Amazon kicks off the two-day sales extravaganza known as Prime Day on Monday. Amazon Prime members can expect deep discounts. Amazon executives can expect protests around the country over working conditions in their warehouses — including one in Portland.
Some employees at the delivery station in Northwest Portland have raised concerns about doing physically taxing work in a facility without air conditioning. Workers also say they’re consistently exposed to loud alarms meant to warn them when delivery vans drive into the warehouse to collect packages.
“They were literally ear-piercing,” said former worker Joyce Nance. “I felt like my hearing was damaged while I was there.”
“We’re breathing exhaust, and we’re having to hear these loud alarms,” said a current employee who asked that their name not be used. “I don’t like breathing exhaust, and I don’t like the headache we get from the noise.”
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement that the temperature conditions are not unusual.
“Our Delivery Stations are typical for the logistics industry where due to loading of vehicles, associates are often inside and outside as part of their shift,” she wrote. “We closely monitor the temperatures in the stations to ensure a safe work environment and we also have industrial-grade fans, cooling mists, an abundance of water and other measures to ensure the safety of those at the site.”
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has inspected the facility at 3610 NW St. Helens Road several times in response to complaints. It cited Amazon in 2018 for violating health and safety rules by not having an effective safety committee at the warehouse. A spokesperson for Oregon OSHA, Aaron Corvin, said a safety committee may not sound significant on paper. But in a workplace, he said, it’s a frontline defense that gives workers a voice in bringing safety issues directly to supervisors.
Nationwide, criticism of the working conditions at Amazon warehouses has been rising, with employees highlighting what some see as the grueling pace required to get online shoppers their packages as quickly as possible.
At least one community group plans to rally outside Amazon warehouses in Hillsboro and Portland on Tuesday and Wednesday. Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota plan to strike Monday. Warehouse workers in New York have spoken out about conditions there as well. Even comedian John Oliver did his own satirical shakedown.
Amazon was not amused.
OPB spoke with two current and two former employees about their experience with heat and noise at the Amazon delivery station on NW St. Helens Road. The two current employees answered questions on the condition their names be withheld, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.
All said there was no air conditioning on the main warehouse floor either now or at the time of their employment.
“There was no air conditioning. They had fans blowing. So in the winter it would be cold and in the summer it would be hot,” said Todd Hinchliffe, who said he left the warehouse in late 2018.
A current employee said a separate break room does have air conditioning. That’s backed up by state records.
Portland has had a mild summer so far this year. But in general, temperatures are rising. In 2018, Portland broke its record for the number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous record was set in 2015.
The warehouse on NW St. Helens Road is the last stop for Amazon packages before delivery. Large trucks drop off huge volumes of boxes that workers unload, scan, and sort into bags, which warehouse crews then load onto vans or private cars for delivery.
It’s physically demanding. A worker at an Amazon warehouse in Troutdale compared it to being paid to work out. Former Portland employee Todd Hinchliffe had a different word for it:
“Exhausting,” he said. “It was a non-stop progression of packages from one point to the next point. We were basically machines moving packages.”
“They constantly were on our case to go faster, in everything we did,” said Joyce Nance, whose job at the Portland warehouse ended in March 2019, before summer temperatures hit. “So I would be sorting, either in the aisles or on the conveyer belt, and I would have sweat just dripping down from me because I was working so hard and there was not any air conditioning.”
Nance said she was injured on the job in January 2019 and reaggravated her injury when she tried to work. After she missed several shifts, Amazon fired her in March, according to an email Nance provided. She said she had tried to communicate her medical needs to a supervisor and later told HR she had to quit.
The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration has conducted three complaint-based inspections of the Amazon warehouse since 2017. The complaints involved workers’ concerns about dust, vehicle emissions and heat. Only one resulted in a citation, classified as “other than serious”, for the lack of an effective safety committee. Since 2014, the agency has conducted four other complaint-based inspections at Amazon facilities in Hillsboro, Portland and Troutdale. No citations were issued.
An inspector responding to a heat-related complaint in the summer of 2018 did find the warehouse on St. Helens Road to be “very warm and muggy.” However, the inspector noted the presence of industrial misting fans as well as the company’s plan to provide additional breaks in hot weather.
An Amazon spokesperson said it’s typical at delivery stations, where dock doors are open, not to have climate control. They said it would be akin to having AC in your house with all the windows and doors open.
The Oregon OSHA inspection reports also note something the average Amazon customer might not be aware of: the sheer number of delivery vehicles that cycle through some Amazon warehouses.
The current and former workers of the NW Portland delivery station describe a long building with driving lanes running down each side. Delivery vans and private “Flex” cars that contract with Amazon drive through the warehouse itself, where workers load them with bags of packages for delivery. That’s where the alarms come in.
For safety, employees are not allowed to cross the driving lanes when vans are present. So as the vans arrive, the noise starts.
“If you’re in the wrong spot, if you’re right nearby where the sound is coming from, it’s like a police car or an ambulance,” said one current employee.
“I would say it’s like a fog horn going off,” Hinchliffe said. “You know, just randomly: beep, beep, beep.” He said the warning sounds made it hard to communicate.
Hinchliffe added the noise didn’t bother him as much as it might other people, but that “it was loud and long.”
Neither current Amazon employee remembered being offered ear protection, though one said some workers do wear earplugs.
Amazon said earplugs are readily available at the warehouse, but the suggestion that workers might prefer an alternative to the alarm has been passed along to the site.