About a year ago, Ash Jones grabbed a small box from a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse in Hebron, Kentucky. He hasn’t been able to work since.
The package, which Jones estimated to be about 10 inches long, was deceptively heavy. As he turned to place it on a pallet, his wrist gave out.
“I felt something pop,” said Jones, noting that the package had no label warning about its weight. He says his wrist later swelled to the size of an orange.
The injury was only the beginning of Jones’ problems. Initially on workers’ compensation, his benefits stopped after a few weeks because a doctor contracted by Amazon classified him as permanently disabled. After months without pay, Amazon said it couldn’t find a position that accommodated Jones’ disability. By that time, he had gotten a lawyer and a second opinion from a doctor who said the disability wasn’t permanent.
On the afternoon that CNET inquired about the details of Jones’ case, Amazon offered him a settlement for nearly a year of unpaid workers’ compensation.
Jones isn’t alone in fighting Amazon for benefits after an on-the-job injury at one of the company’s more than 800 North American warehouses, where unrelenting schedules collide with complex bureaucracy. Workers, advocates and regulators attribute injuries to Amazon’s demanding productivity targets, often called “the rate,” which dictate down to the second how long each task should take. Evaluated by doctors paid for by Amazon, injured workers say they face a system that focuses on getting them back on the floor rather than helping them heal. They also describe a Byzantine HR system that requires constant communication to ensure their cases don’t fall through the cracks.
Amazon’s warehouse workers are likely to put in long hours over the next week or so. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the e-commerce giant will hold its annual Prime Day shopping extravaganza. One of the company’s biggest shopping drivers, Prime Day will put already-taxed warehouse workers on a more frantic pace as they face an onslaught of orders and the demands of two-day shipping.
Worker are sparring with Amazon for health care and time off as the company struggles to manage a sprawling warehousing and logistics business that grew rapidly during the pandemic. Amazon hired 300,000 people in its fulfillment services in 2021, with the company reporting near the end of that year that its global workforce added up to more than 1.6 million people. The company’s logistics operations, which include warehouses and air facilities, tripled in size. (Amazon is now dealing with a downturn in demand and a resulting excess of space.)
The company’s large workforce comes with higher injury rates. Between 2018 and 2020, Amazon warehouses in Minnesota had injury rates more than twice as high as other warehouses in the state, according to the National Employment Law Project. Similarly, serious injuries at all US Amazon warehouses ran at twice the level of non-Amazon warehouses in 2021, according to the Strategic Organizing Center, a union-affiliated labor advocacy group that also found the company had nearly seven injuries per 100 workers, and a total of 38,000 reported injuries.
Amazon doesn’t contest the numbers of its workplace injuries, which are based on the company’s own reports to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel has said the growth in injuries was related to the company’s growing workforce, adding that new hires are more likely to get injured.
“We take the health and safety of our team seriously and, while we aren’t perfect, we don’t believe these few anecdotes represent the experience of our more than a million front-line employees,” Nantel said of the workers CNET spoke to. “When a member of our team does have an issue, we work hard to help with their unique concerns, including issues with compensation, benefits, or accommodations.”
Workers’ compensation attorneys say claiming benefits is complicated because many injured workers aren’t aware they’re entitled to them from the beginning. Many injured workers wait months before seeking legal advice.
“Most people have no real grasp on what they’re entitled to or the claims process,” said Bryant Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago who’s had clients with claims against Amazon.
Christopher Johnson, another workers’ compensation attorney in Illinois, said workers may be afraid to report injuries even if they know they could get compensation, because they fear retaliation and potentially losing their jobs.
“They’re willing to almost forgo a lot of the rights that they have,” Johnson said.
Why injuries are so prevalent at Amazon
CEO Andy Jassy has echoed the company’s claim that the surge in hiring over the past two years is to blame for the high rate of injuries. Speaking to investors in April, he added that Amazon’s internal analysis has found that the company’s injury rates are a little worse than average for the industry, though he indicated he wasn’t satisfied with that performance.
“I take no solace in being average,” Jassy said. “We want to be the best in the industry.”
Findings from regulators point to one practice that Amazon could change to improve safety: the demanding rate system.
A Washington state agency found Amazon often didn’t provide tools needed to perform tasks ergonomically. If there was a tool, like a step stool, the agency found “employees will often disregard it out of fear of reprimand for failing to meet administrative rate goals for slowing the pace of their work to use such a device.”
At the time, Amazon told The Seattle Times that it planned to appeal the citation.
When the rate system leads to injury, workers say they’re stuck in a maze of bureaucracy that causes delays.
Speaking through a Somali interpreter at a press conference in December, Minnesota Amazon worker Dad Ali blamed the rate requirements for injuries at his warehouse. Ali says he missed more than seven weeks’ pay after injuring spinal disks in July 2021, creating financial pain for his family. Amazon says Ali’s address was out of date in the company’s system, and he received the payments after he signed up for direct deposit.
Less than two months after his injury, Ali says he was back at work after a doctor that Amazon had referred him to found him fit. The company didn’t reduce his duties, even though Ali says he was still in pain. Amazon, he said, “will give you the runaround until you give up.”
Workers say they’re cut off from care
Plenty of Amazon workers who’ve consulted with Greening, the workers’ compensation attorney, end up having a smooth time getting workers’ compensation and medical care. But he says the process can go off the rails even after treatment is underway.
Caley Tibbittz, a former warehouse worker who isn’t working with Greening, damaged ligaments in his spinal cord after two hard falls at an Amazon Fresh facility in downtown Portland, Oregon. A few days after the first fall, he tried to power through a shift by bolstering himself with pain relievers. He ended up falling again.
Unable to work, Tibbittz saw an urgent care doctor who contracts with Amazon. The doctor referred Tibbittz to physical therapy, where he made progress until he was forced to miss a few weeks of appointments because Amazon’s contracted care management provider delayed approving his sessions. The care manager later ended treatment altogether because a medical examination found Tibbittz was no longer improving.
Pressed for money, Tibbittz started driving for DoorDash. He says he eventually gained more mobility as he bent, twisted and lifted in the course of his work. Still, he hasn’t fully recovered.
“I have pain all the time in my back,” Tibbittz said.
In response to Tibbittz’s concerns, Amazon told CNET he didn’t provide additional information it requested from him in order to grant an extension on his case.
The company says it’s still working with Jones, the Kentucky worker who injured his wrist. Last fall, as Jones waited to hear if Amazon would accommodate his disability, he began to get requests from different company representatives asking for paperwork from his doctor. Jones believed Amazon already had the papers on file, but he submitted them by email anyway because he feared the company would close his case if he didn’t.
As the requests for the same paperwork continued, he says he set a reminder on his phone for 2:30 p.m. every day to send it in. After a month, the company stopped asking for the documents and confirmed they were in his file.
When Jones, the worker in Kentucky, asked for pain medication, he says, the doctor who treated him wouldn’t write a prescription because Jones couldn’t work a shift at Amazon while taking the medication. Medical records confirm the doctor didn’t prescribe Jones medication, but don’t say why.
Jones, who soon found the pain too great to continue with physical therapy, says the exchange surprised him.
“Why do you care more about me going to work,” Jones said he thought at the time, “and less about my injury?”