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Amazon’s employee surveillance fuels unionization efforts: ‘It’s not prison, it’s work’

Warehouse workers at the e-commerce giant cite the constant monitoring of them as a key reason for a labor push

Courtenay Brown, who works on the docks at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, said she believes the company's constant employee monitoring is stressful and demeaning. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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Courtenay Brown works in a giant refrigerated section of the Avenel, N.J., Amazon Fresh warehouse, sometimes 10 hours a day, making sure groceries find their way to the right delivery truck.

Brown, 31, said she is measured by a metric that calculates the amount of items her team loads to trucks along with the number of people working that shift. Amazon, which keeps tabs on workers through the handheld scanners they use to track inventory, regularly presses her to move more items with fewer people, she said. There are cameras everywhere.

“They basically can see everything you do, and it’s all to their benefit,” Brown said. “They don’t value you as a human being. It’s demeaning.”

That sentiment, that Amazon’s culture of surveillance constitutes inhumane working conditions, has become fuel for unionization efforts to organize hundreds of thousands of workers at the country’s second-largest private employer. Union organizers who spoke with The Washington Post pointed to strict productivity goals and high-tech monitoring as major factors in driving employees to seek representation.

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The tech giant uses those scanners, along with computers at workstations and software developed to track their performance, to a degree that critics say is unlike any other company. High-tech monitoring presses warehouse staff to meet onerous metrics and can lead to injuries, workers and regulators have said.

Workers behind the union efforts have focused significant energy countering the company’s tracking — something they also say stymies their efforts to organize.

Amazon’s surveillance of its workers even played a role in the decision by a National Labor Relations Board official to call for a new union vote at its Bessemer, Ala., warehouse Monday, finding that the company improperly interfered in the first election. Workers earlier this year rejected unionization by more than 2-to-1 in one of the first major bids to organize at Amazon in years.

A National Labor Relations Board official said on Nov. 29 that Amazon pressured its warehouse workers in Alabama to oppose unionizing in the first election. (Video: Reuters)

In her ruling, the NLRB’s Atlanta regional director, Lisa Y. Henderson, wrote that Amazon’s efforts to place an unmarked U.S. Postal Service mailbox in “plain view” of Amazon’s security cameras “essentially highjacked the process.” Employees “credibly” testified that they believed cameras were watching them everywhere — even in the parking lot, she wrote. Those cameras, along with Amazon encouraging workers to use the mailbox, “gave the impression that voters were expected and encouraged to vote under the watchful eye of the Employer,” Henderson wrote.

Amazon criticized Henderson’s decision to cast aside the earlier election, saying it was “disappointing” that she ruled the earlier votes wouldn’t count.

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Amazon already heavily affects the way Americans shop, read and even interact with voice assistants. Now, union organizers are concerned that the tech giant is set to have the same effect on the millions of workers employed at all types of warehouses around the country. Amazon deploys new practices that often influence industry standard. That is, in part, why organizers are pushing back so hard against the tracking.

“What this fight is about is the future of work and whether we want Amazon’s version of it,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union that led the Bessemer organizing drive.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said employee monitoring, via data collected by scanning devices as well as cameras situated through its warehouses, are prudent business measures.

“Like any business, we use technology to maintain a level of security within our operations to help keep our employees, buildings, and inventory safe — it would be irresponsible if we didn’t do so,” Nantel said in an emailed statement. “It’s also important to note that while the technology helps keep our employees safe, it also allows them to be more efficient in their jobs.”

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When workers scan items into warehouses, they trigger an algorithm-driven employee performance system, which tracks where products are located along with the speed that workers are doing their jobs. Managers have visibility into the software — dubbed the Associate Development and Performance Tracker, or Adapt — to review employee performance, Nantel said. Amazon also has systems that measure workers’ “time off task,” those moments when employees log off their devices — turning off their scanners or stepping away from their computers — to take a bathroom break or grab lunch.

“It’s one of the big reasons people want to unionize,” said Chris Smalls, a former process assistant at an Amazon facility in Staten Island who is leading an effort to unionize workers there. “Who wants to be surveilled all day? It’s not prison. It’s work.”

Nantel said the software is used to “coach employees who may be having problems or experiencing challenges.”

While many warehouses monitor employees with cameras and require them to hit certain productivity rates, Amazon differs because its sophisticated algorithms, fed by data collected from scanners and computers at workstations, track in real time how many orders a worker packs, for example, according to a former Amazon executive and industry experts. Some workers say the devices can also notify employees when they are falling below performance expectations, though Nantel disputed that.

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The development of those algorithms is a competitive advantage that Amazon is loath to scale back as the result of union negotiations, said the former executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal policy. The company’s surveillance of workers through the devices they use has given it scads of data to figure out the pace of work it believes is both attainable and efficient, said the executive, who marvels at the innovation of the system.

“Nothing like this has been done before. There is no playbook,” the executive said.

