Allegra Brown, a picker at an Amazon fulfillment center, said the back pain that's kept her in bed during her days off this week doesn't make her want to quit. It makes her want to push for change.
Brown's injuries are not even among the more than 24,000 serious injuries recorded in U.S. Amazon facilities in 2020 — a rate about 50% higher than the national average — and yet she and many other more seriously injured workers have chosen to remain with the company.
"Honestly, if you think about it, I could leave this job, the problems are still going to be there. It's a good job," she said. "It's just the stuff that happens. If they fix the problems like that, if we weren't so overworked like that, it pays decent money. It's not bad."
After all, good jobs are hard to find. "I could go to another job, yeah. Or I could stay here, fight it out. And at some point I do plan on leaving," she said. "I could fight it out and help make change for future employees, so they have a better work experience."
Brown is one of the Amazon fulfillment workers who works with United for Respect as a member leader, a nonprofit group advocating for dignity in the workplace of large corporations. She has worked at her facility for nearly four years despite persistent back pain.
As a picker, Brown spends most of her time fulfilling orders, and so she can't sit during her shift. Amazon provides two short breaks and a 30-minute lunch break, but to take a break, one must meet the TOT rule. The company requires that for breaks, each person's last "scan" of an item needs to occur the minute the break begins, and each person's first scan on the return back from break has to happen the minute the break ends. Because the break room is quite a long walk from Brown's work area, she actually loses most of her time rushing from and to the break room for the 20-minute breaks.
"It's a big walk. You have to factor in all this other stuff; you're not really getting a break," she explained. One of the easiest changes Amazon could make to allow people a better rest (which could in turn help with injury prevention for problems like Brown's back pain) would be to remove the TOT rule, she explained. "There are better ways you can track people than using the time off-task," she said.
Most of the people Brown works with experience similar physical pain, she said. Because of the time pressure and quotas for all of their jobs, the lack of a real break can compound to cause serious injuries.
Amazon's high injury rates were reported last week in a study by the Strategic Organizing Center, a labor advocacy group that used data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to analyze the rates of serious injury in fulfillment and delivery roles. The SOC is using the data to push for changes to Amazon's notoriously long hours, strict and limited break schedules, and repetitive-motion work that can cause chronic pain. The group found that Amazon's serious injury rate was more than double Walmart (its closest competitor) last year, and that Amazon employees take an average of one to two weeks longer to recover from these injuries than the average injured warehouse employee.
"While any incident is one too many, we are continuously learning and seeing improvements through ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees' workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few," an Amazon spokesperson told Protocol in an email.
Amazon also announced a research partnership with the National Safety Council on Thursday to explore how to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (the most common kind of injury). The company and its research partners will spend the next five years trying to create a "prevention program" that involves "educating employees and employers about injury prevention," according to their statement.
Amazon did temporarily remove the TOT policy as part of its coronavirus protection measures in early 2020 — and the change caused a corresponding drop in injury rate. SOC's analysis of the data showed that the various pandemic-related changes to workplace productivity expectations — mainly the end of the TOT rule — caused injury rates in Amazon centers to decrease 28% in 2020 as compared to 2019.
But now that Amazon has reinstated most of its pre-pandemic productivity quotas, the safer workplace appears to have been a temporary victory for workers like Brown.
"At times like this, you'd think they would be more lenient, they would take it easy on us. I get it, we're essential employees," Brown said. "Still, you're overworking your employees, you're not giving us any time to recuperate, overworking us. That's one of the main reasons why I got involved" with United For Respect, she explained. With enough pressure, Brown and her fellow workers believe Amazon can be forced to make its working environment safer.