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Amazon warehouse workers say they’re doing 'back-breaking' work without paid time off

Vox.com logo Vox.com 12/10/2019 Shirin Ghaffary
a woman standing in front of a computer: A worker at an Amazon warehouse south of Paris. Hundreds of workers at a Sacramento facility are demanding paid time off in a new petition.© Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images A worker at an Amazon warehouse south of Paris. Hundreds of workers at a Sacramento facility are demanding paid time off in a new petition.

As e-commerce giant Amazon expands its network of warehouses to sort and prepare packages for “last mile” shipments in urban areas, workers around the US are pushing back against what they say are unfair working conditions.

In July, delivery station workers in Chicago filed a labor complaint after they said Amazon cheated them out of overtime pay during Prime Week, when they worked extra shifts during a record heat wave. In October, workers in Minnesota at a delivery station walked out of work protesting the company’s strict time-off rules.

Now a group of delivery station workers called Amazonians United Sacramento has made a public petition for paid time off, which now has nearly 400 signatures in support. The group recently circulated an internal petition signed by over 200 workers at the Sacramento warehouse, as first reported by BuzzFeed News. So far, Amazon’s site and regional management team has not met with organizers of the petition or made any changes to the PTO policy.

The recent action is an escalation of labor tension at Amazon’s growing logistics network of last-mile delivery centers, which are smaller warehouses where workers prepare packages that are then sent out for delivery. Most workers at the Sacramento site — as with those at other delivery stations across the US — are prohibited from working more than 30 hours a week. They often work up to that maximum amount allotted; sometimes more than that during peak shopping times. Workers say their shifts are physically grueling, involving lifting hundreds of boxes weighing up to 50 pounds in a single day.

But because they aren’t working full-time hours, most of these workers do not receive benefits such as employer-subsidized health insurance, and they can be fired for taking off more than 20 hours every quarter. Amazon publicly promises its part-time employees paid time off on its own website (notably, though, the policy differs for California employees), as well as in its employee handbook, according to documents Recode reviewed.

When workers in Sacramento pointed this out to management, they say they were told the rules don’t apply to them since they are a specific subcategory of “class q” and “class m” logistics workers — a distinction they had previously never heard of and were given no explanation for.

“The fact is that Amazon is a trillion dollar company run by the richest man in the world,” the Sacramento workers said in the public petition, “and they intentionally give all class q part-time workers less benefits than regular part-time workers so that they grow the company at our expense. We’ve had enough.”

Related video: Amazon warehouse employees see high injury rates (provided ABC News)

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An Amazon spokesperson acknowledged that the company has received workers’ petition, but did not immediately respond to a question about how “class q” and “class m” workers are defined, and why these workers are not eligible for PTO like other part-time employees.

The spokesperson said in a statement to Recode: “Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. ... Benefits vary based on a variety of factors but if someone wanted to move to a role that offered regular, full-time benefits we expect to have more than a thousand of those roles in Sacramento throughout the year.”

The new public letter also calls for Amazon’s local management team to meet with representatives from Amazonians United Sacramento, which has turned into the de facto organizing group for workers at the warehouse. Currently, the group says it operates as an independent worker organization not affiliated with any union.

It’s also one of several worker-led groups that have organized in recent months at Amazon’s delivery stations, and it has had some recent successes in petitioning for better working conditions. In July, a group of workers in Chicago called Amazonians United DCH1 publicly came forward demanding rights for workers, including health care benefits and air conditioning on site. They had an early win when management agreed to send workers home during a sweltering heat wave that they say made it unsafe to work.

Delivery station worker organizers in Eagan, Minnesota, walked out of work until their manager agreed to talk to his boss about demands related to time off. And Amazon workers in Sacramento successfully campaigned to get two colleagues rehired after they were fired for taking more unpaid time off than allowed, including one worker who says she was fired after taking off one more hour than permitted after her mother-in-law died.

“Any time you want to take time off to spend with your family, you have to hope an emergency doesn’t come up so that you don’t go over your limit of unpaid time off,” said one Sacramento DSM1 worker, who added that one of the most common reasons for people getting fired at the warehouse is for taking too much unpaid time off, often to take care of their loved ones.

While there have been reports of poor labor practices across Amazon’s supply chain — and incidents as severe as death on the warehouse floor — delivery station sites in particular have become a hotbed for worker activism. Unlike other larger fulfillment centers in suburban areas, these warehouses are largely in urban areas like Chicago, New York, Portland, and Sacramento. Workers are often the last ones moving around packages just before they’re put in trucks for final-mile delivery to a customer’s doorstep.

These workers say that they’re arbitrarily classified as a subcategory of workers who don’t have the same benefits as their full-time colleagues at other facilities.

“We’re doing back-breaking warehouse work,” said a delivery station worker in Chicago. “So whether it’s someone working 40 hours a week who gets injured or somebody working 24 hours a week, it doesn’t matter. We just wanted to be treated equally as all of Amazon’s other part-time workers.”

As Amazon continues to grow an independent logistics network that will include more of these delivery stations rather than relying on contracted partners like FedEx, workers say they only anticipate a bigger fight ahead. Several workers said they were frustrated by Amazon’s statement that workers unhappy with their lack of benefits should acquire full-time jobs within the company, since many workers at delivery stations want to work more than 30 hours a week but are blocked by Amazon’s rules. Workers say that the nearest Amazon fulfillment centers with full-time jobs can be hours away.

“This is what the economy is, part-time work is all we can get,” the Chicago worker said. “This is the reality of our economy, and we deserve paid time off.”

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