“We Are Human Beings. We Are Not Tools.”—The New York Times on “The Amazon That Customers Can’t See”

A New York Times story today by Jodi Kantor, Kanen Weise, and Grace Ashford was headlined “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See.” It was featured on page one and then jumped to five full pages of story inside. Much of the story was about what Amazon workers went through over the past year. The story’s deck said “Profits Soared, But Pandemic Exposed Flaws in Its Employment Machine.”

Here are some of the explanatory parts that went with the people stories:

Mr. Castillo’s workplace, the only Amazon fulfillment center in America’s largest city, was achieving the impossible during the pandemic. With New York’s classic industries suffering mass collapse, the warehouse, called JFK8, absorbed hotel workers, actors, bartenders and dancers, paying nearly $18 an hour. Driven by a new sense of mission to serve customers afraid to shop in person, JFK8 helped Amazon smash shipping records, reach stratospheric sales and book the equivalent of the previous three years’ profits rolled into one.

That success, speed and agility were possible because Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, had pioneered new ways of mass-managing people through technology, relying on a maze of systems that minimized human contact to grow unconstrained.

But the company was faltering in ways outsiders could not see, according to a New York Times examination of JFK8 over the last year.

In contrast to its precise, sophisticated processing of packages, Amazon’s model for managing people — heavily reliant on metrics, apps and chatbots — was uneven and strained even before the coronavirus arrived, with employees often having to act as their own caseworkers, interviews and records show. Amid the pandemic, Amazon’s system burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages….

Amazon continued to track every minute of most warehouse workers’ shifts, from how fast they packed merchandise to how long they paused — the kind of monitoring that spurred a failed unionization drive led by frustrated Black employees at an Alabama warehouse this spring. If productivity flagged, Amazon’s computers assumed the worker was to blame. Early in the pandemic, the online retailer paused its firing of employees for low output, but that change was not announced clearly at JFK8, so some workers still feared that moving too slowly would cost them their livelihoods.

“It is very important that area managers understand that associates are more than just numbers,” an employee wrote on JFK8’s internal feedback board last fall, adding: “We are human beings. We are not tools used to make their daily/weekly goals and rates.”…

In documenting the untold story of how the pandemic exposed the power and peril of Amazon’s employment system, reporters interviewed nearly 200 current and former employees, from new hires at the JFK8 bus stop to back-office workers overseas to managers on Staten Island and in Seattle. The Times also reviewed company documents, legal filings and government records, as well as posts from warehouse feedback boards that served as a real-time ticker of worker concerns….

David Niekerk, a former Amazon vice president who built the warehouse human resources operations, said that some problems stemmed from ideas the company had developed when it was much smaller. Mr. Bezos did not want an entrenched work force, calling it “a march to mediocrity,” Mr. Niekerk recalled, and saw low-skilled jobs as relatively short-term. As Amazon rapidly grew, Mr. Niekerk said, its policies were harder to implement with fairness and care. “It is just a numbers game in many ways,” he said. “The culture gets lost.”

Even Mr. Bezos, in his final lap as chief executive of the company he created, is now making startling concessions about the system he invented. In a recent letter to shareholders, he said the union effort showed that “we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.”

“We have always wanted to be Earth’s most customer-centric company,” he wrote. Now, he added, “we are going to be Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.”

Amazon is also on pace to become the nation’s largest private employer within a year or two, as it continues expanding. About a million people in the United States, most of them hourly workers, now rely on the company’s wages and benefits. Many describe the job as rewarding….

Amazon intentionally limited upward mobility for hourly workers, said David Niekerk, the former H.R. vice president who retired in 2016 after nearly 17 years at the company. Dave Clark, then head of operations, had shot down his proposal around 2014 to create more leadership roles for hourly employees, similar to noncommissioned officers in the military, he recalled.

Instead, Mr. Clark, who is now chief executive of Amazon’s consumer business, wanted to double down on hiring “wicked smart” frontline managers straight out of college, Mr. Niekerk said. By contrast, more than 75 percent of managers in Walmart’s U.S. stores started as hourly employees. Following a pattern across Amazon, JFK8 promoted 220 people last year among its more than 5,000 employees, a rate that is less than half of Walmart’s.

