Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Amazon’

Amazon employees across Europe protest ‘inhuman’ working conditions

Monday, November 26th, 2018

Amazon warehouse workers in several European countries took to the streets in protest this week over what they called “inhuman” working conditions.

In the U.K., Germany, Italy, and Spain, workers walked the streets holding signs reading “Treated like a robot at Amazon” and “We are not robots.” According to The Washington Post, some walked off the job, intentionally timing their protest for Black Friday, the busiest day of the shopping year.

“The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman,” Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB trade union in the U.K., said in a statement Wednesday.

“They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious and being taken away in ambulances. We’re standing up and saying enough is enough, these are people making Amazon its money. People with kids, homes, bills to pay — they’re not robots.”

In May, a GMB Freedom of Information request revealed ambulances had been called to one Amazon warehouse in the town of Rugeley, England at least 115 times in a span of three years, according to The Guardian. Three of those calls were for maternity or pregnancy-related problems, and three were for “major trauma,” the outlet noted.

In total, GMB found ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s U.K. warehouses a total of 600 times in three years.

“Hundreds of ambulance call-outs, pregnant women telling us they are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles — even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work. None of these things happen in a safe, happy working environments,” GMB national officer Mick Rix told The Guardian.

Amazon officials say the the allegation fail to present  “an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings.”

At the company’s San Fernando logistics center in Madrid, Spain, workers held their fourth major protest to demand better working conditions and increased pay, chanting, “We will not accept discounts to our rights.”

“This is our biggest pressure [action] to date,” Marc Blanes, a trade labor union official for CGT, told Spanish newspaper El Diario.

Amazon issued a statement in response to that protest, claiming, “Most of the employees on the morning shift today in the Amazon logistics center in San Fernando de Henares are working and processing customer orders.”

According to those leading the strike, however, at least 90 percent of the workers at the San Fernando facility had joined the protest. Only two people were left working the loading bay, Douglas Harper of the CCOO trade union confederation told the Associated Press.

“It is one of the days that Amazon has most sales, and these are days when we can hurt more and make ourselves be heard because the company has not listened to us and does not want to reach any agreement,” 38-year-old employee Eduardo Hernandez, who joined the strike, told AP reporters.

Workers at distribution centers in Rheinberg and Bad Hersfeld, Germany also staged protests Friday, demanding higher pay, the latest demonstration in a years-long trade union effort.

“We have a worldwide problem, a boss who wants to impose American working conditions on the world,” Frank Bsirske, head of the Verdi union representing Amazon workers, told The Local in Denmark. “It’s like going back to the 19th century.”

Workers gathered in front of the German publishing group Axel Springer, parent company of Business Insider, where Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was set to receive a business innovation award this week, carrying signs that read “Make Bezos pay.”

Amazon employees from Italy, France, and Poland also joined the demonstration.

The Local noted Amazon, which has around 560,000 employees, reported a profit of around $3 billion last year alone.

The National Retail Federation expects more than 164 million people to shop between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, approximately the same number as in 2017. E-commerce sales, however, are expected to jump 15 percent this holiday season, as consumers ditch brick and mortar stores for online retail giants like Amazon.

According to Adobe, as of 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Black Friday, online spending had skyrocketed nearly 30 percent over last year’s totals. NPR reported online spending was set to reach $6.4 billion by the end of the day, with an additional $3.7 billion from Thanksgiving Day, one day prior.

Target and Walmart are making moves in response to that trend, to rival Amazon’s Prime two-day delivery incentive. Amazon, however, has not missed a beat, announcing recently that it would give Prime subscribers free same-day deliveryon even more items through the holiday season.

This blog was originally published at ThinkProgress on November 24, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Melanie Schmitz is an editor at ThinkProgress. She formerly worked at Bustle and Romper.

Thousands of Amazon Delivery Drivers Won’t Be Eligible for the $15 Wage

Monday, October 15th, 2018

Amazon’s announcement raising its entry-level wage to $15 an hour for all employees has been lauded as an inspiring example of corporate responsibility. In response to sharp criticism and threatened legislation from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over low pay and horrid conditions at Amazon warehouses, CEO Jeff Bezos said: “We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead.”

