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‘It doesn’t have to be this way’: Amazon warehouse culture gets a closer look

Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois. Violent storms, some producing tornado activity, ripped through the Midwest on Friday night, killing at least two in the warehouse.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Workers attempt to clear debris as part of a search and rescue operation on Dec. 11 at an Amazon Distribution Hub in Edwardsville, Illinois.

After a tornado in Edwardsville, Illinois, caused an Amazon warehouse to collapse earlier this month, killing six people, the company’s record has drawn scrutiny.

Amazon’s intense labor practices have become notorious. News reports have detailed warehouse employees being worked to the point of exhaustion, drivers using plastic bottles in lieu of toilets because they have no time to stop for breaks and, recently, being surveilled at almost every moment.

Jason Struna, an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Puget Sound, wrote his dissertation on warehouse work and distribution centers. In 2013, he spent eight weeks working at a warehouse.

Struna said stories of intense work culture at Amazon align with what he experienced. He said he was tracked with scanners to make sure he’d reach his almost impossibly high quota every day.

“The quotas are exceedingly difficult to achieve. I was at 88% of my rate after a few weeks. I was warned that at 88%, I was at risk of losing my job if I didn't improve,” Struna said. “And 88% was over the industry standard. So we were already working over what process engineers thought human beings could safely do in that amount of time.”

Struna said there was an expectation of danger on the job. During training, workers were told, “There will be injuries, just make sure it's not you.”

An already dangerous job paired with a natural disaster like the tornado in Edwardsville could create a high-risk situation for employees, Struna observed. Even the size of the warehouse could potentially be a hazard.

“If you're in a facility that's a million square feet, and it takes you five minutes to go from the back of that facility to the bathroom — and frankly, we know that the bathrooms were the tornado shelters in this case — it may take too long to get to shelter,” Struna said. “And so it really is the scale of the facility.”

Intense labor practices could also be a factor. Employees at Amazon have had to work through dangerous weather previously, like a heat wave in the Pacific Northwest and deadly floods during Hurricane Ida.

Jason Struna on warehouse work culture

“I think the culture of producing through any event is part of what is maybe the problem here,” Struna said. “The assumption that things will just go on and that we have to deliver, we have to get the goods to the customer.”

A spokeswoman for Amazon defended the company’s record. She told St. Louis on the Air the company was doing its part to help support those affected by the tornado.

“We’re deeply saddened by the news that members of our Amazon family passed away as a result of the storm in Edwardsville, IL. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their loved ones, and everyone impacted by the tornado,” Kelly Nantel said. “We also want to thank all the first responders for their ongoing efforts on scene. We’re continuing to provide support to our employees and partners in the area.”

When it comes to understanding what happened in Edwardsville just before the tornado hit Dec. 10, Struna said the scanning technology that Amazon uses to follow employees’ locations and track their quotas may prove critical.

“You can see where the last scan was with the warehouse worker, you can see what the last delivery was or when people return to the worksite at the delivery center,” Struna said. “So as OSHA goes through their investigations, I think seeing that data would be very helpful.”

Struna said he doesn’t see a point at which Amazon would shut down and let workers go home.

“I just don't think it's in their DNA to do that. Amazon has a motto of ‘the most customer-centric company in the world’; they strive to always meet customer demands,” Struna said. “That means, frankly, putting the workers on the line.”

Unions have sought to organize Amazon warehouses, though the company has opposed the efforts. Danny Caine, author of “How to Resist Amazon and Why,” said that when workers sought to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama, the company worked with the city to change the lengths of the traffic light near the warehouse so that people wouldn’t be idling long enough to receive union information.

“It would really change the shop floor culture entirely if workers had a say about what their quotas would be, or how often they could take breaks to use the restroom, or the kinds of equipment that they would be forced to use,” Struna said. “But this is a long story in the United States, and not just with Amazon. Anti-union sentiment is very high in the United States.”

While warehouse work seems inherently dangerous, Struna argued that’s not a given.

“These can be workplaces that are humanely organized by people; they don't have to be dangerous,” he said. “They don't have to be places where people end up dying, whether it's by tornado or by forklift accident. People need to be given the tools that they deserve to keep these places safe.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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