Nantel said the performance algorithm that’s enabled by Amazon’s monitoring also takes into account a worker’s experience as well as safety factors. With 950,000 employees in its U.S. logistics operations, employee monitoring provides a consistent way to measure worker performance, she said.

“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every employee and we measure actual performance against those expectations,” Nantel said in a statement. “In the case of our front-line workforce, performance targets are determined based on actual employee performance over a period of time.”

Fewer than 1 percent of the workers who are terminated are fired for performance issues, Nantel said. And Amazon modified its time-off-task rules in June, extending the amount of time workers can be logged off from their devices before managers question them.

Bezos also addressed the issue of Amazon’s worker monitoring in his annual letter to shareholders this spring, after the company faced a spate of criticism from politicians, unions and employees over workplace safety.

“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” Bezos wrote.

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Amazon was among the earliest companies to use robots in its facilities, acquiring Kiva Systems, a maker of robotic systems that move goods throughout warehouses, for $775 million in 2012. It has developed software to efficiently staff facilities with the precise number of workers it needs at any given time. The company has come up with a way to “gamify” warehouse work, rolling out video games that run on warehouse computers and pit individuals, teams or entire floors against one another in a race to pick or stow products on its shelves.

Amazon has even touted its use of video monitoring coupled with artificial intelligence software to enforce social distancing at warehouses to reduce potential transmission of the coronavirus. Its “Distance Assistant” displays camera footage in high-traffic areas, putting red circles around workers who are less than six feet apart to encourage them to spread out.

'Distant Assistant' artificial intelligence analyzes camera footage to help site leaders identify high traffic areas and enforce social distancing rules. (Video: Amazon)

Most Amazon warehouses are massive. Trucks back into loading docks where workers unload pallets of goods. Those pallets of goods are then scanned and unloaded onto shelves, with handheld devices that also track worker performance. In many warehouses, the products zip quietly up to workers and back through the warehouses on orange robots that resemble large Roombas. Other workers then take items off those shelves for each order, scanning the items they pick, again tracking the speed with which they do their work. Those pickers, then, put the items into bins that slide down a conveyor belt to be packed into boxes by other workers, whose pace is also tracked by computers at their workstations. Those boxes are packed onto trucks that then leave the building to head out for eventual delivery to consumers.

Tyler Hamilton, 24, started as one of the workers who scans items as they come into the warehouse and stows them on the shelves. Amazon not only tracked the items he stowed, it also tallied the rate at which he put away those goods with handheld scanners — then compared that to the rate at which it expects those workers to do their jobs.

Workers start with lower rates, which increase as they learn the job, Hamilton said. While he occasionally had trouble keeping up, he generally met Amazon’s targets. But Hamilton notes that he’s young. Older workers often have more difficulty.

“The system doesn’t recognize the human part of people, like, ‘I’m having a bad day,’ or ‘I’m having a tough time at home,’ ” said Hamilton, who has worked at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minn., warehouse for four years.

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The workers with whom The Post spoke said rates have fluctuated over time, often rising and falling with the availability of workers. Right now, with a tight labor market and Amazon scrambling to fill jobs, workers said the company has dialed back reprimands of workers not meeting targets, Hamilton said. Amazon’s Nantel disputes that the company’s enforcement of metrics changes with labor availability.

Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, an employee advocacy group in Ontario, Calif., said some pharmaceutical warehouses also closely monitor workers over concerns about theft, but no other company uses the sort of algorithms to track worker performance and to notify employees when they are coming up short.

“It’s starting to spread but Amazon was much further ahead in that area,” Kaoosji said.

Critics have said that Amazon’s use of data it gleans from monitoring has led to an injury rate at Amazon facilities that’s higher than industry norms. A Post analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data this spring showed Amazon’s serious injury rates are nearly double those at warehouses run by other companies.

In May, Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries cited Amazon for the hazardous conditions at its warehouse in DuPont, Wash., calling out the company’s employee surveillance.

“There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders],” according to the citation.

The agency fined Amazon $7,000, though the company is appealing the citation, disputing its findings.

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Some of that scrutiny is also contributing to labor organizing.

In late October, workers at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse filed their petition to hold a unionization vote, pressing for pay raises, increases to paid time off and vacation days, and longer breaks, among other grievances. They later withdrew the petition because they didn’t have enough signatures, but Smalls has said he plans to refile it. The indignities of constant monitoring also motivated workers to fight the company, said Smalls, the leader of the independent Amazon Labor Union.

Smalls worked for Amazon for five years until he was fired last year after agitating for safer working conditions at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon said he was fired for violating a quarantine, since he had been in contact with a co-worker who tested positive.

He worked as a manager overseeing workers who pick items off warehouse shelves to ship to Amazon’s customers. He walked through the cavernous warehouse as many as 30 miles a day, carrying a laptop that showed him how quickly pickers were doing their jobs, using data taken from scanners.

“I was able to see what they were doing to the second,” Smalls said.

Smalls noted that much of the time worker productivity slipped was during bathroom breaks: “I didn’t believe in the system.”

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