But thousands of workers delivering your Amazon packages won’t be eligible for that $15 entry-level wage. Across the country, thousands of workers wear Amazon uniforms, use Amazon equipment, and work out of Amazon facilities, but are not classified as Amazon employees. They work for third parties known as delivery service partners (DSPs). It’s just one way Amazon manages the burden of getting billions of packages each year into the hands of its customers.

Amazon has confirmed that these third-party DSPs are not covered by its new wage standard.

Not only will drivers delivering for Amazon be deprived the pay levels of other Amazon employees, but in one notable instance, they were cheated out of wages by a DSP that violated state and federal labor laws.

A federal judge ruled in August that as many as 757 hundred delivery drivers with one DSP on the East Coast were robbed of overtime pay through falsifying time sheet records. The workers have thus far been unable to collect the back pay—potentially millions of dollars— from the DSP or Amazon.

And workers at other Amazon DSPs describe similar practices. So while Amazon basks infavorable PR, it is simultaneously deeply implicated in routine wage theft.

“The face of Amazon.com

Tyhee Hickman of Pennsylvania and Shanay Bolden of Maryland, lead plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court lawsuit, worked for TL Transportation, a Mid-Atlantic regional delivery service. According to the lawsuit, TL literally calls its delivery drivers “the face of Amazon.com,” but those workers are not considered Amazon employees.

Hickman and Bolden’s stories make clear, however, that TL Transportation is merely a pass-through for Amazon. Hickman writes in a sworn statement that he was hired by TL in November 2016, only to report to Amazon’s warehouse in King of Prussia, Penn. for training. The trainer was an Amazon employee. All training materials included Amazon logos. Workers had to purchase and wear Amazon hats, shirts and jackets. Delivery vans had “Amazon” emblazoned on the side, and workers also used an Amazon proprietary device called a “Rabbit” to track routes and scan packages. The Rabbit can also call Amazon customers if they are absent during delivery.

According to Bolden, who worked out of Baltimore, Amazon assigned the routes, and drivers were supposed to call Amazon if they ran into difficulties with deliveries. But despite all this involvement, pay stubs reviewed by In These Times listed the employer as TL Transportation.

“People assume they’re interacting with an employee of a company if they’re wearing the company’s uniform,” says Celine McNicholas, director of labor law and policy at the Economic Policy Institute. “But the web of contracting makes it difficult to discern.”

“Running, running, rushing, rushing”

That TL Transportation subjected employees to wage theft isn’t really in doubt. In a sloppy, misspelled flyer (“WELCOM ABOARD, WE LOOK FORWARD TO WORKING WITH YOU”), employees were told that they would be paid “$160.00 per day based on 8 hrs regular and 2 hours overtime… if you finish early you will be paid of entire day.”
In other words, the time sheet would build in two hours of daily overtime, regardless of hours worked. Pay stubs reflected that. Falsifying time sheets in this manner is definitively illegal, as U.S. District Court Judge Gerald McHugh confirmed in his ruling against TL in August. “Overtime compensation must be specifically linked to the hours an employee actually worked,” McHugh writes.

TL kept to this day rate, with the built-in overtime, regardless of how many days an employee worked. One of Bolden’s pay stubs showed a week where she worked all seven days, with 56 hours at the regular rate and 14 hours of overtime. She should have received 30 overtime hours that week.

In theory, workers could hope to finish deliveries early, earning the $160 day rate for less than 10 hours of work. But that was a pipe dream. Three workers who made sworn declarations and another interviewed by In These Times stated that they always worked more than 10 hours in a day, but were not paid additional overtime.

Hickman stated he would arrive to the Pennsylvania warehouse at 6 a.m. on workdays, attend required meetings with self-identified Amazon personnel, and not leave the warehouse until 9:30. That left him six and half hours to complete his delivery runs of 165 to 200 packages, sometimes as far away as Delaware. If Hickman brought back packages as undeliverable, he was sent back out to re-deliver them, adding more time to the day. Workers also had to inspect delivery vans on exit and re-entry and refuel them at the end of the day. Hickman testified he would usually return to the warehouse at 7:00 p.m., 13 hours after he arrived for work.

