My Amazon Disaster

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
After a year I made their wall of achievement as a picker. I was called to HR expecting to me complimented. I was told the 106% was wrong, it was only 97% and I was fired. This was my story.

Submitted: November 23, 2015

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Submitted: November 23, 2015

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Struggling at Amazon Empire’s Rate Factory - by Chris Chabot, picker in their Breinigsville, Pennsylvania plant(3659 words)

 

It is slowly getting to me. The frantic rush to make rate at Amazon. I wheel my little push cart that holds two yellow bins (called totes) around a factory the size of five football fields. It has three levels. I have found a walking speed I can maintain for ten hours, but that gets me anywhere from a 96 percent rate to a 102 percent rate. On good days my rate may be 110 percent. On bad days: 85 percent.

I am just one tiny cog in the Amazon Empire. I am buried in a rural factory on the ground floor picking items from bins that customers have ordered.  I pick until my yellow tote is filled and then I put it on a belt where it goes to be packed for shipping to the customer.

A loud buzzer goes off, deafening my ears for a few seconds. It signals that one of the many belts moving totes towards the packing department is starting up again. The buzzer is so loud I automatically curse to myself. I have noticed others doing it as well. If you are near the belts, it sounds like a large freighter blowing its whistle – it buckles your knees.

There is little talking in the warehouse. People pass each other in silence. In the morning I make a point to say good morning to at least a dozen people. Two will say good morning back. The others ignore me or maintain a vacant stare. They are looking for the next aisle that their scanner is sending them to. It makes for a quiet day. Making rate is too important. Periodically I will pass someone I vaguely know and nod, but that is it. You keep moving forward.

Even when I see my trainer, Andy, I just nod and move on. Andy had warned me there was little talking, but he stops and asks how people are doing and answers any questions. I had a hundred of them my first week. When my rate fell, he came over to find out how to improve it. Andy is one of those workers who cares and keeps up on how everyone is doing. He says once he had a terrible week and they warned him that trainers cannot have bad weeks. He had to race like crazy the last day and make rate and has been doing okay since.

Making rate: no one understands how the Amazon rate works. No one. One supervisor tries to explain it. You have to average one hundred items an hour. But then you find out that is not always true. If you pick large items, it gives you one rate, but if you pick small items it can change your rate to far above one hundred per hour. You pick such a variety of items that you never know which rate system is in place. The scanner rules all. It can tell you to pick one item after another only a few feet apart or five or ten pieces at a time and your rate skyrockets. Then it may decide to have you pick items hundreds of yards apart. And I mean hundreds of yards apart.

The floors are broken down in levels and are called mods. The aisles are labeled alphabetically from A to L. Within each of those aisles there are rows labeled from one to 141. It is like a large library. Within each row are ten levels of bins labeled with A being on the bottom and H being on the top. Within each level, segments are numbered from one to 99. They contain bins or shelves with product stashed in each one. Some bins may contain just ten items so it is easy to find what you are looking for. Others may have over one hundred items and you have to sift through looking for the product the scanner told you to pick.

Your scanner will list an item and display it as G-132-H-77 which means aisle G, row 132, level H, bin 77 and off you go looking for it. The next item may send you to G-7 which is about two to three hundred yards away. You have thirty seconds to get there, find the item and scan it in. Unless you are tall, you will need to run to the end of the row and get a step stool for items on the top level. For anything on level A or B, you will need to kneel or risk getting written up for a safety violation.

Most items seem to be on the A and B level as they are drawers that hold more and tend to be the dumping ground for stowers (people who put the product into the bins). You end up kneeling a lot each day.

If the scanner sends you to aisle 6 and then aisle 132 and then aisle 11 and then aisle 126, these are known as chases.  Sometimes the scanner will send you hundreds of yards to one aisle and then all the way back to pick the exact same type of item you just picked. These kill your rate and are exhausting.

To make things worse, it may have you pick three items from one floor and then send you to a new floor. You put your totes on the belt with the items you picked, park your cart, go to a new level, find a new cart, put two empty yellow bins on it and go look for the new item. It may have you pick only one item on that floor and then send you to yet another new floor.

Supervisors are quick to tell you the scanning rate takes that into account, but no one believes it because your rate plummets rapidly. I have had a rate of 110 go to 90 after a half hour of long chases where I am sent to several floors.

Workers get frustrated because you can go very fast and still end up with a rate of 80 percent. Other times you go slow and find out your rate at 118 percent. No one knows why. When one worker picked 1323 items in a ten hour day and found his rate was at 88 percent, he asked how that happened. The standard response is always, “Well, it depends on where the scanner picks you and what it has you pick.” 

One afternoon I picked 343 items in two and a half hours. I went to the rate sheet excitedly expecting to see a rate of 150 percent for myself. Instead it was at 98 percent. I asked why. “Well, it depends on what floor the scanner sent you to and what you picked.” 

Then they added in new measurements. It was claimed it would help pickers. They now count how many items you pick in each category with different rates:  large, multi-large, small, multi-small, transit and others. Now instead of not making rate in one category, you can fail in many categories!

