New York, NY – Confronted with a workplace environment more hospitable to beeping robots than warm-blooded human beings — employees at Amazon’s “fulfillment center” on Staten Island on Wednesday took to the steps of City Hall to sound the alarm about working conditions that also invoke fears of a latter-day Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire waiting to happen.
There are already some 5,000 Amazon employees working in corporate facilities located in New York City. About half of them work out of the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. For the the last month, local resident Sharon Bleach has worked there, too, as a packer helping to distribute all those smiley face cardboard boxes that have made Amazon boss Jeff Bezos the richest man on Planet Earth.
While Bezos contemplates venturing into outer space and Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio push to construct a new East Coast headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens, Bleach has been slogging through 10-hour shifts worrying about what she’ll do if tragedy ever strikes her workplace.
“The conveyor belts can’t carry the boxes, so the boxes are basically built up around us, [and] I won’t stand for it,” the Staten Island grandmother said. “I come from union. I let [management] know I don’t want that around me because if there’s a fire or someone starts shooting — I got to trip over boxes to get out? That’s ridiculous.”
According to Rashad Long, another Amazon worker at the same State Island distribution facility, the building’s sprinkler system and smoke detectors are both dysfunctional.
“I honestly feel that my life is in jeopardy just by working there,” Long said this week.
I honestly feel that my life is in jeopardy just by working there. — Rashad Long, Staten Island Amazon worker
Bleach echoed Long’s fears, charging that employees have not been given proper instructions in what to do in the event of an emergency.
“You bring us in, but you don’t show us where the fire exists are — where do we go; how do we get out if there’s a problem?” she said.
Even without having to confront a life-threatening emergency, those who demonstrated in front of City Hall this week, say workers at Amazon’s Staten Island facility are unable to simply exit the building after finishing work each day.
“All the company cares about is protecting its products — not their people,” Long continued. “At the end of a 12-hour shift, we have to wait on long lines at the metal detectors before we can go home. Even some people who go through the security without setting off the alarm are held up and further searched before they are allowed to leave the building.”
Since debuting the Staten Island “fulfillment center,” Amazon managers have reportedly required all employees to work punishing shifts lasting up to 12-hours “five or six days a week.”
Another former employee from West Africa said “Amazon is killing [employee] bodies” and “treating people as animals.”
Recently, Bleach feared she might have experienced a TIA, or mini-stroke on the job, and sought onsite medical help. But instead of getting help, Bleach said she was actually given very little aid or even concern.
“Did anybody even care?” Bleach wondered.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union [RWDSU] recently launched an effort to successfully organize the Staten Island facility.
A Seattle resident named Kim who worked for Amazon on the West Coast, warned New Yorkers not to let “Amazon do to New York, what Amazon did to Seattle.”
“The only person who benefits from Amazon is [founder] Jeff Bezos,” she said. “They do not care about the cities they live in. When they had the opportunity to use the new tax rate from the Federal Government….to build affordable housing, they fought it tooth and nail and divided our city. They do not care about us, they will not care about you.”
When [Amazon] had the opportunity to use the new tax rate from the Federal Government….to build affordable housing, they fought it tooth and nail and divided our city. They do not care about us, they will not care about you. — Kim, Seattle worker at Amazon
On Staten Island, the workers who spoke out on the steps of City Hall this week say Amazon warehouse robots are treated better than flesh and blood workers.
“Product bins are overstuffed and our breaks are few and far between,” Long’s testimony continued. “The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my whole shift even when it’s freezing cold outside. We have asked the company to provide air conditioning for us — but they told us that the robots inside can’t work in the cold weather, so there’s nothing they can do about it.”
Council Member and NYC public advocate candidate Jumaane Williams [D-District 45], along with two other city legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit future mayors from entering into the kind of publicly subsidized deal like the one de Blasio helped hatch with Jeff Bezos and Amazon.
“I refuse to accept that this deal is over,” Williams said. “We will do everything we need to do to make sure this atrocious deal is not completed. And if we have to hit the streets and shut stuff down, we’re ready to do that, too.”
On top of everything else, Long said that Amazon managers are “overly strict and disrespectful towards workers” and only care about pumping out packages “no matter what that means for us workers in the end.”
During Wednesday’s Economic Development Committee hearing on the impending Amazon “HQ2” deal, a representative for the online retail giant said Amazon is “humble and grateful to be a part of the next chapter in New York City history.”
After speaking out this week, Bleach said she fears Amazon will terminate her.
“If you create the jobs but forget about the people — what’s the point?” She said.