products for discard] hand sanitizer that was going to be worth, like, millions! I didn’t get what a precious substance it was.

Right now, it’s paper products and supplements. There’s a lot of toilet paper and paper towels, and those things do not ship well. You can’t build a pallet with them. We’re having an issue with that right now.

I don’t know why, but now it’s really chill. Our volume seemed to drop by like a third. I don’t know if it’s people’s buying habits, whether they already went through the panic-buying phase and now everyone’s starting to chill out a bit, or if some other facility came back online, or what. I do know that it got really crazy for a minute, and then it sort of stopped. It’s not dead or anything. It’s just not as intense as it was a few weeks ago.

We don’t have paid time off because we’re not full time; we do have sick time because we’re in California. And then we also have UPT, unpaid time off. If you don’t have any sick time or PTO, and you’re 15 minutes late to work, that’ll cost you an hour of UPT. They want you to use it for emergencies.

You usually get 80 hours of UPT for the year. If you go under 16 you get a warning in your account; if you go under zero, you’re terminated, and they do not play. So you have to keep that positive, or you lose your job.

We’re getting unlimited UPT for this month. If people didn’t have the unlimited UPT, it would make people go to work sick, it would. It was a remarkably smart thing for them to do. I’m just wondering about the people I’m not seeing at work—their health and everything. I’m surprised at how many people are still coming to work, but a lot aren’t. A lot of people, this is their second job, because, again, it’s part time. And we have a lot of retired people. So attendance is down, but it’s not terrible yet.

Amazon got really generous with the hand sanitizer and wipes. I mean, they really seem to try to do what they can. The thing about this is—really, what can anybody do? Masks are the only other thing I can think of that they’re not doing, and the effectiveness is debatable.

So we have all these hand sanitizers and wipes, we’re well-stocked with that. But we’re still standing half a foot away from each other at standup [the mandatory, twice-daily meeting where workers gather for stretches and announcements]. And people hug at work! And I’m, like, “HEY!” And they get offended. If you try to not hug somebody, it is the worst interaction. Like, have you ever tried to stop a hug? People are used to being shoulder to shoulder, breathing the same air. My ears are tuned to coughs right now, and I don’t hear anybody coughing at work, I will say that.

I really started feeling a sense of duty about some of this. I’ve always taken my job seriously, because I’ve loved Amazon as a service since I had my first kid in 2004, and I had three more kids right after that, and I needed diapers. I know what it’s like for birthday presents not to get there on time. So I’ve always taken it seriously because of that. But it’s so important right now—and maybe in the future, if things get worse or weirder. It’s almost a necessary service now. I feel emotional about it. I care that people get their orders in a timely manner. I don’t know if Amazon does anything for the right reasons, but I do know that it’s important to keep it running. Because people need their stuff, man!

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.