A former employee interviewed by In These Times on condition of anonymity, because he has not yet been deposed in the case, described how difficult it was to complete the runs: “It was like running, running, rushing, rushing,” he said. “If you don’t keep going you can’t finish in time.”

To keep up with the demanding schedules, workers were unable to fit in lunch or rest breaks; Hickman testified to having to urinate into bottles or on the side of the road to keep things moving. If workers did miraculously complete routes early, managers sent them back out to “rescue” other delivery drivers, by taking some of their packages. Regardless of the total hours worked in a week, the flat rate never changed.

The job was described as difficult, with rampant turnover. Hickman lasted five months; Bolden lasted seven. The former employee only lasted three. “I lost weight dramatically,” he says. “My wife told me, ‘You look so skinny.’”

The buck stops nowhere

These workers’ stories are broadly consistent with an investigation by Business Insider, which interviewed over 30 drivers with Amazon DSPs. But unlike other DSPs, TL Transportation never had workers sign contracts with a mandatory arbitration agreement, blocking their right to sue. Because it failed to do so, the plaintiffs sought lost and stolen wages in federal court.

Employers steal roughly $8 billion from worker paychecks per year, according to a 2017 studyfrom the Economic Policy Institute. But winning a wage theft ruling through summary judgment without trial, as the TL delivery workers did in August, is exceedingly rare.

Despite the court victory, no worker has yet been paid. TL, which continues to operate, says it lacks the funds to pay above the day rate. Amazon claims it has nothing to do with TL’s labor practices. Plaintiffs continue to battle it outin federal court.

TL’s co-owners Scott Foreman and Herschel Lowe, both named as defendants in the complaint, did not return phone messages asking for comment.

A second lawsuit, against a DSP named NEA Delivery, was filed in August in California, joining prior suits in IllinoisWashington stateand Arizona. But because every DSP is different, plaintiffs’ attorneys must go individually, company by company, to seek restitution for wronged workers. This has the added benefit of preventing Amazon delivery personnel from unionizing across the sector. Amazon has a longstanding policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

“This is nothing unique” among large corporations, said EPI’s McNicholas. “The reason companies do it is that it complicates the worker’s ability to hold their employer accountable.” In Amazon’s case, instead of offering a base wage of $15 an hour and a suite of benefits, it simply hires couriers like TL Transportation at a set rate per delivery and pleads ignorance about violations of labor law. The workers end up stuck, unable to win money owed them from fly-by-night third parties, and unable to challenge the corporate giant whose packages they actually deliver.

EPI’s McNicholas lays blame for the wage theft at the feet of Amazon, for setting up a system of free, rapid shipping. “It’s very difficult for these subcontracting firms to do business if they’re not cutting corners,” she says. “Amazon may say they set loose terms, but they’re instituting the framework that the subcontracting firms have to honor.”

Amazon outsources to hundreds of DSPs and encourages new delivery start-ups, promising that they can get to work within weeks and make up to $300,000 per year. “Logistics experience not required,” the company states on its website. Amazon has also tested several other systems for package delivery, from using the U.S. Postal Service, private competitors like UPS and FedEx, or an Uber-like system called Amazon Flex, where individuals sign up to deliver packages with their own cars.

None of these involve employees of Amazon, and all have come under scrutiny. Postal workers have complained about onerous package loads and weekend deliveries. Labor attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan sued Amazon in 2016 for failing to ensure that Amazon Flex workers earn the minimum wage after accounting for vehicle and maintenance costs, as well as not paying overtime. The case remains pending.

The third-party hustle

Since the $15 wage announcement, Amazon has been criticized for offsetting the pay increase by removing stock awards and bonuses. Others have characterized the wage hike as a way to avoid unionization at Whole Foods, or an impetus to eliminate workers through automation. But the third-party hustle is a far more efficient way to avoid raising wages, while pushing off liability for labor practices to other companies.

The plaintiffs in the TL Transportation case have named Amazon as a defendant, arguing that the company “control[s] the work activities, condition, and management” of the DSPs and their employees. But this bumps up against the “joint employer” standard set by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under Obama, whereby companies are jointly liable for labor law violations by their franchisees, suppliers or contractors if they have indirect influence over the terms of employment.

