Tech

Amazon has resumed policies that penalize workers for taking too many breaks, just in time for Prime Day

Key Points
  • Amazon workers in Staten Island said the company resumed tracking productivity rates in its facilities, which they claim puts them at greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
  • In July, Amazon said it wouldn't take disciplinary action if workers fell short of productivity quotas, saying it knew workers needed the extra time to wash their hands, sanitize their workstation and practice social distancing.
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

Amazon warehouse workers claim the company has resumed tracking their productivity on the job, putting them at greater risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, according to a court filing submitted Wednesday.

Three employees at Amazon's Staten Island facility, known as JFK8, filed a lawsuit against Amazon in June, alleging the company made the facility a "place of danger" by impeding efforts to stop the spread of the virus and prioritizing productivity over safety. 

In the latest filing, the employees said Amazon reinstated its policies known as "rate" and "time off task" at JFK8 on Oct. 7, despite the company's previous claim that it wouldn't enforce those policies out of concern for their safety during the pandemic. 

"Amazon has reassured the court that it has put into place numerous protocols — like contact tracing, prompt and full paid Covid-19 leave and modifications to productivity policies — in order to ensure a safe working environment at JFK8," said Karla Gilbride, one of the attorneys representing the workers, in a letter to the judge overseeing their case. "But as this (undisclosed) rollback of the productivity feedback suspension shows, Amazon has not been honest and forthcoming with plaintiffs, or this court."

Amazon tracks the number of "time off tasks" workers log each day as a measure of productivity. 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. 

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty told CNBC in a statement that the company's performance expectations ensure workers have additional time to sanitize their workspace, wash their hands and practice social distancing, as needed. 

"We have reinstated a portion of our process where a fraction of employees, less than 5% on average, may receive coaching for improvement as a result of extreme outliers in performance," Lighty said.

The company had said in previous court filings that it wouldn't discipline employees for falling short of productivity quotas. It said 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. 

But earlier this month, one JFK8 worker was given "verbal coaching" by their manager and told that disciplinary action for low rates would resume because "Amazon needed its employees to work faster during peak season," according to the latest employee lawsuit filing.

Additionally, a message on a whiteboard in the facility instructed employees of their rate goal, noting that productivity feedback would resume Oct. 7, the filing said.

Amazon's "peak" season is expected to be busier than ever this year, with Prime Day and the holiday shopping period occurring back to back. Peak season typically refers to the week before Black Friday through Christmas, during which warehouses are fully staffed and employees are required to work overtime. Amazon's Prime Day, which started Tuesday and ends Wednesday, will add an extra month onto peak season.

Amazon has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic-fueled rush to online shopping and Prime Day is expected to be just as lucrative for the company. eMarketer estimated Prime Day sales could hit close to $10 billion.

JFK8 workers said they're concerned that the beginning of peak season has given Amazon a pass to forgo necessary coronavirus safety measures like suspending productivity feedback. 

"Amazon is now treating the pandemic – and the need for measures to protect workers' health and wellbeing – as a thing of the past," said Gilbride, a senior attorney Public Justice, which joined several labor advocacy groups in filing the lawsuit on behalf of workers.

Workers have also questioned whether Amazon fully stopped providing productivity feedback during the pandemic like it said it would. Hibaq Mohamed, an Amazon warehouse worker in Minnesota, said in July that she was written up for logging too many time off tasks. Mohamed also claimed she was written up in retaliation for speaking out against the company's labor practices, an allegation that Amazon denied.

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