Sandra was on break from her nightshift at the Amazon delivery station in Sacramento, California, when she saw the text that her mother-in-law had been put on life support. With her manager’s permission, she left work early to go to the hospital. Her mother-in-law’s condition worsened the next day, and Sandra, who asked that only her first name be used, notified Amazon that she had to remain at the hospital. Her mother-in-law died the next day, and Sandra called the warehouse again to request bereavement leave, of which Amazon offers three days.
But Amazon grants workers limited time off, even without pay, and the time spent in the hospital had overdrawn Sandra’s balance by one hour before the bereavement leave set in. After she returned to work, her manager informed her that she was fired.
“I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone,” Sandra says. “I’m dealing with a death in my family, and I’m going to lose my job over one hour?”
The firing galvanized other workers at the facility who formed a group called Amazonians United Sacramento. Early on the morning of September 30th, they submitted a petition to the site manager and Amazon human resources demanding that Sandra be rehired and workers be given paid time off.
“While Amazon is a trillion dollar company run by the richest man in the world, permanent part-time employees working 8 hour shifts are only allowed 10 days off a year for any reason,” the demand letter reads. “This means that every day we use [unpaid time off] for family emergencies, sickness, or vacation, we are one step closer to termination.”
Though Amazon often touts the medical insurance and paid time off it gives its warehouse workers, those benefits only apply to full-time employees. Amazon also employs large numbers of permanent part-time workers, particularly in the company’s smaller, last-mile warehouses, such as the one in Sacramento, where goods are sorted before being sent out for delivery. Employees at the Sacramento delivery center say that all of the approximately 500 workers there are restricted to part-time work, and their hours are limited to fewer than the 30 per week that would obligate Amazon to offer them health care under the Affordable Care Act. They receive neither medical insurance nor paid time off.
“They very explicitly put a cap on how many hours you can work a week to keep everybody under having to give them those benefits,” says an employee at the Sacramento warehouse who asked to remain anonymous. Amazon’s job listings indicate that workers at these facilities work between 15 and 25 hours a week, and an employee at a Chicago delivery center says workers receive an alert in the scheduling portal if they attempt to take extra shifts that surpass the 30-hour limit.
The lack of paid time off is particularly difficult for part-time workers because, without it, they are left to rely on the small allotment of unpaid hours off that Amazon allows them to take before getting fired. Employees are given 20 hours of unpaid time off per quarter, which equates to about two and a half shifts for most workers. Workers call taking too much unpaid time “going negative” and say it results in automatic firing. “They just have a computer program that automatically fires people, no human oversight over what the conditions or concerns might have been,” says a Chicago delivery center worker who asked to remain anonymous. Employees say the system makes it difficult to work second jobs, deal with family emergencies, or even recover from the physical strain of work at Amazon.
Amazon says the firings are not automatic and that the company takes into account individual circumstances should employees require additional time off. Amazon also responded that though part-time workers aren’t offered medical insurance, they are offered vision and dental coverage, as well as funding for medical expenses. (A Sacramento employee says it comes out to about $10 a week.) The company also says that, in addition to being allowed 20 hours of unpaid time off per quarter, part-time workers get three days of paid bereavement leave and accrued sick leave in accordance with local laws.
“Running out of [unpaid time off] is probably the most common reason people get fired,” says the Sacramento employee. “Everybody in our warehouse is very time stretched, most people have either jobs or other responsibilities.”
Sandra, for instance, came to Amazon earlier this year after finding that her clerical job with the county was no longer enough to support her and her four children. The combined hours were grueling: 8:30AM to 5PM Monday through Friday at the county, then Saturday, Sunday, and Monday working from 8:15PM to 4:45AM at Amazon. At first, she found the work hard on her body, and finishing work before dawn on Sunday, then going to work at the county Monday, then returning to Amazon that night was particularly punishing. Nevertheless, she was able to maintain the pace until her mother-in-law took ill.
While the workers were collecting signatures for the petition, they learned of another recent time-off firing. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says she was fired after taking three shifts off to make sure her children were safe during a domestic dispute. “Your engagement is critical in order for Amazon to be Earth’s most customer-centric company!” reads the email informing her she has a negative unpaid time off balance and has been fired.