Trump’s National Labor Relations Board has proposed narrowing the joint employer definition to companies that exercise “substantial, direct and immediate control” over hiring, firing, discipline and supervision. That would still seem to apply to Amazon, but it’s a close call. And courts typically follow the NLRB, which under Trump isn’t exactly worker-friendly.

If the courts agree that Amazon is not a joint employer, it would have a path to keep tens of thousands of delivery workers outsourced and removed from its new wage standards, without sacrificing the significant publicity benefits of the announcement. It’s good work if you can get it.

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: David Dayen is an investigative fellow with In These Times‘ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. His book Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraudwon the 2015 Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. He lives in Los Angeles, where prior to writing about politics he had a 19-year career as a television producer and editor.

Today Amazon, Tomorrow the Railroad Industry: The Fight for $15 Rolls On

Monday, October 1st, 2018

After being called out by labor activists and progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders for paying poverty wages despite receiving tax breaks and raking in billions of dollars, Amazon has caved to the pressure and announced it will offer all its workers a $15-per-hour minimum wage starting next month. Now, a new coalition of workers and community leaders is taking aim at another major player in the logistics industry: the railroads.

Class I railroads like CSX, Norfolk Southern and BNSF benefit from billions in taxpayer subsidies and are reporting high profits. Yet the people who transport their rail crews between trains, cities, hotels and homes are paid low wages and receive few benefits. To keep costs down and evade liability, the railroads use subcontractors like Hallcon and Professional Transportation Inc. (PTI) to hire their crew drivers.

On September 27, several dozen rail crew drivers with the United Electrical Workers (UE), United Steelworkers (USW), Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and United Public Services Employees Union (UPSEU) protested outside a conference of railroad executives in downtown Chicago. The drivers and community allies are calling on the Class I railroads to implement responsible contractor policies to make companies like Hallcon and PTI pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage and offer decent benefits.

“We’re dedicated drivers out here,” said Devin Ragland, a PTI driver with USW District 7. “It’s not fair that we’re out here from sundown to sunup, running these crews back and forth where they need to go, and then we get mistreated when it comes time for pay.”

Ragland and the other drivers were joined by Cook County Commissioner and congressional candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, who called for an “end to the poverty wages in the rail yards.”

“I join your voices in saying to these railroad companies that they should adopt responsible contractor policies to ensure that the prosperity that they are experiencing is shared with all of the workers in the industry,” Garcia told the drivers.

UE, USW, SMART and UPSEU represent crew drivers from coast to coast. UE has been organizing Hallcon drivers nationwide for the past several years, recently winning a union election at the company that added 650 more drivers from 8 states into the union’s ranks, bringing the total number of UE-represented drivers at the company to nearly 1,700. 

“Everywhere we go at Hallcon, people are at minimum wage or just above,” UE International Representative J Burger told In These Times.  Drivers say they earn so little that many are forced to rely on public assistance.

UE is currently negotiating a new master contract at Hallcon. Burger said the company is resisting demands for living wages, instead arguing that drivers should only get a one-time bonus or miniscule raises of between 15 to 20 cents per year.

“I’ve been told we were offered 21 cents. I can’t make a phone call with 21 cents,” driver and UE member Vickie Bogovich said on September 27. “Is that all I’m worth? I don’t think so.”

“They’re offering us pennies and we need dollars,” added Clarence Hill, a Hallcon driver who serves as Chief Steward of UE Local 1177. Hill said he is paid only $12 an hour after 8 years on the job.

The drivers are on-call at all hours of the day, required to hop in a company van at a moment’s notice to shuttle a rail crew from one location to another. Frequently, they wait hours at a time before finally getting a call. After one trip, they often have to wait several more hours for the next call, sometimes stretching their work day to 24 hours or more. Drivers are only paid for their driving time, not for the hours they spend waiting.

Burger noted this “stretch out” is not only unfair to drivers, but it also endangers the rail crews they transport, putting them at the mercy of fatigued drivers operating on little to no sleep. In contract talks, UE is fighting for on-call pay and more compact hours when the company is unable to put drivers to work. 

Additionally, the union is demanding improved benefits, including paid time off and affordable health insurance. “We’re trying to make the job something people can actually live by,” Burger told In These Times.

