From recent refusal to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act to using neo-Nazi guards in German fulfillment centers in 2013, Amazon has faced scrutiny for its working conditions worldwide for years. New data shows the toll on warehouse workers in the starkest light.
“Yes, hi, I wanted to see if we could get an officer out to the Amazon facility. I have an associate who had written a suicide letter to her children that was discovered on her today,” was one of at least 189 calls to emergency services from 46 Amazon warehouses in 17 states between 2013 and 2018.
Another call describes a man who had cut himself multiple times with a company-supplied box cutter. Another detailed a pregnant woman threatening her unborn child. Another man was threatening to jump.
The Daily Beast published audio of some of those calls. A warning: This audio contains descriptions of suicide attempts.
Amazon isn’t the only case of capitalism pushing people to the brink — farmers are killing themselves at record rates thanks in part to American trade policy. And the visceral nature of the calls cataloged don’t necessarily show Amazon warehouse workers killing themselves at rates higher than other industries. Amazon is far from the only offender as it relates to poor working conditions.
But what it does show is the deep and emotional strain at play in Amazon employees.
“It’s this isolating colony of hell where people having breakdowns is a regular occurrence,” said former Amazon employee Jace Crouch.
Crouch, as well as a number of workers/reviews on job board websites like Glassdoor and Indeed, called attention to both the breakneck pace Amazon demands of its employees, and how thoroughly replaceable those employees are.
“The upper management and HR basically don’t care about the associates. It helped me realize how disposable we are and that we don’t matter,” read an Indeed review. “We don’t have rights. This was the worst work-related experience I ever had.”
These claims were detailed in Hired, a recent book by British journalist James Bloodworth who spent six months doing low-wage work undercover. He detailed, among other incidents, finding a bottle of urine on a shelf in a British Amazon warehouse that he assumed was employee reaction to Amazon’s notoriously stingy bathroom policies.
That pace was explored in the account of Amazon object-in-bin counter Nick Veasley. Last February, Veasley’s thoughts at work turned to suicide. It wasn’t even the first time that day he wanted to die. But the relentless pace of the work remained.
“Do that, do this, do this,” he said. “Crack the whip, crack the whip, crack the whip.”
That repetition came up in another warehouse employee’s remarks. One describing the fear of citation in Ohio.
“There was a constant sense of, ‘did I screw that up, did I screw that up, did I screw that up?’” he said. “[It] stays with you and almost becomes a permanent anxiety.”
The coincidence of tone could come from another common complaint from Amazon employees: unending, ceaseless, monotony. Amazon employees frequently complain of being treated like robots. It was explicitly stated by a suicidal Lebanon, Tennessee employee as well as by Rashad Long, a picker working to unionize Amazon’s warehouse employees.
“We are not robots. We are human beings. We cannot come into work after only four hours of sleep and be expected to be fully energized and ready to work. That’s impossible,” he said. “I feel like all the company cares about is getting their products out to the customers as quickly humanly as possible, no matter what that means for us workers in the end.”
Amazon has characterized these feelings as “unfortunate,” but not indicative of overall employee satisfaction.
“Many employees will tell you they love their jobs and working in fulfillment centers,” Amazon said in a statement. “The physical and mental well-being of our associates is our top priority, and we are proud of both our efforts and overall success in this area.”
If you are struggling with suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.