“All I needed was those days to clear it, and then the rest of the week I’m good and ready to work for them,” she says. “All I needed was time, that’s it.”
Asked about the petition, Amazon responded with a statement: “Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We have a long standing policy of not commenting on personnel matters.”
The unpaid time-off quota is a source of stress even for full-time Amazon workers who get paid time off with prior approval. When I reported on the Prime Day strike earlier this year at a fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, multiple workers were afraid to walk out because Amazon had said it would count time spent protesting toward their quota of time off. Some were already almost to their limit, and others worried they might need it to handle an emergency later. Given that workers can be fired for overdrawing their unpaid time off, a labor law expert told me at the time that the practice could constitute retaliation for protected activity.
Elsewhere in the logistics industry, the ability to take time off without pay is not typically treated as a benefit. “I never really heard of unpaid time off until I started coming across Amazon,” says Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, a California-based nonprofit. Typically, he says, it’s something that would be worked out informally with a manager if, for instance, someone had to leave work early to take care of a sick child. Amazon, as it tends to do, has quantified and systematized the process.
The result is a lack of flexibility for workers who require it most. Being part-time workers, they often need to take second jobs. It also stands in marked contrast with the flexibility Amazon enjoys when it comes to scheduling workers. Amazon carefully modulates its workforce according to the amount of goods that need to be processed, and it often sends employees home early when work is slow. “What the company wants is flexibility on their end, but there’s less flexibility on the workers end,” says Kaoosji.
Adding further inflexibility, the time-off system deducts a full hour if workers arrive more than five minutes late. Consequently, two workers say, managers encourage workers to use their California-mandated paid sick leave, which can be deducted in shorter increments, to cover lateness, reserving their unpaid time off in case they become actually sick later.
Amazon’s use of part-time work is poised to grow as it pursues next-day delivery. While the enormous fulfillment centers where goods are stored are staffed by full-time workers, the smaller warehouses where goods are sorted into routes for delivery, like the Sacramento center, are overwhelmingly staffed by part-time workers. “As they build out last mile infrastructure, it’s predominantly part-time work,” says Spencer Cox, an economic geography PhD candidate who worked in an Amazon fulfillment center. He estimates that about one-third of Amazon’s fulfillment workers are part-time.
Amazon is also bringing its policies governing part-time workers in other parts of the company into line with those of warehouse employees. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that Amazon is cutting health benefits to part-time Whole Foods workers.
Workers at the Sacramento warehouse had already been organizing around other issues before Sandra was fired. In December, workers signed a letter demanding the reversal of changes to the layout of the facility that they said was causing injuries. Later, a group submitted letters to an employee bulletin board requesting a more lenient break schedule and other changes. The push for paid time off is the largest action so far. The petition garnered 78 signatures in nine days.
The Sacramento petition is the latest in a string of labor actions at Amazon. Workers in Amazon’s fulfillment center outside of Minneapolis have been particularly active, protesting the increasing pace of work and lack of sufficient breaks. The workers in Sacramento were watching their strike on Prime Day. “It was kind of a motivator,” the employee says. “If they can do it, why can’t we?”
Just after midnight on September 30th, as the workers started their lunch break, they gathered in the break room and approached the manager with the petition, explaining their demands. An employee who attended said the manager seemed confused but agreed to pass the petition on. “They know that we will get fired if we go in the negative or have zero UPT left. But I think the fact that fellow associates really cared about the fact that this woman got fired for one single hour of UPT in the negative when she had a funeral to attend, I feel like he was surprised that everybody that signed it bothered to sign it,” the employee says.
The group recently conducted a survey of 70 workers at the warehouse to get a sense of their desires. An overwhelming 90 percent said they wanted the option of full-time work. The employee who attended the petition submission says Amazon has given them the “runaround” when they’ve pushed for changes in the past, but they’re cautiously optimistic that their demands will have more force as the group grows.
“There are quite a few things I think a lot of us wish would change or would improve,” the employee says. “It’s something that would be great if we could accomplish by banding together.”