Accidents at Amazon: workers left to suffer after warehouse injuries
Workers pack and ship customer orders at the Amazon fulfillment center Romeoville, Illinois on 1 August 2017. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Vickie Shannon Allen, 49, started working at Amazon as a counter in a fulfillment warehouse at Haslet, Texas, in May 2017. At first, like many employees, Allen was excited by the idea of working for one of the fastest growing corporations in the world. That feeling dissipated quickly after a few months.
“I noticed managers would ask you questions all the time about any bathroom breaks, performance and productivity. What they do is code your time, and they are allowed to change it at will. To me, that’s how they get rid of people,” Allen said.
Amazon is now the world’s most valuable retailer. Its customers are served by over 140 fulfillment centers like the one where Allen worked across the US. The revenues from these centers have made founder Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man – Bezos’ net worth recently crossed the $150bn, making him the wealthiest person in history, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
In the meantime, Allen has become homeless after a workplace accident left her unable to do her job.
Nor is Allen alone. A Guardian investigation has revealed numerous cases of Amazon workers suffering from workplace accidents or injuries in its gigantic warehouse system and being treated in ways that leave them homeless, unable to work or bereft of income.
Allen’s story began on 24 October last year when she injured her back counting goods on a workstation that was missing a brush guard, a piece of safety equipment meant to prevent products from falling onto the floor. She used a tote bin to try to compensate for the missing brush guard, and hurt her back while counting in an awkward position. The injury was the beginning of an ongoing ordeal she is still working to amend at Amazon. Over the course of a few weeks, Amazon’s medical triage area gave her use of a heating pad to use on her back, while Amazon management sent her home each day without pay until Allen pushed for workers compensation.
“I tried to work again, but I couldn’t stretch my right arm out and I’m right-handed. So I was having a hard time keeping up. This went on for about three weeks,” Allen said. Despite not getting paid, Allen was spending her own money to drive 60 miles one way to the warehouse each day just to be sent home.
Once on workers compensation, Allen started going to physical therapy. In January 2018, she returned to work and injured herself again on the same workstation that still was not fixed.
Allen went back on medical leave and took an additional two weeks of unpaid leave because she didn’t have the money to drive to work. In April 2018, an MRI scan showed her back was still injured, but just five days after her diagnosis, she claims Amazon’s workers compensation insurer, Sedgwick, had the company doctor drop her as a patient.
“By June 2018, they finally had that station fixed. It took them eight months to put one little brush guard on this station,” Allen said. On 2 July, she met with management at the Amazon fulfillment center, who offered her a week of paid leave for the issues she had to deal with over the past nine months.
“They’re also going to pay me for 24 more hours for last week. They haven’t said anything else,” Allen explained. ”They offered me a buyout, only for $3,500, which meant I would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement to not say anything derogatory about Amazon or my experience.”
Allen said she rejected the buyout offer to speak out against Amazon’s treatment of her. She currently lives out of her car in the parking lot of the Amazon fulfillment center. “They cost me my home, they screwed me over and over and I go days without eating.”
Allen’s case is one of numerous reports from Amazon workers of being improperly treated after an avoidable work injury. Amazon’s warehouses were listed on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s “dirty dozen” list of most dangerous places to work in the United States in April 2018. The company made the list due to its pattern of unsafe working conditions and its focus on productivity and efficiency over the safety and livelihood of its employees. Amazon’s emphasis on fulfilling a high demand of orders has resulted in unsafe working conditions for its warehouse employees.
In April 2018, 43-year-old Bryan Hill of Seffner, Florida filed a lawsuit against Amazon, alleging managers fired him for hurting his back on the job and failed to file a workers compensation claim once his injury was reported. “It’s been scheduled for mediation in September, and we’re in a holding pattern until then,” said Miguel Bouzas, the attorney representing Hill in the lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, Hill was told by a manager he was too young to have back problems, and he was fired before Amazon Human Resources would authorize a doctor visit.
At an Amazon Fulfillment Center in Pennsylvania, one former employee was fired five weeks after getting injured on the job. “I was on a ladder and someone came flying into the area I was in, hit the ladder causing me to fall, and I landed on my back and left leg,” said Christina Miano-Wilburn. Her back is permanently injured from the incident. “They refused to give me the paperwork for workmen’s comp. They cut my short term disability after five weeks. I was supposed to get it for 26 weeks.”
Miano-Wilburn was notified of her job termination through a letter in the mail in May 2017 after working at Amazon for two years. She lost her home shortly after being fired from Amazon.
Other Amazon employees succumb to the fatigue and exhaustion of the fulfillment center work environment and quit before getting injured. “I felt they thought I was faking. I was dehydrated and dizzy,” said Lindsai Florence Johnson, who was taken away in an ambulance in April during a hot day while working at an Amazon fulfillment center in San Bernardino, California. She quit in May 2018 over mistreatment after starting in June 2017. “Not all people report injuries because they are scared to get taken off their job or told they can’t work over there anymore. I have many times come home with bruises from work at Amazon and I experienced my first hernia there.”
In many cases, Amazon workers are left to deal with the temp agency that hired them, shifting the burden of responsibility to a third party and making it more difficult for workers to receive proper treatment and compensation. For nearly three years, Michael Yevtuck has been in and out of court over a workers compensation claim against Integrity Staffing, who hired him to work in a Robbinsville, New Jersey based Amazon fulfillment center.
“I was squatting full speed and going up the step ladder as many times as I could an hour to try to hit the rates. All that squatting hurt my left knee, so I favored the other one and hurt that one,” said Yevtuck, who hurt his knees in November 2015.
An Amazon company doctor recommended he return to work on light duty and gave him braces for each knee. Yevtuck provided documents corroborating his medical diagnoses from Amazon company doctors and private doctors. “As soon as I came back, the supervisor returned me back to a job that was full duty and I reinjured both knees.”
He added Amazon told him to return to work, or work a light duty job if he signed a form stating his injuries occurred prior to working at Amazon. An MRI he received in April 2016 from a private doctor noted he tore the meniscus in his left knee, but Amazon would not pay his medical fees or accept his workers compensation filing. His next court date in his legal efforts to obtain workers compensation and medical reimbursement from Amazon is in September 2018.
Amazon meanwhile insists that ensuring the safety of its workers is a priority and that it was “proud” of its record.
“Amazon has created over 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employs over 560,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority,” said Amazon spokesperson Melanie Etches in an email, who also pointed to the firm’s Safety Leadership Program as an example of being proactive on the issue.
“Operational meetings, new hire orientation, process training and new process development begin with safety and have safety metrics and audits integrated within each program … While any serious incident is one too many, we learn and improve our programs working to prevent future incidents,” Etches said.
- This article was amended on 30 July 2018 to correct the name of the city of Haslet, Texas.