UE’s current contract at Hallcon was originally set to expire in August, but has been extended to October 21. Meanwhile, USW, SMART and UPSEU—which represent drivers at both Hallcon and PTI—will also see some of their current contracts expire later this fall, setting up the potential for a nationwide strike that could disrupt retail freight in time for the busy holiday shopping season.

The unions have been increasingly coordinating efforts over the past year, trying to “have a united front approach,” Burger explained. “We’re all talking about raising the standards in the industry. We’re united for the betterment of the drivers.” 

In addition to Chuy Garcia, the drivers also have the solidarity of the rail crews they shuttle. Other union workers in the railroad industry—including from the Brotherhood of the Maintenance and Way Employees and the Chicago All Rail Craft Coalition—joined Thursday’s protest.

“The labor movement was built on the simple concept that an injury to one is an injury to all,” Mark Burrows of Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from across North America, told the drivers. “We’re doing all that we can to educate our coworkers and get them behind this struggle.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on October 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a summer 2013 editorial intern at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.

Amazon delivery drivers report wage theft and other abuses

Friday, September 14th, 2018

Amazon’s labor practices, from its warehouses to its corporate offices, are terrible—and of course its delivery workers don’t have it any better. Many of Amazon’s packages are delivered by third-party courier companies and drivers face a range of abuses, from wage theft to being pressured into risky behaviors to deliver packages on time, Business Insider reports based on interviews with 31 current or former drivers at 14 of the companies:

Four drivers across three companies said their employers misrepresented the job by promising health benefits without following through. One worker said that when he started his job, his employer promised that he would get health benefits within 90 days of employment. He said he was fired within days of qualifying.

Eight workers across four companies said drivers were denied overtime pay, despite working well over 40 hours a week. Thirteen workers across five companies complained about wages missing from paychecks.

Workers reported being pressured to be on the job on their days off, to work through injury, to ignore stop signs if they were running late, and being fired for challenging illegal practices.

Amazon, of course, says these are contractors and Amazon is trying to work with them to do the right thing, and so on and so forth. But plausible deniability is a key reason companies like Amazon do so much outsourcing of work, and the deniability is that much less plausible coming from a company with Amazon’s labor record in other areas of its business.

Generally speaking, if a giant corporation really really cares about something, its contractors get the message … and if it doesn’t care so much, well, this is what you get. There is one way Amazon can push back against coverage like this: by improving its practices and those of its contractors.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos Labor on September 15, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. 

Walmart patents technology to eavesdrop on workers

Monday, July 16th, 2018

Walmart has just patented surveillance technology which would allow it to eavesdrop on worker’s conversations and help monitor them to ensure they meet the company’s “performance metrics.”

The “Listening to the Frontend” system would collect audio data from the stores’ cashier areas, allowing it to pick up everything from beeps to conversations with customers to, potentially, conversations between workers.  It would then analyse the sounds to ensure the employee is working efficiently — and help Walmart achieve “cost savings” and “guest satisfaction.”

“We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told Buzzfeed News, who first reported the story. “We don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”

It’s unclear when, or even if, Walmart will ever actually introduce this technology. But it is another example of how corporate giants are using technology in an attempt to track and control their workers — despite evidence showing that excess surveillance makes workers feel nervous and actually ends up slowing them down.

Amazon — whose profits topped $3 billion in 2017 — recently patented wristbandswhich can precisely track where its warehouse workers are, and point them in the right direction via vibration. In 2013, the Financial Times also documented how Amazon workers’ personal sat-navs set target times for them to shelve packages, and reports them to management if they’re behind schedule.

The surveillance isn’t just relegated to Amazon’s warehouses either. A 2015 New York Times story documented a similar Big Brother-esque atmosphere at Amazon’s corporate headquarters in Seattle. In a rare internal email, CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back on the article, saying it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

Uber’s instant rating system is similarly stressful on workers, punishing drivers who fall bellow a 4.6.

Unsurprisingly, being constantly tracked and asked to meet robot-like targets is having a devastating effect on workers. The British GMB trade union previously warned that the kinds of “regimes” Amazon employers worked under were causing them to have musculoskeletal problems as well as stress and anxiety.

