About a year ago, Ash Jones grabbed a small box off a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse in Hebron, Kentucky. Since then he has not been able to work.
The package, which Jones estimated was about 10 inches long, was deceptively heavy. When he turned to place it on the pallet, his wrist gave out.
“I felt something snap,” Jones said, noting that there was no warning on the package about its weight. He says his wrist later swelled to the size of an orange.
The injury was just the beginning of Jones’ problems. He was originally on workers’ compensation, but 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 could not find a position for Jones that accommodated his disability. Jones didn’t wait, though. He got a lawyer and a second opinion from a doctor who said the disability was not permanent.
On the afternoon CNET inquired about the details of Jones’ case, Amazon offered him a settlement for nearly a year of unpaid workers’ compensation.
Jones isn’t the only worker who has had to fight Amazon to get benefits after being injured on the job at one of the company’s more than 800 warehouses in North America. Workers, advocates and regulators attribute the injuries to Amazon’s demanding productivity goals, often called “rates,” which determine how long each task should take, until the next, and monitor whether workers stay on track. Evaluated by doctors paid by Amazon, the injured workers say they face a system that focuses on getting them back on the floor rather than helping them get better. They also describe a byzantine human resources system that requires constant communication to ensure their cases don’t fail.
Amazon’s warehouse workers are likely to be working long shifts in the coming weeks. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the e-commerce giant will hold its annualshopping extravaganza. One of the company’s biggest drivers of purchases, Prime Day will send already-taxed warehouse workers into a frenzy as they face a rush of orders and demands for two-day shipping.
Workers are sparring with Amazon over health care and time off as the company struggles to manage a large warehouse and logistics business that has grown rapidly during the pandemic. Stuck at home, consumers placed record orders online, increasing the need for more warehouses.
Amazon employed 300,000 people in its fulfillment services in 2021, and at the end of that year the company reported that its global workforce was more than 1.6 million people. The company’s logistics operations, which include warehouses and air capacity, have tripled. (Amazon is nowdemand and the resulting excess space.)
A large company workforce comes with higher injury rates. Between 2018 and 2020, Amazon warehouses in Minnesota had injury rates more than double those of other warehouses in the state, according to the National Employment Law Project. Similarly, all of Amazon’s US warehouses suffered severe injuriesIn 2021, according to the Strategic Organizing Center, a labor advocacy group that also found the company had nearly seven injuries per 100 workers and a total of 38,000 reported injuries.
Amazon does not dispute its workplace injury numbers, which are based on the company’s own reports to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the increase in injuries is related to the company’s growing workforce, adding that new hires are more likely to be injured.
“We take the health and safety of our team seriously, and while we’re not perfect, we don’t believe these few anecdotes represent the experience of our more than one million frontline employees,” Nantel said of the workers CNET spoke to. “When a member of our team has an issue, we work hard to help resolve their unique concerns, including issues with compensation, benefits or housing.”
Workers’ compensation attorneys say that claiming benefits is complicated because many injured workers are initially unaware that they are entitled to them. Many injured workers wait months before seeking legal advice.
“Most people don’t have a real understanding of what they’re entitled to or the claims process,” said Bryant Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago who has had clients with Amazon claims.
Christopher Johnson, another workers’ compensation attorney in Illinois, said workers may be afraid to report injuries even if they know they could receive compensation, fearing retaliation and potentially losing their jobs.
“They’re willing to almost give up a lot of the rights they have,” Johnson said.
Why injuries are so prevalent in the Amazon
CEO Andy Jassy reiterated the company’s claim that hiring has increased over the past two years. Speaking to investors in April, he added that Amazon’s internal analysis found the company’s injury rates to be slightly worse than the industry average, though he indicated he was not satisfied with the performance.
“I find no comfort in being average,” Jassy said. “We want to be the best in the industry.”
The regulator’s findings point to one practice that Amazon could change to improve security: its demanding rate system.
A Washington state agency found that Amazon often doesn’t provide the tools needed to perform tasks ergonomically. If there is a tool, such as a stair chair, the agency found that “employees will often ignore it for fear of being reprimanded for not meeting administrative goals for slowing down their work rhythm for using such a device.”
At the time, Amazon told The Seattle Times it planned to appeal the citation.
When the rate system leads to injuries, workers say they are stuck in a maze of bureaucracy that causes delays.
Speaking through a Somali interpreter at a news conference in December, Minnesota Amazon worker Papa Ali blamed the rates for injuries at his warehouse. But he says he missed more than seven weeks of pay after injuring his spinal discs in July 2021, creating financial pain for his family. Amazon says Ali’s address is outdated in the company’s system and he received payments after signing up for direct deposit.
Less than two months after his injury, Ali says he’s back at work after being deemed healthy by an Amazon-referred doctor. The company did not reduce his duties, although Ali says he was still in pain. Amazon, he said, “will give you a detour until you give up.”
Workers say they are cut off from care
Many Amazon workers who have consulted with Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney, end up having smooth access to workers’ compensation and medical care. But he says the process can start even after treatment is underway.
Caley Tibbittz, a former warehouse worker who does not work 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 get through the shift by boosting himself with painkillers. Eventually he fell again.
Unable to work, Tibbittz saw an emergency physician contracted by Amazon. The doctor referred Tibitz to physical therapy, where he thrived until he was forced to miss several weeks of appointments because Amazon’s contracted care provider delayed approving his sessions. The care manager later stopped treatment entirely because a medical examination revealed that Tibbittz was not improving.
Pressed for money, Tibbittz started driving for DoorDash. He says he became more mobile over time because he was bending, twisting and lifting during his work. However, he did not fully recover.
“My back hurts all the time,” Tibbittz said.
In response to Tibbittz’s concerns, Amazon told CNET that it did not provide the additional information it requested from him to grant an extension to his case.
The company says it is still working with Jones, the Kentucky worker who injured his wrist. Last fall, as Jones waited to hear whether Amazon would accommodate his disability, he began getting requests from representatives of various companies asking for paperwork from his doctor. Jones believed Amazon already had the papers on file, but emailed them anyway because he feared the company would close his case if he didn’t.
As requests for the same paperwork continued, he says he set a reminder on his phone at 2:30 p.m. every day to send it. After a month, the company stopped asking for the documents and confirmed they were in his file.
When Jones asked for pain medication, he says, the doctor treating him wouldn’t write a prescription because Jones couldn’t work a shift at Amazon while taking the medication. Medical records confirm that the doctor did not prescribe Jones’ medication, but do not say why.
Jones, who soon found the pain too much to continue with physical therapy, says he was surprised by the exchange.
“Why do you care more about me going to work,” Jones said, he thought then, “and less about my injury?”