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The real Amazon scandal has nothing to do with its white-collar workers

A worker at the Amazon warehouse in Hemel Hempstead, England, tapes up a parcel on December 5, 2014.
A worker at the Amazon warehouse in Hemel Hempstead, England, tapes up a parcel on December 5, 2014.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

A new report by the New York Times's Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld paints Amazon as a rather miserable place for white-collar workers. Some examples the piece documents are truly egregious. A woman with breast cancer was threatened with firing because "difficulties" in her "personal life" had interfered with her work, as was a woman who recently endured a stillbirth. Another woman was forced out after years of high performance marks because she visited her sick father too often. Even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has acknowledged those cases are unacceptable, and sent a memo to employees encouraging them to report treatment like that to HR.

But as bad as those anecdotes are, the piece describes an office that is nonetheless far, far preferable to the other workplaces Amazon runs: its warehouses.

What Amazon warehouses are like

Spencer Soper of the Morning Call, a daily paper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, described the local Amazon warehouse in 2011 as constantly overheated, with temperatures of more than 100 degrees during summer heat waves. After a federal investigation into conditions, the company started keeping an emergency vehicle with paramedics outside the warehouse to handle cases of heatstroke. An emergency room doctor who treated some of the warehouse's workers reported Amazon for unsafe work conditions.

Apart from the heat, the warehouses paid little ($11 to $12 an hour) and imposed extremely strict discipline on employees. They used a point-based system wherein missed work, not working fast enough, or breaking safety rules earned a worker points, and employees with too many points were fired. Sick employees had to bring in doctor's notes and request medical waivers if they didn't want to get points. "When the heat index exceeded 110, they'd give you voluntary time off," former worker Robert Rivas told Soper. "If you wanted to go home, they'd send you home. But if you didn't have a doctor's note saying you couldn't work in the heat, you'd get points."

In 2012, after Soper's exposé, Amazon installed additional air conditioning units at its warehouses at a cost of $52 million — not insignificant a firm with profit margins as razor-thin as Amazon's. But conditions still aren't good. Amazon is currently under federal investigation after a worker died at a warehouse in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It had already been investigated after a worker died in a sorting facility it owned in New Jersey, but ultimately wasn't cited. As of this year, Amazon still advertised jobs paying as little as $11 an hour. Warehouse employees still have to sign detailed noncompete agreements that potentially limit their ability to work at retail outlets selling similar goods to Amazon. Workers aren't unionized, and Amazon beat back an attempt by equipment technicians and mechanics to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in January.

In 2013, a BBC reporter went undercover at an Amazon plant in Wales and found himself walking 11 miles over the course of a 10 1/2-hour shift; he was expected to handle a new order every 33 seconds. Warehouse workers still have to endure long security screenings when leaving the facilities, time for which they are not compensated (Amazon went all the way to the Supreme Court to avoid paying for time spent in security lines); the screenings restrict lunch breaks so much that a group of employees has filed a lawsuit alleging the practice breaks federal wage and hour laws. And the strict discipline that Soper described has endured. In 2013, the Financial Times's Sarah O'Connor reported that one employee had a shift canceled after he took a day off because of blisters he'd developed on the job.

This is the real problem

Large aerial picture of giant warehouse full of yellow bins and conveyer belts

An aerial view of Amazon's warehouse in Hemel Hempstead, England, on December 5, 2014.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

To be clear: The problems with white-collar worker treatment cited in Kantor and Streitfeld's article are real (and Streitfeld, to his credit, has covered the poor conditions at Amazon warehouses as well). Disciplining workers for getting cancer is horrible.

But white-collar Amazon workers are also typically paid high wages, due to Amazon's need to compete with other firms offering lucrative compensation for talented programmers. If they don't like Amazon's work culture, it's very likely there's another firm that will hire them that offers a more relaxed environment. The tech job market is very tight, and while Amazon's coders shouldn't have to leave to enjoy work-life balance, exit is still a viable option.

Exit is not, generally, a viable option for warehouse employees: $11 an hour is not a competitive wage; generally the only people taking these jobs lack the credentials or skills necessary for more lucrative jobs and are taking positions at Amazon because it's the only work they can get. The alternative to working in a warehouse is, quite possibly, unemployment.

So it's a little rich to see people like best-selling author John Green canceling their Amazon Prime subscriptions due to the company's treatment of its well-paid workers:

It's fine to be mad about how Amazon treats workers. But let's not forget the workers who are truly getting screwed.

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