Tech

Amazon warehouse worker says she was written up in July for taking too many breaks from work

Key Points
  • Hibaq Mohamed, who works out of Amazon's Shakopee, Minnesota, facility, has accused the company of retaliating against her for speaking out about its labor practices.
  • Mohamed was written up in early July for violating the company's time off task policies, which track a worker's productivity and can result in warnings or firings if employees are away from their workstation for too long.
  • It comes as Amazon workers filed a lawsuit in June, calling for the company to stop penalizing workers for time off tasks during the pandemic. 
Amazon workers at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse strike in demand that the facility be shut down and cleaned after one staffer tested positive for the coronavirus on March 30, 2020 in New York.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images

An Amazon warehouse employee in Minnesota has accused the company of retaliating against her and is now asking the state's attorney general to step in. 

Hibaq Mohamed, who works out of Amazon's Shakopee, Minnesota facility, known as MSP1, said in a letter to Attorney General Keith Ellison that she was written up on July 10 for spending too much time away from her work station, or logging too many "time off tasks." If workers take a break from scanning packages for too long, Amazon's internal systems will log it as a TOT and generate a warning, which can later lead to firings. 

Her account appears to contradict Amazon's filing in a separate court case, where the company says it "ceased providing productivity rate feedback to associates and imposing any discipline related to low productivity rates" in March, and extended the policy indefinitely in April. 

Mohamed is asking Ellison for protection under an executive order he signed in May and extended this week, which orders employers not to discriminate or retaliate against employees who raise concerns about unsafe working conditions tied to the pandemic. Ellison declined to comment on Mohamed's letter.

Mohamed has long been an outspoken critic of Amazon's labor practices and has continued to pressure the company to respond to workers' safety concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mohamed was one of a dozen workers who previously told CNBC they lacked adequate safety gear at their facilities amid worsening outbreaks. Additionally, Mohamed recently participated in a press call, hosted by Athena, a nonprofit group that advocates for workers, in which she raised concerns about high coronavirus infection rates at MSP1

"I worked at Amazon for nearly four years with a very clean record and just one or two warnings I know of in that entire time," Mohamed wrote in the letter. "Amazon managers have targeted me and openly harassed me before, but increasingly during the pandemic."

An Amazon spokesperson disputed that the company was retaliating against Mohamed.

"While we have not seen the formal complaint, the allegations described are not true. We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in the workplace and we support every employee's right to criticize their employer, but that doesn't come with blanket immunity to ignore internal policies."

Amazon said warehouse workers can spend additional time out of their breaks to use the restroom, wash their hands, take a break, get water or speak to their manager, as needed. The company added that Amazon understands employees might want to take a break from work to sanitize their workstations. 

Amazon has previously faced allegations that it retaliated against workers for speaking out, which it has repeatedly denied. The company has fired at least four workers who criticized its labor practices. Amazon says the workers were fired for violating internal policies. 

The moves generated rebuke from lawmakers and spawned an investigation into the firings by New York Attorney General Letitia James, which is ongoing. Additionally, Tim Bray, a former vice president and distinguished engineer at Amazon, resigned in "dismay" over the firings.

Amazon told court it stopped writing up TOT offenses in March

The write-up filed against Mohamed contradicts Amazon's public messaging about its enforcement of TOT policies during the pandemic.

Last month, three Staten Island workers filed a lawsuit against the company that said it made the Staten Island facility "a place of danger" by impeding efforts to stop the spread of the virus and prioritizing productivity over safety. The workers said Amazon "discourages workers from performing basic hygiene, like washing or sanitizing their hands, when doing so would require them to step away, even for a moment, from their bustling workstations."

In a response submitted to the court this week, Amazon said it no longer penalizes warehouse workers who take extra time to wash their hands, saying it wouldn't be counted against them under the TOT policy. The company said the updated policy went into effect in March, although workers who filed the lawsuit said they were only informed of the policy this week, citing a notification from Amazon. 

"In response to Covid-19, beginning on March 18, 2020, Amazon ceased providing productivity rate feedback to associates and imposing any discipline related to low productivity rates," Alexsis Stephens, Amazon's director of human resources for fulfillment centers, said in a declaration submitted by Amazon. "On April 29, this policy was extended indefinitely."

Despite this, Mohamed claims Amazon wrote her up for violating TOT policy in early July. When her manager asked her to specify the reason for her TOT, Mohamed initially refused. In her letter to Attorney General Ellison, she said she spent blocks of time during her workday "waiting for a [work] station, making a trip to the bathroom while social distancing, or sanitizing my area."

Mohamed said in an interview that the TOT policy discourages workers from taking necessary safety precautions because they remain fearful that they'll be disciplined. 

"If a worker is wearing a mask and a string comes off, you can't go and get another because you're putting yourself at risk of violating TOT policy," Mohamed said. "It seems like they're handing warnings and write-ups out left and right and no matter what situation you choose, you're always at risk."

Amazon did not immediately offer an explanation for the apparent discrepancy. Since March, process changes have been communicated to employees directly at their facility and most changes have been communicated verbally to maintain social distancing, the company said. 

The lawsuit and Mohamed's complaint highlight inconsistencies in Amazon's enforcement of its policies, said Frank Kearl, a staff attorney with Make the Road New York, which joined several labor advocacy groups in filing the lawsuit on behalf of workers. 

For example, Amazon submitted to the court talking points given to managers instructing them how to inform employees of the new TOT policy, with the caveat that they were for "verbal use only." 

"Amazon says these policies have been in place since March, but they will only be effective at empowering workers to take care of their health while working if workers actually know about them," Kearl said.

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What it's like inside an Amazon warehouse during the Covid-19 pandemic