An Ex-Amazon warehouse worker has lifted the lid on her time as an employee at the e-commerce giant’s Staten Island fulfilment center, branding the Jeff Bezos-owned facility a ‘cult-like’ sweatshop run by robots.
Speaking exclusively to the NY Post, 46-year-old Maureen Donnelly said she was forced to hand in her resignation to her Amazon bosses in October last year, having enrolled in the company’s ranks just one month earlier.
A former paramedic and newsroom clerk, Donnelly insists she isn’t someone who shies away from hard work but says the conditions inside the 855,000-square-foot packing plant were simply unbearable.
‘I soon learned that only difference between an Amazon warehouse and a third-world sweatshop were the robots,’ Donnelly told the Post. ‘At Amazon, you were surrounded by bots, and they were treated better than the humans.’
Donnelly isn’t alone in her claims. On Monday, more than 100 protestors rallied in front of the building where she briefly worked, demonstrating against harsh working conditions and worryingly high rates of workplace injuries.
Adding to the company’s woes, Amazon also featured on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s 2019 ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, which names and shames the nation’s most dangerous employers.
She said she was impressed by the perks of the job – which she cited as: stock shares; employee discounts; full benefits; four-day work weeks, without the obligation of large amounts of mandatory overtime – in addition to the pay, which was in excess of $16 per-hour.
But after enduring 12 hour shifts with limited breaks, sweltering temperatures and filled with ‘mind numbing labor’, Connelly’s ardor quickly soured.
While ‘enthusiastic’ Amazon recruiters bragged to Donnelley about the size of the four-story Staten Island fulfilment center – known as JKF8 – telling her it was big enough to fit 18 football fields inside, she would soon learn the sheer size of the building would pose huge problems for the workers within.
From her first day on the job, Donnelly claims managers would regularly drum into her that Amazon is ‘the best place to work’ – later reflecting on the purported persistent reiterations to be ‘cult-like’.
She was assigned the role of a ‘stower’, who are responsible for stocking shelves and calling racks, requiring her to work alongside ‘squat, square orange robots’ which carried eight-foot-tall yellow racks between workers across the warehouse floor.
‘The bots would whiz around to the stowers and stop. Somebody called a “water spider” would bring me boxes of items to stow. I would lift the items out of the box, scan them and put each item into a compartment in the rack,’ Donnelly explained to the Post.
‘When the rack was full, I pressed a button, and the robot would zip away with the rack, and another robot would arrive with an empty rack for me to fill.’
As part of the company’s rules, all employees were forced to place personal items in a locker before stepping out into the warehouse, she says.
Among the forbidden items were headphones – cited as a safety hazard – and cellphones, which is said to have caused a number of problems for single parents with young children.
‘One single mom in her 30s with a five-year-old daughter didn’t have an emergency number she could give to her babysitting parents or her kid’s school,’ Donnelly recalled.
After stowing away the items, Donnelly says she was then forced to partake in calisthenic exercises for 10-minutes – a daily routine that left her feeling as if she’d enrolled in the Army, rather than Amazon.
Drinks were strictly forbidden from the warehouse floor, except water, which Connelly says was a point of fascination for management, who regularly came round to remind her to ‘stay hydrated’.
‘I think they were worried about people passing out and falling off the line,’ she theorized to the Post.
But with the constant demands to keep drinking came an unfortunately consequence of constantly needing the bathroom, Donnelly said, and too many bathroom breaks would allegedly leave warehouse management ‘hot and bothered’.
She added that all staff were forced to disclose they were going to the bathroom before doing so, something she hadn’t needed to do since kindergarten.
‘I used to try and hold it in until a break,’ Donnelly disclosed. ‘We got two 15-minute breaks sandwiched between 30 minutes for lunch. One time I couldn’t hold it in anymore and left five minutes early — so they cut five minutes off one of my other breaks. I was like, “Seriously?”’
As for her 30-minute lunch break, Donnelly said it would take up half of her allotted time just to walk to the lunch room.
‘I had just enough time to shove half a peanut butter sandwich in my mouth, take a couple of gulps of soda, have a cigarette and then start the 18-football-field trek back,’ she continued.
She also claimed there were no chairs at her workspace. The only places with an available place to rest her feet was either the bathroom – a seven minute walk away – or the aforementioned lunch break room.
To make matters worse, temperatures in the building were, on some occasions, sweltering, Donnelly alleged, adding it ‘felt like 150 degrees’ on the worst offending days.
‘People kept asking, “Can we get fans?” But the answer was always “no,” she told the Post. ‘You know why? Because, we were told, the robots don’t function well in the cold. Finally we figured out why every manager in the place was wearing shorts.’
While she purportedly battled with scorching temperatures, sporadic bathroom breaks and crippling pain in her overworked feet, Donnelly said one of the greatest challenges came with carrying out the job itself – a ‘lather, rinse, repeat’ pattern of work she described as mind-numbing.
She said she was issued near impossible ‘projections’ to meet, requiring her to stock at least 12 items every minute, while a computer constantly reminded her how far she was off meeting the quota.
‘I wasn’t disciplined because I was a newbie,’ Donnelly said. ‘And I quit before I could find out the punishment.’
Amazon has previously confirmed it has automated systems to track every second of their employee’s working days. If too much time is spent ‘off task’, warnings to them are automatically generated.
Should any worker receive six warnings in a 12 month period, culprits are sent an automatically generated termination notice – though supervisors are able to override them.
‘The job crushed my spirit — and crippled my body. I would spent nearly 12 hours a day with with no one to talk to for more than five minutes. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was getting cranky with family,’ Donnelly said.
‘My knees were killing me. My back and shoulders constantly hurt. My left hip throbbed. After every shift, I’d ice my swollen ankles, which were triple the normal size.’
By the second week, Donnelly was determined to quit. However, wanting to make her father proud she persevered through the pain and anguish with persistent inner monologues, urging herself to keep going.
But when one of her colleagues got hurt on a ladder, and supervisors told Donnelly she would be forced to work more overtime, the final straw followed.
‘Amazon tries to project this image of being such a blessed place to work. It was absolutely the worst job I ever had in my life,’ Donnelly told the Post.
‘In the end, I didn’t get stock. I was forced to work more hours than I wanted. The employee discount was only on products made by Amazon. It felt like a bait and switch.
‘I had to laugh at that commercial where they show how great it is to work at Amazon… No one I knew at Amazon was remotely that happy.’
Donnelly says she feels a great deal of sympathy for those still working for Amazon, insisting those who buy products from the e-commerce site can never full appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that goes into ensuring their orders arrive on time.
‘When I finally threw in the towel, I finished my shift, left the building, phoned the warehouse, told them to give my manager this message: I had another job offer and was taking it. Which was not true,’ Donnelly said.
‘What I really wanted to say was: “F–k Jeff Bezos.”’