About a year ago, Ash Jones took a small box off a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse in Hebron, Kentucky. He has not been able to work since then.
The package, which Jones estimated to be about 10 inches long, was deceptively heavy. As she turned to place it on the pallet, her wrist came loose.
“I felt something,” Jones said, noting there was no warning on the package about its weight. He says his wrist later swelled up the size of an orange.
The injury was just the beginning of Jones’ problems. He was initially on workers’ compensation, but his benefits stopped after a few weeks after a doctor who contracted with Amazon classified him as permanently disabled. After months of not being paid, Amazon said it couldn’t find a position for Jones that accommodated her disability, she says. Although Jones never expected. He got an attorney and a second opinion from a doctor who said the disability was not permanent.
On the afternoon CNET inquired about the details of Jones’ case, Amazon offered him nearly a year of unpaid workers’ compensation.
Jones isn’t the only worker who has had to battle Amazon for benefits after being injured on the job at one of the company’s more than 800 North American warehouses. Workers, lawyers and regulators attribute the injuries to Amazon’s demanding productivity targets, often called “rates,” that dictate how long each task takes to the second and track whether workers stay on track. Injured workers who are being evaluated by Amazon-paid doctors say they face a system that focuses on putting them back on the ground rather than helping them recover. They also describe a byzantine HR system that requires constant communication to ensure their work doesn’t fall through the cracks.
Amazon’s warehouse workers will likely be working long lines next week. The e-commerce giant will hold its annual event on Tuesday and Wednesdaya shopping extravaganza. Prime Day, one of the company’s biggest shopping drivers, will put already taxed warehouse workers at an even more frantic pace as they deal with an onslaught of orders and two-day shipping requirements.
The employee sparring with Amazon for health and recreation comes as the company struggles to manage its vast warehousing and logistics business, which is growing rapidly during the pandemic. Consumers stuck at home placed record orders online, fueling the need for more inventory.
Amazon hired 300,000 people in its fulfillment services in 2021, and the company reported a global workforce of more than 1.6 million by the end of that year. The company’s logistics operations, which include warehouses and aerial installations, have tripled in size. (Amazon is now dealing with declining demand and the resulting glut of space.)
The company’s large workforce comes with higher injury rates. According to the National Employment Law Project, between 2018 and 2020, Amazon warehouses in Minnesota had twice as many injuries as other warehouses in the state. Similarly, all Amazon warehouses in the US have serious injuriesIn 2021, the company reported nearly seven injuries for every 100 workers and a total of 38,000 injuries, according to the Center for Strategic Organizing, a union-affiliated labor advocacy group.
Amazon does not dispute the number of workplace injuries, based on the company’s own reports to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the increase in injuries is related to the company’s growing workforce, adding that new hires are more likely to be injured.
“We take the health and safety of our team seriously, and while we’re not perfect, we don’t believe these few anecdotes reflect the experience of our more than a million front-line employees,” Nantel told CNET about the employees. “When a member of our team has a problem, we work hard to help with their unique concerns, including issues with compensation, benefits or accommodations.”
Workers’ compensation lawyers say claiming benefits is complicated because many injured workers don’t know they’re entitled to them in the first place. Many injured workers wait months for legal advice.
“Most people don’t understand what they’re entitled to or the claims process at all,” said Bryant Greening, a workers’ compensation attorney in Chicago who has clients with claims against Amazon.
Christopher Johnson, another workers’ compensation attorney in Illinois, said workers may be afraid to report injuries even if they know they can receive compensation because they fear retaliation and potentially losing their jobs.
“They’re willing to pretty much give up a lot of the rights they have,” Johnson said.
Why are injuries so common in the Amazon?
CEO Andy Jassy reiterated the company’s claim that hiring has increased over the past two years.. Speaking to investors in April, he added that Amazon’s internal analysis found the company’s injury rates to be slightly worse than the industry average, though he said he was not happy with that performance.
“I’m not comforted by average,” Jassy said. “We want to be the best in the industry.”
The regulators’ findings point to one practice Amazon could change to improve security: its demanding rate system.
A Washington state agency found that Amazon often did not provide the tools needed to perform tasks ergonomically. If there was a tool like a step stool, the agency said, “employees will often ignore it for fear of reprimanding for not meeting administrative grade goals for using such a device to slow down the pace of their work.”
At the time, Amazon told The Seattle Times it planned to appeal the citation.
When the rate system causes injuries, workers say they are stuck in a maze of bureaucracy that causes delays.
Minnesota Amazon worker Daad Ali, who spoke through a Somali interpreter at a press conference in December, blamed the tariff demands for the injuries at his warehouse. Ali says he missed more than seven weeks of pay after injuring his spinal discs in July 2021, causing financial stress for his family. Amazon says Ali’s address was outdated in the company’s system and he received the payments after signing up for direct deposit.
Less than two months after his injury, Ali says he was back at work after Amazon consulted a doctor to find him a fit. Although Ali said he was still in pain, the company did not reduce his duties. Amazon, he said, “will give you a run until you give up.”
The workers say that maintenance has been cut off
Many Amazon employees who consult with workers’ compensation attorney Greening have a comfortable time obtaining workers’ compensation and medical care. But he says that even after treatment continues, the process can go off the rails.
Caley Tibbittz, a former warehouse worker who no longer works with Greening, damaged ligaments in her spinal cord after two serious falls at an Amazon Fresh facility in Portland, Oregon. A few days after her first fall, she tried to power through a shift, bracing herself with painkillers. He fell again.
Unable to work, Tibbittz saw an urgent care doctor who contracted with Amazon. A doctor referred Tibbittz to physical therapy, where he made progress until he had to miss several weeks of appointments because Amazon’s contracted care management provider delayed approving his sessions. The care manager then stopped treatment altogether because a medical examination revealed that Tibbittz was no longer improving.
Strapped for money, Tibbittz started driving for DoorDash. She says she finally gained more mobility as she bends, twists and lifts while working. Still not fully recovered.
“My back hurts all the time,” Tibbittz said.
In response to Tibbittz’s concerns, Amazon told CNET that it did not provide the additional information it requested for its extension.
The company says it is still working with Jones, the Kentucky employee who injured his wrist. Last fall, as Jones waited to hear whether Amazon would accept his disability, he began receiving requests from various company representatives for documentation from his doctor. Jones believed Amazon already had the documents, but he submitted them by email because he feared the company would be shut down if he didn’t.
While the same paperwork requirements persist, she says she sets a reminder on her phone for 2:30 p.m. every day to send. After a month, the company stopped asking for the documents and confirmed they were on file.
When Jones asked for pain medication, he says the doctor treating him wouldn’t write a prescription because Jones couldn’t work a shift at Amazon while taking the medication. Medical records confirm that the doctor did not prescribe Jones medication, but they do not say why.
Jones, who soon found the pain too great to continue with physical therapy, said the exchange surprised him.
“Why are you more interested in me going to work,” Jones thought at the time, “and less interested in my injury?”