How Times Reporters Investigated Amazon Employment Practices

Times Insider explains who we’re and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes collectively.

Last summer time, amid a hiring spree at Amazon so gigantic it left historians struggling for comparisons, Karen Weise, a Times reporter who covers the corporate from Seattle, introduced up a puzzling query to her editors. Approaching the million-worker mark, Amazon was on monitor to changing into the biggest non-public employer within the United States. Yet, regardless of strong wages and beneficiant advantages, it was rapidly biking via staff. Why?

Executives had an “almost palpable fear of running out of workers,” she mentioned later.

In August, she obtained a name from Jodi Kantor, a Times reporter in Brooklyn who was speaking to employees from quite a lot of industries who have been battling strict guidelines about time and attendance through the pandemic. She needed to look extra carefully at “time off task,” or T.O.T., Amazon’s observe of monitoring employees by the second and disciplining them for too many unexcused pauses.

One sizzling day in a New York City park, Ms. Kantor met with Dayana Santos, an worker who had been repeatedly praised by her bosses however fired for an excessive amount of T.O.T. throughout one dangerous day full of mishaps she mentioned have been past her management. Ms. Santos’s story raised equity questions, and a enterprise one: Why would Amazon, voracious for employees, fireplace an excellent worker?

Those questions led to a current Times investigative report on the corporate that exposed systemic issues in its mannequin for managing employees, similar to unbridled turnover, minimal human contact, an error-plagued depart system, delayed advantages and mistaken firings.

Ms. Santos had labored at JFK8 on Staten Island, a compelling setting for a possible investigation: the one Amazon success heart within the nation’s largest metropolis, working underneath most pandemic strain to ship to homebound clients. Other media retailers had examined working situations, damage charges and quite a few different elements of Amazon warehouses. The Times reporters, specializing in JFK8, had a unique aim: to grasp the connection between the corporate’s employment mannequin and its astonishing success. They got down to chronicle Amazon’s core relationship with its humongous, rising work pressure — who obtained employed and fired, and the principles, techniques and assumptions that ruled all the things in between.

But JFK8 was huge — about 5,000 staff in an area the dimensions of 15 soccer fields — and managers and human assets employees have been reluctant to speak. Ms. Weise contacted company staff, lots of whom by no means responded. To assist sort out the large challenge, Grace Ashford, a researcher on the Investigations desk, joined the workforce. Together she and Ms. Kantor spent many hours on the telephone and on the bus cease outdoors JFK8, together with on Prime Day, asking employees about their experiences.

Often, Ms. Kantor and Ms. Ashford discovered that new hires have been grateful for the pay however left after a couple of weeks. “Amazon was a lifeline for them, until it wasn’t,” Ms. Ashford mentioned.

Knowing that their requests to interview Amazon’s most senior executives have been lengthy pictures, the reporters needed to discover inventive methods of understanding the tradition inside JFK8. They spoke with human assets workers and company leaders, who described Amazon’s glitchy, strained techniques and the enterprise problem of sustaining workers throughout a public well being emergency.

Ms. Weise took masked walks with Paul Stroup, an information scientist who had tried to steer Amazon via the disaster however left pondering Amazon might do higher by its employees. Ms. Kantor spent the autumn shadowing Ann Castillo, who was battling Amazon’s remedy of her severely in poor health husband, a JFK8 veteran.

Back workplace staff at a unique location, in Costa Rica, described the partial collapse of the corporate’s depart techniques early within the pandemic, resulting in issues like halted advantages for Mr. Castillo.

Data obtained via public information confirmed that Amazon’s total work pressure was largely Black and Latino, however inner paperwork revealed that Black employees at JFK8 have been disproportionately fired.

After Ms. Santos, the employee fired for T.O.T., utilized for unemployment, Amazon contested her advantages. In an obscure New York administrative court docket, the corporate filed inner coverage memos that supplied a uncommon inside glimpse of the T.O.T. system.

After virtually 200 interviews, an image emerged of an organization that “seemed far more precise with packages than people,” Ms. Kantor mentioned. Amazon had tried to develop its enterprise rapidly by creating an enormous semi-automated machine for hiring and managing — however that system usually stumbled.

Ms. Weise was in a position to affirm that whereas the corporate boasted of job creation, turnover on the warehouses was roughly 150 p.c a yr — a determine by no means reported earlier than — that means Amazon needed to substitute the equal of its total warehouse work pressure each eight months.

That quantity, and the complete challenge, took on deeper that means when David Niekerk, the architect of Amazon’s warehouse human assets system, informed her the turnover was kind of by design. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief govt, had sought to keep away from an entrenched work pressure, fearing laziness and a “march to mediocrity.” So upward mobility and raises for warehouse employees have been restricted.

As Ms. Kantor wrote and Ms. Ashford continued to report, Ms. Weise led a fragile, six-week effort to verify the voluminous data within the story with Amazon and garner its responses. By then, the corporate had supplied some enter, together with a tour of JFK8 by the final supervisor and an interview with Ofori Agboka, head of human assets for the warehouses, who defended Amazon however acknowledged that the corporate had leaned too closely on expertise and self-service.

As a part of the fact-checking course of, the reporters repeatedly requested Amazon in regards to the T.O.T. coverage and Ms. Santos’s firing. Shortly earlier than the article was printed, Amazon introduced a direct coverage change: No longer might somebody be fired for one dangerous day. Ms. Santos and others have been eligible for rehire.

The article elicited a powerful public response, ideas from different staff who wish to inform their tales and an outpouring of reader feedback. (“It was not Bezos who made Amazon. It was all of us who bought from it,” one mentioned.) On July 1, Amazon introduced an addition to its management rules — essential tips for inner selections and administration — that centered on being a greater employer.

In coming months, the main focus is more likely to be on whether or not Amazon will change among the practices which have propelled it to dominance, both due to inner motion or outdoors pressure.

“They say that broadly, their work force is happy, and their internal surveys say that more than 90 percent would recommend working at Amazon to a friend,” Ms. Weise mentioned.

“But 150 percent turnover in a year means that something isn’t working for many people.”