In anticipation of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s scheduled trip to Bessemer, Alabama, to support the unionization drive by Amazon workers there, Amazon executive Dave Clark cast the $1 trillion behemoth as “the Bernie Sanders of employers” and taunted: “So if you want to hear about $15 an hour and health care, Senator Sanders will be speaking downtown. But if you would like to make at least $15 an hour and have good health care, Amazon is hiring.”
Rep. Mark Pocan replied via tweet: “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a progressive workplace when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” echoing reports from 2018 that Amazon workers were forced to skip bathroom breaks and pee in bottles. Amazon’s denial was swift: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021
But Amazon workers with whom I spoke said that the practice was so widespread due to pressure to meet quotas that managers frequently referenced it during meetings and in formal policy documents and emails, which were provided to The Intercept. The practice, these documents show, was known to management, which identified it as a recurring infraction but did nothing to ease the pressure that caused it. In some cases, employees even defecated in bags.
Amazon did not provide a statement to The Intercept before publication.
One document from January, marked “Amazon Confidential,” details various infractions by Amazon employees, including “public urination” and “public defecation.” The document was provided to The Intercept by an Amazon employee in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who, like most of the employees I talked to, was granted anonymity to avoid professional reprisal.
The employee also provided an email sent by an Amazon logistics area manager last May that chastised employees for defecating into bags. “This evening, an associate discovered human feces in an Amazon bag that was returned to station by a driver. This is the 3rd occasion in the last 2 months when bags have been returned to station with poop inside. We understand that DA’s [driver associates] may have emergencies while on-road, and especially during Covid, DAs have struggled to find bathrooms while delivering.”
“We’ve noticed an uptick recently of all kinds of unsanitary garbage being left inside bags: used masks, gloves, bottles of urine,” the email continues. “By scanning the QR code on the bag, we can easily identify the DA who was in possession of the bag last. These behaviors are unacceptable, and will result in Tier 1 Infractions going forward. Please communicate this message to your drivers. I know if may seem obvious, or like something you shouldn’t need to coach, but please be explicit when communicating the message that they CANNOT poop, or leave bottles of urine inside bags.”
An email that Brown received from her manager this past August has a section titled “Urine bottle” and states: “In the morning, you must check your van thoroughly for garbage and urine bottle. If you find urine bottle (s) please report to your lead, supporting staff or me. Vans will be inspected by Amazon during debrief, if urine bottle (s) are found, you will be issue an infraction tier 1 for immediate offboarding.”
While Amazon technically prohibits the practice — documents characterize it as a “Tier 1” infraction, which employees say can lead to termination — drivers said that this was disingenuous since they can’t meet their quotas otherwise. “They give us 30 minutes of paid breaks, but you will not finish your work if you take it, no matter how fast you are,” one Amazon delivery employee based in Massachusetts told me.
Asked if management eased up on the quotas in light of the practice, Brown said, “Not at all. In fact, over the course of my time there, our package and stop counts actually increased substantially.”
This has gotten even more intense, employees say, as Amazon has seen an enormous boom in package orders during the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon employees said their performance is monitored so closely by the firm’s vast employee surveillance arsenal that they are constantly in fear of falling short of their productivity quotas.
One email, provided to The Intercept by a Houston-based driver associate who works for an Amazon contractor, alludes to company cameras that can find workers who leave urine bottles behind in the vans. “Data from these cameras can be sent to Amazon in the event of any incident on the road. (We have had several bad accidents, a stolen van, drivers leaving piss bottles etc in the vans).”
The employee said, “Every single day of my shift, I have to use the restroom in a bottle to finish my route on time. This is so common that you’ll often find bottles from other drivers located under seats in the vans. … The fact that Amazon would tweet that is hilarious.”
Public reports that Amazon employees skipped bathroom breaks originated in a 2018 book by the British journalist James Bloodworth. That book, “Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain,” alleged that Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staffordshire, U.K., resorted to urinating in bottles in order to meet production quotas. While most of the employees I spoke to were drivers who delivered products, workers said the practice was commonplace in factories as well.
The vote by Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama on whether to unionize has become a flashpoint for organized labor. While Amazon has publicly criticized Sanders, he is far from the only prominent politician to voice support for the employees’ right to form a union. Last month, President Joe Biden released a video statement saying, “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union,” which “should be made without intimidation or threats by employers.”
The election, which ends on March 29, would determine if the more than 5,000 warehouse workers will join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. None of Amazon’s 800,000 employees in the U.S. are currently unionized.