They also take into account how off task you are. They say not to worry, it is only to go after people who are always stopping to talk. At the end of the day I am 69% on task and my rate is 96. I run into people who are over 110 percent and listed as only 78 percent on task. One supervisor grabs a cart and goes full blast for two hours. She is shocked to get only 97 percent and be rated as 69 percent on task.  

In response to rate problems, two stowers decided to work in the same row and worked at the exact same speed, putting items into bins. At break they checked their rate. One had a rate way below 90, while the other had a rate above 150. I asked the general manager about that: “Well, it depends on where they were and what items the scanner had them picking.” 

He finally admits he isn’t sure either why the rates are the way they are. The next time someone says that I add in, “And it depends on whether Jupiter was in Virgo and there was a warm wind blowing the stars around.”  I tell that to a picker and he just smiles and says “It doesn’t matter because the rates are in Uranus.” 

I sometimes wonder if it is something the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos does on purpose. I see workers confident because for weeks in a row they have had exceptional rates and had their picture on the wall of achievers many times. Then suddenly for two weeks in a row they are below one hundred and they get warned. Their nerves are shot. They are yelling as they race around trying to pick up their rate. Maybe corporate psychologists have found out that doing this makes workers go faster.

Another picker points out something to me. “We have 120,000 items to pick today!  There are 300 pickers. For each picker to get 1,000 a day to make rate, there would have to be 300,000 items. It’s just mathematics! We are screwed by math! That is why some strike it rich rate-wise and some don’t.”  I ask if he has brought this up to management.  He says he has, but they nod their head and smile as if the village idiot just told them there are clouds in the sky. You notice the clouds; they’ll interpret them and tell you there is no problem.

One morning I was asked to delay my lunch for a half hour. Within that half hour the scanner had me pick 400 DVDs of a movie and 400 DVDs of a popular video game. My rate shot to 313 for the day. My rate for the week went from 88 to 148. For that week my picture was on the wall and supervisors patted me on the back for picking up my speed. I did not pick up my speed. The scanner gods rewarded me.

You can tell who the scanner gods have rewarded.  They are the ones smiling as they saunter through the aisles, taking their time to pick.  They have already had picks of several hundred DVDs or several hundred iPads and they know their rate is set for the week. Even if they have a few bad days, that one day where they struck gold and mined it well, they are saved and will top 100 percent.

Others have figured out if the scanner starts sending you on chases, log out of your scanner and log back in. At the beginning of work, the period called stand up where the supervisors talk about our picking goal, this is brought up.

“Some of you are logging in and out to get a better pick path and you cannot do that. We need those items picked.”  Pickers argue back that they do not want to get below one hundred and need to log out and get a better path. Finally one supervisor says “Look, you need to let the scanner punish you. It will reward you later!  It will reward you, if you stick to the paths and follow it.” 

It dawns on me that the scanner is being sold as an Old Testament God: unforgiving, allowing for few mistakes and threatening destruction if you do not make rate. It is Moses yelling at the Israelites to run faster or the Red Sea will close back in on them.

There is nothing I can do, but down more energy drinks: I down one before work, one at first break, one at lunch and one at second break. I also keep two small ones in my pocket in case my energy drops during the ten hours. I keep energy bars in my pocket as well: anything to try and keep the rate up. Despite that, I keep finishing the week at 96 to 99 percent.

In a morning where I am sent up and down floors seven times by my scanner, I complain at break time. I am told another picker was moved 23 times. I ask for advice on how to make rate and am told by others to avoid most safety rules. Don’t stop to pick up garbage you find on the floor. Don’t stop to pick up items that fell into the aisles. Don’t stop to carve up empty boxes or throw them in cardboard holders. Don’t stop period. Go as fast as you can without running.

The most common phrase you hear from managers is “don’t worry, you’ll do better tomorrow. Your rate will be better. Just pick up the pace.” On the last day I have to make rate, I am at 94 percent which means I need 118 percent for that day just to average out to 100. It means I need a jet pack and a keg full of energy drink on my back. My pockets are already filled with small energy drinks, protein bars and ibuprofen.

At stand up, a new supervisor stresses that we must go faster. We must make rate. The very next day at stand up, a safety leader makes a presentation. It seems our plant set the record for most safety incidents the previous day and we need to slow down and follow the rules. He departs and the supervisor says, yes safety is important, but we must go faster. We must figure out a way to go faster.

On a whiteboard where complaints are written down, someone writes that when a belt is down, pickers have to walk an extra hundred yards to another belt, their rates suffer and it is unfair. A supervisor writes that management is working on solutions for pickers to beat the rate system. Yes, “beat the rate system” as if it is a monster chasing us.

In the stressful race to make rate, pickers and stowers are often at odds.  Stowers stay in one aisle and put items into a bin while pickers race around pulling items out.  During the frantic pace to keep rate, stowers and pickers sometimes run into each other.  A picker will race into an aisle to grab some items and a stower will be in the exact same place.  Both are trying to make rate.  It causes tension and sometimes causes conflict.  When the tension gets bad, supervisors give talks about respect and each month a large board in front lists the reasons various workers are fired.  Many of them say “picker and stower got into a fistfight in an aisle.  Both were escorted out.”  Amazon is willing to put up with the fights in an effort to keep the pace going and keep rates up. It has created its own fight club.