“It’s hard, physical work, but the constant stress of being monitored and never being able to drop below a certain level of performance is harsh,” Elly Baker, GMB’s lead officer for Amazon, said. “You can’t be a normal person. You have to be an above-average Amazon robot all the time.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on July 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Delivery Drivers Sue Amazon Over Misclassification, Failure to Pay Overtime and the Minimum Wage

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

With wage and hour lawsuits becoming increasingly common across the country, there was little reason for the lawyers at Amazon.com’s Seattle headquarters to be surprised when one landed on their doorstep recently. But they may have been concerned to learn that their newest legal adversary is “Sledgehammer Shannon” Liss-Riordan, a Boston attorney who gained legal fame by beating corporate giants like FedEx and Starbucks in just these kinds of contests.

The new lawsuit against Amazon is similar to one of Liss-Riordan’s best known cases—a suit against FedEx that charged the company was misclassifying delivery drivers as independent contractors when the workers were, as a matter of law, regular employees. Liss-Riordan won that fight and, this year, FedEx announced that it would give up on a series of related legal fights and pay $240 million to some 12,000 drivers in 20 states.

Liss-Riordan took the fight to Amazon in a suit filed October 4 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It charges Amazon and Amazon Logistics Inc. with violating the minimum wage law in Seattle, state labor law in Washington and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Liss-Riordan explains that Amazon is experimenting with a delivery system where the company contracts with individuals to use their own cars to pick up parcels at Amazon warehouses and deliver them to local customers. The drivers typically sign up for a specific work shift and are paid an hourly wage. They are not compensated, however, for expenses like gasoline, car maintenance, telephone calls, or other incidentals. When subtracting these expenses, drivers often end up earning less than the minimum wage and are denied overtime pay, she says.

That description of delivery methods was echoed by Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the advocacy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Along with co-author Olivia LaVecchia, Mitchell has just completed a major study of Amazon’s business practices that warns that the giant corporation is killing good jobs in local economies as it seeks to monopolize different sectors of the retail business.

“Amazon has substantially expanded its warehouses in recent years and is experimenting with the so-called ‘last mile’ of the delivery system. They are increasingly using on-demand drivers, and also regional couriers, to move goods,” Mitchell says. “In the past, this sort of ‘last mile’ delivery was typically done by the U.S. Postal Service or United Parcel Service. USPS and UPS jobs are good-paying union jobs, and Amazon is undermining these with its gig economy model.”

In These Times reached out to Amazon to comment on the lawsuit. Spokesman Jim Billimoria provided the following response:

“The small and medium sized businesses that partner with Amazon Logistics have their own employees and are required to abide by applicable laws and Amazon’s Supplier Code of Conduct, which focuses on compensation, benefits, and appropriate working hours. We investigate any claim that a provider isn’t complying with these obligations.”

Liss-Riordan says this sort of a defense is typical of large corporations, many of which have lost wage and hour lawsuits in court.

“It’s not what you say that counts, it’s what you do,” she said. “We’ve been able to demonstrate, time and time again, that a lot of these corporations just don’t live up to their stated policies when it comes to real-life employment practices on the ground. That’s why you see more and more of these suits.”

Indeed, a 2015 report from the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw LLP described an “onslaught” of litigation resulting in a record high number of federally-filed wage and hour cases in 2015. According to the firm, there were 8,781 such cases in 2015, compared to only 1,935 in 2000.

Asked about her nickname “Sledgehammer Shannon,” Liss-Riordan laughed out loud.

“It’s sort of silly. Mother Jones magazine did an article last year about a case I have against Uber, and I get a lot of jokes. I don’t care. The fact is, we will take on cases like this and fight them for 10 years if we have to.”

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on December 12, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

The Supreme Court Just Rejected A Wage Theft Suit Against Amazon. What Does It Mean For Other Workers?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Retail warehouses don’t have to pay workers for the time they spend in security screenings to make sure they’re not stealing, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision that reverses a lower court’s finding that workers must be paid for that time.

The ruling is a blow to wage theft claims by the poorly paid workers who fill orders for Amazon.com and similar online retailers in punishing conditions with little job security. It effectively ends 400,000 workers‘ hopes of recouping hundreds of millions of dollars in back pay from the company in 13 different class-action suits.