Amazon’s founder didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing “a large, disgruntled” work force as a threat, Mr. Niekerk recalled. Company data showed that most employees became less eager over time, he said, and Mr. Bezos believed that people were inherently lazy. “What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need.” That conviction was embedded throughout the business, from the ease of instant ordering to the pervasive use of data to get the most out of employees….

In July, Amazon announced $5.2 billion in earnings for the quarter — a record, until the next quarter brought $6.3 billion….

Two measurements dominated most hourly employees’ shifts. Rate gauged how fast they worked, a constantly fluctuating number displayed at their station. Time off task, or T.O.T., tracked every moment they strayed from their assignment — whether trekking to the bathroom, troubleshooting broken machinery or talking to a co-worker. The company pioneered new ways to calculate both metrics in the mid-2000s, when a smaller, scrappier Amazon set out to revolutionize warehouses.

Mr. Niekerk, the former H.R. chief for operations, said the emphasis on productivity tracking, alluring in a company as analytical as Amazon, was debated from the start. He had been skeptical, arguing that “a productivity metric is always a frightening thing,” conveying “One slip-up and I will fall behind.’”

“I lost that battle,” he said. Eventually, he said, promises of firmer, faster delivery created “a multiplying effect on the demand for higher productivity.

In newer, robotics-driven warehouses like JFK8, those metrics were at the center of Amazon’s operation. A single frontline manager could keep track of 50, 75, even 100 workers by checking a laptop. Auto-generated reports signaled when someone was struggling. A worker whose rate was too slow, or whose time off task climbed too high, risked being disciplined or fired. If a worker was off task, the system assumed the worker was to blame….

In the final months of Jeff Bezos’ tenure as chief executive, his high-turnover model looked riskier, and the concerns about how Amazon treated the workers who powered its rise were tarnishing his legacy. During the pandemic, Mr. Bezos’ personal wealth exploded from $110 billion to more than $190 billion. He had also been building a $500 million superyacht, according to the new book “Amazon Unbound,” and preparing for his first spaceflight after investing billions in his rocket company, Blue Origin.

Mr. Bezos’ commitment in April to become “Earth’s best employer” raised questions — about what exactly that meant, and how far he and his successors would go.

Amazon soon rolled out more raises. Starting wages at JFK8 went up 50 cents, to $18.25. The company announced safety initiatives and diversity plans, including a goal to “retain employees at statistically similar rates across all demographics” — an implicit admission that the numbers had been uneven across races. Ms. Weishalla’s successors on Staten Island were holding weekly “talent review” meetings to ensure that Black and Latino workers, among others, were finding advancement opportunities.

In an interview, Mr. Agboka, the head of warehouse human resources, acknowledged that the company had relied too heavily on technology to manage workers. “We’re recognizing that in many times, where we thought self-service was good, self-service was not the only — can’t be the only — solution,” he said. “Every experience matters. And when the experiences aren’t right, we’ve got to find a way to fix it.”

But it wasn’t clear how much the company was willing to reconsider the sacrosanct systems of productivity, automation and high turnover that propelled it to dominance. “Are they going to address the issue of an expendable work force?” asked Mr. Cavagnaro, the fired worker who was returning to JFK8. “Are there going to be any changes?”

After repeated inquiries from The Times about the time off task policy and Dayana Santos, the JFK worker who challenged her termination, Amazon this month announced an immediate change: No longer could someone be fired for one bad day. All those who had been were now eligible for rehiring. The company said it had been reconsidering the policy for months.

In Seattle, Paul Stroup, whose teams studied Amazon’s hourly work force, watched the recent events and read Mr. Bezos’ letter. He felt caught between skepticism and hope that the company would finally deploy what he considered its best qualities — a penchant for fresh, open-minded thinking and tackling ambiguous, hard problems — in service of its workers.

“It would be an amazing thing for hourly employment across industries,” he wrote in a note on LinkedIn. “Jeff’s comment makes me think things could change, but it may be too late to reverse the damage it has done.”

“Now,” he said, “let’s see if they can innovate their way out of this.”

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