Is Amazon about to run out of workers? According to a leaked internal memo, the retail logistics company fears so.
“If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labor supply in the US network by 2024,” the research, first reported by Recode, stated.
Amazon is right to be worried – its staff turnover rate is astronomical. Before the pandemic, Amazon was losing about 3% of its workforce weekly, or 150% annually. By contrast the annual average turnover in transportation, warehousing and utilities was 49% in 2021 and in retail it was 64.6%, less than half of Amazon’s turnover.
Even Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is worried. Bezos originally welcomed high turnover, fearing long-term employees would slack off and cause a “march to mediocrity”. But in his final letter to shareholders as chief executive last year, Bezos said the company had to “do a better job” for its employees. Amazon will commit to being “earth’s best employer and earth’s safest place to work”, he wrote.
In part, Bezos’s change of heart is down to a wave of unionization efforts at the company’s warehouses. But Amazon also faces a problem of scale. As the US’s second largest private employer, it is now struggling to replace all the workers it loses.
Workers and labor groups have long decried Amazon’s working conditions and high employee turnover amid high injury rates.
Matt Littrell, 22, a picker at Amazon in Campbellsville, Kentucky, since early 2021, who is trying to organize a union at the warehouse, said Amazon’s hiring practices, productivity quotas, attendance policies and unequal enforcement of rules are contributors to the lack of job security that drives Amazon’s high turnover.
One issue is Amazon’s “time off task” metric, he said, where Amazon monitors employees’ productivity and issues write-ups, which can lead to termination if too much “time off task” is accrued.
“Each one of those instances where I was taking too long to find an item counted against me, and that is all added up, and then they count that as your total time off. And it doesn’t matter if you were doing your job – You were not meeting the expectation, ”said Littrell.
Littrell said he walks 15 miles or more every shift as a picker because his warehouse does not have robotics technology where items are brought to pickers. He said the bins where items are stored are often overfilled, which can cause injury or make it more difficult to find items – making it more difficult to meet productivity quotas.
If an Amazon worker receives so many attendance penalties that they go negative in their allotted time off, they face automatic termination if they cannot get the absence excused by the correct department.
“You have to go through a big corporate bureaucracy to even get an accommodation,” Littrell said. “Even though they have all of these dystopian metrics for tracking you, what it boils down to is that if you actually want Amazon to go and find proof, you have to fight for it like your own union shop steward, you have to fight them every step of the way. And for a lot of people that contributes to burnout. ”
Zaki Kaddoura, a stower at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, and a member of the Amazon Labor Union, said productivity quotas were a driving factor in Amazon’s high employee turnover. He also cited having to handle heavy items, not being able to find space in stow bins, and workers being denied accommodations.
“Imagine doing that for 10 hours a day, every working day, while someone is pressing you to hit these targets,” said Kaddoura. “I think that these quotas should be recommended, not required.”
A report based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) data released by the Strategic Organizing Center in April found Amazon’s serious injury rate in 2021 was 6.8 per 100 workers, more than twice the average of 3.3 per 100 workers in the warehousing industry and a 20% increase from a year prior.
With the unemployment rate close to a 50-year low, Amazon is struggling to fill all the positions it needs. According to the memo, written in mid-2021, the company was in danger of exhausting its entire available labor pool in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area by the end of that year, and in the Inland Empire region of California by the end of this year.
A spokesperson for Amazon said in regards to the research memos: “There are many draft documents written on many subjects across the company that are used to test assumptions and look at different possible scenarios, but aren’t then escalated or used to make decisions. This was one of them.
“It doesn’t represent the actual situation, and we are continuing to hire well in Phoenix, the Inland Empire, and across the country.”