But an employment law expert tells ThinkProgress that workers who are bringing a host of other prominent wage theft cases in other industries have nothing to fear.

“It says absolutely nothing about whether other pay practices violate the Fair Labor Standards Act,” said Prof. Catherine Keck, who teaches employment and labor law at the University of California Irvine School of Law. “I don’t think you can read this decision as anything but a very narrow interpretation of a particular portion of the law.”

The case targeted Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS), a temp agency that Amazon pays to staff its warehouses. The warehouses require staff to clock out prior to lining up for mandatory security screenings, which workers say take up to 25 minutes to complete because the company won’t invest in setting up enough metal detectors to turn the process into a quick, simple pause on the way out of the building.

A 1947 law called the Portal-to-Portal Act exempts employers from having to pay workers for the time they spend on activities “that take place before and after the workday proper,” the New York Times explains. Workers can’t demand wages for the time it takes to walk from their car to the time clock, for example, or for the time they spend commuting. How you read on-site security screenings in the context of that law, Keck said, is a judgment call.

“There’s truth in both points of view on this. This is not like commuting,” Keck said, and “essentially the employer’s choice about how it wants to run its business and its unwillingness to invest in a security system means it is wasting a lot of its employees’ time.” But the Portal-to-Portal Act specifically says companies don’t have to pay workers for anything they do after the end of their principal work duties.

“I think that language could be construed both to include the security screenings and to exclude them. And the court chose one plausible interpretation, which is that their principal job is to put stuff in boxes in a warehouse and [not] the searches to make sure they’re not stealing stuff,” Keck said. Solving the problem requires either a change to the law from Congress to clarify how mandatory security screenings relate to existing labor law, or a decision by Amazon to spend the money it would take to make the screenings efficient enough that they don’t trap workers on site after their shift’s end.

A series of high-profile wage theft suits against McDonald’s from last spring could prove crucial to the long-running, increasingly rowdy campaign to force the fast food industry to stop paying poverty wages and start letting workers unionize. But while those suits also pivot on allegations that a corporate giant systematically deprived its most exploited employees of money they should have been paid for time they spent on site, the nature of the allegations is so different from those in the Amazon case that worker advocates have nothing to fear from Tuesday’s ruling.

McDonald’s allegedly uses a computer system to police cash flows at its stores in real time, giving managers an incentive to monitor the ratio of cash register revenue to staff wage costs from moment to moment. Workers allege that managers respond to that information by forcing them to clock out but continue working, or clock out but not go home, or otherwise manipulate their time cards and deprive them of their due pay — something multiple former managers have confirmed.

Such timesheet abuses are “clearly illegal and there’s no argument on the other side,” Keck said. “That’s a totally different issue, it arises from a totally different part of the statute.”

This blog originally appeared in Thinkprogress.org on December 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/12/10/3602000/amazon-wage-theft-ruling/

About the Author: Alan Pyke is the Deputy Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress.org. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he was a blogger and researcher with a focus on economic policy and political advertising at Media Matters for America, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, and PoliticalCorrection.org. He previously worked as an organizer on various political campaigns from New Hampshire to Georgia to Missouri. His writing on music and film has appeared on TinyMixTapes, IndieWire’s Press Play, and TheGrio, among other sites.

 

Amazon Wage Theft Case Comes Before The Supreme Court

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Dave JohnsonPicture this: You are supposedly “off work” but every day after the end of your shift you have to wait in a line for up to 25 minutes to get “checked” to see if you are stealing things. The Supreme Court is going to decide if you should be paid for your time. This is part of the larger issue of “wage theft.”

The Roberts Supreme Court is notorious for siding with big corporations over regular Americans. Now they are going to hear a case involving Amazon warehouse workers who are required to check out from “paid time” but then wait up to 25 minutes to go through a screening to see if they are stealing. Who is stealing from whom?

Bloomberg News has the story, in “Amazon Workers Take Security-Line Woes to Supreme Court”:

Jesse Busk spent a 12-hour shift rushing inventory through an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Nevada to meet quotas. His day wasn’t over, though.

After clocking out, Busk and hundreds of other workers went through an airport-style screening process, including metal detectors, to make sure they weren’t stealing from the Web retailer. Getting through the line often took as long as 25 minutes, uncompensated, he and others employed there say.

