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How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity’

Documents show how the company tracks and terminates workers

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amazon’s fulfillment centers are the engine of the company — massive warehouses where workers track, pack, sort, and shuffle each order before sending it on its way to the buyer’s door.

Critics say those fulfillment center workers face strenuous conditions: workers are pressed to “make rate,” with some packing hundreds of boxes per hour, and losing their job if they don’t move fast enough. “You’ve always got somebody right behind you who’s ready to take your job,” says Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a prominent Amazon critic.

Documents obtained by The Verge show those productivity firings are far more common than outsiders realize. In a signed letter last year, an attorney representing Amazon said the company fired “hundreds” of employees at a single facility between August of 2017 and September 2018 for failing to meet productivity quotas. A spokesperson for the company said that, over that time, roughly 300 full-time associates were terminated for inefficiency.

The number represents a substantial portion of the facility’s workers: a spokesperson said the named fulfillment center in Baltimore includes about 2,500 full-time employees today. Assuming a steady rate, that would mean Amazon was firing more than 10 percent of its staff annually, solely for productivity reasons. The numbers are even more staggering in North America as a whole. Amazon operates more than 75 fulfillment centers with more than 125,000 full-time employees, suggesting thousands lose their jobs with the company annually for failing to move packages quickly enough.

The documents also show a deeply automated tracking and termination process. “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity,” according to the letter, “and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors.” (Amazon says supervisors are able to override the process.)

Critics see the system as a machine that only sees numbers, not people. “One of the things that we hear consistently from workers is that they are treated like robots in effect because they’re monitored and supervised by these automated systems,” Mitchell says. “They’re monitored and supervised by robots.”

The system goes so far as to track “time off task,” which the company abbreviates as TOT. If workers break from scanning packages for too long, the system automatically generates warnings and, eventually, the employee can be fired. Some facility workers have said they avoid bathroom breaks to keep their time in line with expectations.

Amazon says retraining is part of the process to get workers up to standards and that it only changes rates when more than 75 percent of workers at a facility are meeting goals. The bottom 5 percent of workers are placed on a training plan, according to the company. An appeal system is also part of the termination process.

”Approximately 300 employees turned over in Baltimore related to productivity in this timeframe,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “In general, the number of employee terminations have decreased over the last two years at this facility as well as across North America.” Amazon did not give details on the current rate of terminations.

Amazon produced the data as part of a labor dispute with a former worker at the Baltimore facility, who claimed they had been terminated for engaging in legally protected activity, and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. In a letter to the board, Amazon responded that the employee had instead been fired for failing to reach productivity benchmarks — a common occurrence, the company said. To bolster its case, the company also included the list of terminations at the Baltimore facility, labeled by Amazon as BWI2. The Verge obtained the letter and related documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“Amazon consistently terminates fulfillment center associates for failing to repeatedly meet the standardized productivity rates,” the company’s attorney wrote in the letter. Amazon terminated the employee, the attorney wrote, “for the same reason it has terminated hundreds of other employees without regard to any alleged protected concerted activity.” The former employee’s charge was ultimately withdrawn.

While the names on the termination list filed by the company have been redacted, it includes more than 900 entries, as well as each employee’s supervisor and the reason they were fired. All of the employees on the list were terminated either for “productivity” or a category of offense called “productivity_trend,” a longer series of inefficiency issues. Amazon said a mistake resulted in an overly broad list being filed that included other performance problems and that it is fixing the error with the board.

The letter also details Amazon’s strict standards more widely. “Associates must be detailed and efficient in processing each order,” the letter reads. To ensure that efficiency continues, the company has developed “a proprietary productivity metric.” Amazon says those goals are set objectively, and that they’re based on metrics like customer demand and location.

Workers have, at times, pushed back against the company’s productivity requirements. Last year, East African immigrant workers at a Minnesota facility organized protests against the company, saying they didn’t have sufficient break time, including for prayer.

In response, Amazon has continued to tout the benefits of working for the company, pointing to their hourly pay rates and policies like parental leave. But the documents make clear that some workers, failing to meet productivity standards, won’t reap the benefits of a job at all.