I race around knowing I am entirely replaceable. Out of the thousands of temporary employees hired during the holiday season, ten percent of them are transferred to full time. They replace the hundreds of full timers that are let go right after the holidays. I am told eight employees were escorted by security out of the building just that day.

I come across a coworker who was hired the same day as I was. His rate is always over 100 and most weeks it is over 120 percent. He did so well, that they made him a trainer. He is normally, gung ho about the job, but today he looks glum. He says he was written up for the first time ever for not making rate. He was stripped of his training rights and demoted and warned not to be below rate again. He asked about all those weeks he had high rates and was told it didn’t matter.

“This place sucks,” he mutters. He is no longer a gung ho, worker. They have sucked that out of him with their rate system. Now he wants out and is looking for another job.

I have never held a job before where I am graded daily.  And the grade seems random.  In the morning, a printout is posted on the wall of rates from the day before.  Workers eagerly look for their ID number and then cuss or cheer.  It is like watching a roulette wheel spin: maybe your number comes up and maybe it doesn’t. Just keep blowing on the dice and pray for luck. Supervisors stress we are a team, but it is a team that you have to keep auditioning for every day and cuts are regular.

I know someday I will not make rate too many times and be escorted out of Amazon by security. There is no hope for survival. There is no redemption. There is only the end and the plunge into hell. The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles summed it up in his play about Oedipus, “The gods have ceased to care for us. The only grace they want from us is our destruction.”

For now I try to make my way across the parted Red Sea as Moses’ raised staff begins to wilt. The sea walls move closer together. I hear the lashing from the chariots, but I cannot go faster.

When people ask me where I work at Amazon, I tell them I work in the blast furnace. I stoke the fires that keep the giant machines moving so customers can get their orders on time, while security fishes out the bodies of workers who didn’t make rate.

As I see it, this is the Achilles heel of the empire builder’s vision. If he does not fix these rates and make them at least seem fairer, in a few years instead of spending money on expanding and trying new technology, he will be spending money clamping down on labor unrest and his stock prices will pay for it.

It took decades of industrial workers struggling under the eye of factory owners before labor began to revolt. It did not revolt for better pay; it revolted like it always does, over new technology and strange rules that make work more difficult. Egyptian pyramid builders struck thousands of years ago over bad food and safety violations. Miners did it after the one-man drill replaced the two-man drill, eliminating your coworker who had your back if anything went wrong.

On a day where I was again struggling to make rate, I ran into Andy. He said he had a rough week as well, but not to worry and he raced off to get more picks. After lunch a coworker passed me and asked if I heard the news.  Andy was terminated and escorted out by security just before lunch. I am in shock. All of the pickers are in shock. Many who have been here for years and regularly make rate said this hits them hard. It means all the hard work and willingness to do anything is useless if you have some bad weeks and don’t make rate. I notice that afternoon I do not see hard working gung ho workers anymore. They have been deflated by a rate system they believe is fixed and stacked against them.

The rate system is nothing like a batting average where you simply compare someone’s hits to the number of times they have been at bat – this is as if the batting average only took into account how you did against certain types of pitches or who was pitching, what ballpark you were at and dropped your rate if were at the plate too long.  Imagine if batters had no idea what their average was and had to wait until the next morning’s newspaper which printed it after going through a programming system that was changed on a regular basis.

Amazon has been working to buy up businesses in an effort to expand its empire.  I feel sorry for those companies scooped up by them.  I know within weeks a rate system will be implemented in businesses that have never had one.  They will take the 25 or 30 percent fastest workers after creating rates and then use that to scare the middle third and fire and replace the bottom third.  Companies that eagerly get purchased by Amazon will within a year have one third of their force terminated and walked out by security in an effort to ruthlessly improve efficiency. 

At the rate Amazon is going, it may own most of the country and then we will have a country where one third has been terminated by Amazon with few hopes of finding jobs elsewhere.  Amazon will make much of America what it once was:  hunter-gatherers nomadically roaming the country to find food and shelter. 

If I don’t make rate next week, I end up in the blast furnace myself. I am always aware that I am merely Amazon kindling dependent upon a scanner god that does not care. All it wants is my destruction.

 

 

Post Script:  Sunday, May 24, after I finished this, I indeed became Amazon kindling. I was fired for not making rate. Ironically it was a week in which the report on the wall said I exceeded rate. My name was on the achievement wall for doing that (the third time that had happened to me). I was told the supervisor’s laptop was right and the wall report was wrong.  I was escorted out. Only when I got to the parking lot did I realize my wife had driven us in her car (she worked there too).  I asked if they could contact my wife or my former supervisor and security said no and that I had to leave the premises, which is a large compound.  So there it ended with me holding my lunch bag and a bag of my belongings from my locker walking several miles down a busy highway in the hot sun as semis drove past me. I was wearing a T-shirt proclaiming I worked at Amazon and was proud of it.


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