“They did it on my time,” Busk, 37, of Henderson, Nevada, said in an interview. “If people are stuck in your building and they’re not allowed to leave, why don’t you go ahead and pay them?”

Wage Theft Is Big Money

This is not small potatoes. In the case of just one company – Amazon – up to 400,000 workers could get back wages amounting to $100 million. Nationally wage theft is about serious money. Click this chart for the full story from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

snapshot-wage-theft-04-02-2014a.png[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the thing. If the Roberts court sides with Amazon, businesses will feel free to increase the ways they get time and work out of workers without paying them. Already, according to Bloomberg, “Apple Inc., CVS Health Corp., J.C. Penney Co., TJX Cos. and Ross Stores Inc. are all battling court claims involving searches at break times or the end of shifts at distribution centers or stores.”

Wage theft can take several forms, including but not limited to:

  • Employees denied overtime pay.
  • Employees paid less than minimum wage.
  • Employees forced to work off the clock without pay.
  • Employees misclassified as independent contractors.
  • Employees forced to put in “volunteer” time.
  • Illegal deductions taken from pay.
  • Employees denied breaks.
  • Employees denied promised vacation pay.
  • Employees denied promised sick pay.
  • Tips stolen from workers.

Wage theft does not just hit low-wage employees. Several Silicon Valley companies are being sued for conspiring to keep wages low through an agreement to refuse to hire employees from the other conspirators. This kept competition for the employees down, which kept wages lower than they otherwise would have been.

The Labor Department caught LinkedIn shorting salespeople’s compensation and made them pay $3 million in back wages and $2.5 million in damages.

A few wage theft resources:

EPI report, “An Epidemic of Wage Theft Is Costing Workers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars a Year.”

OurFuture.org, “Wage Theft Is Much More Common Than You Think.”

WageTheft.org

Wage Theft at Interfaith Worker Justice

The National Employment Law Project

This blog originally appeared in OurFuture.org on October 6, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20141006/amazon-wage-theft-case-before-supreme-court

About the Author: Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

Huge Amazon Wage Theft Case Goes to Supreme Court

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Laura ClawsonOver the last couple years, a lawsuit by workers at Amazon warehouses has been making its way through the courts. Now, the Supreme Court has agreed to take it up. The workers claim that they were made to spend time off the clock going through security screenings, taking about 25 unpaid minutes each day. Being made to work off the clock is classic wage theft lawsuit material, but Bruce Vail writes, the stakes are unusually high in this case:

Mark Thierman, the Reno, Nev., lawyer representing Busk and Castro, says the lawsuit has since been joined by another 500 workers from other warehouses. If the suit is fully successful, he tells In These Times, the settlement could include back pay for as many as 500,000 workers (both permanent and temporary) from all of Amazon’s more than 50 U.S. warehouses. […]A commentary from attorneys at Littler Mendelson, which is representing Integrity Staffing, explains the stake employers have in Busk. “The question is of great import for the nation’s employers as security screening is becoming an ever more common practice in the workplace,” write attorneys Neil Alexander, Rick Roskelley and Cory Walker. “Indeed, the Ninth Circuit’s determination in Busk has already triggered a spate of class-action suits filed by employees seeking back pay for time spent undergoing pre- or post-shift security measures. If allowed to stand, the Ninth Circuit’s determination could result in massive retroactive liability stemming from such suits.”

Since the circuit court ruling was in favor of the workers, there’s reason for concern that the Supreme Court is hearing this case in order to decide that, yes, businesses can force workers to spend significant unpaid time going through required security screenings:

“It’s always a little worrying when [the Supreme Court] agrees to take a case from the Ninth Circuit,” [attorney Brooke Lierman] says. Whereas the Ninth Circuit is considered by labor lawyers to be relatively liberal, the high court is considered very conservative, Lierman says, so there is concern that some Supreme Court judges are predisposed to overrule the Ninth Circuit. “There are justices on the Supreme Court who want to roll back the rights of workers,” she says.

She’s definitely not kidding on that last point.

This article was originally printed on the Daily Kos on March 15, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at the Daily Kos.

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