Amazon workers cool after company took heat for warehouse
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — This time last year, online retailer Amazon.com
Inc. had ambulances parked outside its Breinigsville, Pa., warehouse complex on hot days, with emergency medical personnel ready to take workers suffering from heat injuries to nearby hospitals.
Today, Amazon warehouse workers say the facility is refreshingly cool when it’s hot and muggy outside. The company recently installed 40 roof-top air conditioners in its 615,000-square-foot warehouse, part of a $52 million investment in cooling its warehouses around the country.
“I didn’t even break a sweat today,” one worker said at the end of his shift last week, on a day when area temperatures topped 90 degrees. “It was really nice. I noticed the difference as soon as I walked in the door.”
The dramatic change comes nine months after an investigation by The Morning Call revealed difficult working conditions in the facility. Workers interviewed said they were pushed to work at dizzying rates in brutal heat. The heat index, a real-feel measure that considers heat and humidity, surpassed 100 degrees in the warehouse multiple times last year and sometimes exceeded 110, according to reports filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Work in the warehouse is physical, with many employees walking more than 10 miles per shift plucking items from shelves. Workers said those who didn’t move at a sufficient pace faced termination. They said quotas were not reduced when temperatures soared.
A customer backlash and heightened media scrutiny of the Seattle company’s operations followed publication of The Morning Call article. The volume of complaints was sufficient for the company to give its customer service representatives statements to send in response to concerns about working conditions.
Amazon, which opened its Breinigsville, Pa., complex in 2010, blamed the warehouse heat on a particularly hot spring and summer. The company installed temporary air conditioning units last year after federal workplace safety regulators began inspecting the facility. But workers said parts of the warehouse, particularly its upper levels, remained unbearably hot even after the temporary air conditioning was installed.
Amazon gave water, fruit and ice pops to workers on hot days and relaxed its attendance rules on some days to let workers leave early, though they would lose pay.
In the past 11 weeks, Amazon has declined to answer specific questions from The Morning Call about its decision to install air conditioning at its warehouses. But the company said in a statement last Thursday, “In recent years, we’ve built our new fulfillment centers with air conditioning units installed. This year, we are also investing $52 million to retrofit our other fulfillment centers with air conditioning. In Breinigsville, we have replaced the three large temporary units we installed last summer with forty permanent roof-mounted units that will more efficiently and evenly cool the facility.”
The Morning Call obtained warehouse building permits using Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. Those reveal that Amazon first sought permits to install temporary air conditioning last July, several weeks after warehouse workers and an emergency room doctor who treated some of them for heat stress complained to federal regulators about conditions. A contractor sought permits to install permanent air conditioning in early March. The March permit application came 21/2 months before Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced at an annual shareholders meeting May 24 that the company is installing air conditioning at warehouses around the country.
“It’s not easy to retrofit an existing fulfillment center with air conditioning,” The Seattle Times quoted Bezos as telling shareholders. “We’re really leading the way here.”
Bezos’ announcement followed public protests against the company and working conditions at its warehouses.
Bethlehem, Pa., resident Karen Salasky, who said she lost her job at Amazon’s Breinigsville warehouse last summer after her work slowed in the heat, traveled to Seattle in May to participate in one of the protests near Amazon’s new headquarters.
She said she was pleased to learn air conditioning is being installed at Amazon warehouses. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Salasky said last week. “Workers need to be respected.”
Donna Hoffman, co-director of the Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at the University of California-Riverside, said media exposure about working conditions likely prompted the investment. The company faces intense competition for online sales and doesn’t want a negative image, she said. Also, Amazon will continue to lose part of its competitive edge on prices as it is forced to collect online sales taxes in more states, she said.
“It behooves them to not be responsible for negative publicity if they can control it,” Hoffman said. “Paying $52 million to install air conditioning around the country is a smart move. They don’t need consumers asking themselves, ‘Is Amazon a sweatshop?’ ”
But an analyst who follows the company for a business and technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass., said it probably wasn’t negative media coverage but a desire to protect products and maximize profits that prompted Amazon’s decision.
“Amazon ships a lot of electronics and food now. It’s not good to have that stuff in extreme temperatures,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, an analyst with Forrester Research. “I would like to think there was an element of humanity to the decision but there’s nothing in Amazon’s history or in Jeff Bezos’ public persona that would lead me to think that was the driver of the decision. ... Rarely has Amazon made any business decisions that didn’t affect the bottom line.”