On Amazon’s Time
June 13, 2018 9:30 PM   Subscribe

Gizmodo reports on Amazon's "Voluntary" Time Off (VTO) scheme, whereby workers are encouraged, incentivized, or even forced to work fewer hours in order to improve the efficiency of their distribution centers.
It’s little wonder then that the foremost complaint among the people I spoke to was pay. Already low hourly wages, frequent VTO, minimal bonuses, lack of cost of living adjustments, and capped pay increases were a source of diminished quality of life. “I maxed out what I can earn as my pay grade three years after I was hired into Amazon,” an associate who has been with the company nearly seven years said. He claims that repeated attempts to apply for a higher-paid managerial position have been met with excuses or ignored outright. One picker in Kentucky—the densest state in terms of Amazon facilities compared to population—claimed he wears out a pair of sneakers every month from the amount of walking the job demands. “Take that away from $12.50 an hour and you’ll see how quickly it adds up to not much money,” he joked. The irony of working in the former Zappos warehouse which still primarily stores and ships shoes wasn’t lost on him.

An associate in Indiana went so far as to guess that recent reports of Amazon workers’ reliance on food stamps in many states was a direct result of excessive VTO.

The obvious line of questioning when faced with similar testimony of multiple associates operating in separate facilities is what Amazon accomplishes with VTO that couldn’t be achieved by simply reducing its staff. There’s no question excess staff can of course help warehouses absorb upticks in volume, though how many surprises there could be for a company like Amazon with access to troves of individualized customer data spanning over two decades is dubious.

However, the recent focus on Amazon’s Battle Royale-style search for a second headquarters has brought its reliance on state and local incentives into renewed focus. Although the particulars of deals the company strikes with the cities it agrees to operate in are often kept from the public eye and redacted in Freedom of Information Requests, local reporting over the years indicates that at least in some cases, a stipulation of the considerable funds, tax breaks, and other incentives the company squeezes out are predicated on the number of jobs it creates.
posted by tonycpsu (13 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Everyone at my job who also worked at Amazon has said that working at Amazon sucked.
posted by Small Dollar at 9:36 PM on June 13, 2018 [7 favorites]


When I worked for HSN, VTO was touted as a perk, a way to add flexibility to your schedule - take VTO when offered, pick up an extra shift later. People rarely picked up hours later, and often worked so few hours that they would lose their benefits.

The company then tried to take it away entirely. The staff revolted, the company relented, but implemented rules - if you took "convenience leave", you could not fall below 31 hours a week. If you did so 3 times in 90 days, you were barred from taking it for 6 months.

Of course, if your supervisor "suggested" you take it, well. You could argue, but if it was dead and you hadn't taken VTO in a while, you got voluntold.

Amazon didn't invent VTO. They're probably not even the worst perpetrators of calling it a "benefit".
posted by MissySedai at 10:48 PM on June 13, 2018 [7 favorites]


People rarely picked up hours later, and often worked so few hours that they would lose their benefits.

What a surprising and completely unforeseeable result!
posted by rokusan at 10:54 PM on June 13, 2018 [15 favorites]


Oh yeah. I worked at a call center in the 90’s. If we didn’t take VTO when it was offered, pretty soon you were taking FTO. (Yeah, it was Forced. They didn’t even sugar coat the name.)
posted by greermahoney at 10:59 PM on June 13, 2018


Manna is upon us.
posted by scose at 11:34 PM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]


This sounds like an optimization problem a leading expert in Big Data, data storage and logistics has already solved.


I just don't think you like their solution.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:15 AM on June 14, 2018 [7 favorites]


It's not like something of this kind couldn't work to the advantage of workers. It's just generally not designed that way.
posted by pipeski at 3:55 AM on June 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile: JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce gargantuan, has built a big new Shanghai fulfillment center that can organize, pack and ship 200,000 orders a day. It employs four people — all of whom service the robots.

My guess it's only a matter of time before that level of automation is applied at warehouses in the US.
posted by SteveInMaine at 4:30 AM on June 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


The obvious line of questioning when faced with similar testimony of multiple associates operating in separate facilities is what Amazon accomplishes with VTO that couldn’t be achieved by simply reducing its staff.

This is kind of annoyingly dumb. The equally obvious answer is that retail, at least in the US, is extremely seasonal. I’m pretty sure that’s why Amazon hasn’t gone fully automated robot dystopia, even though it already bought the company that makes the robots — it doesn’t scale if you do 80% of your business in 8 weeks.

None of that ameliorates Amazon’s habit of treating people like things that can and should be optimized for abstract values. That is it’s own categorical evil. But it’s not unique to Amazon, and neither is the looming solution-turned-new-problem: automation.

It would be really, really good if we could break the cultural acceptability of treating people like things before actual things become more efficient than people. We are probably in a lot of fucking trouble if we don’t.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:35 AM on June 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


> This is kind of annoyingly dumb. The equally obvious answer is that retail, at least in the US, is extremely seasonal. I’m pretty sure that’s why Amazon hasn’t gone fully automated robot dystopia, even though it already bought the company that makes the robots — it doesn’t scale if you do 80% of your business in 8 weeks.

None of that ameliorates Amazon’s habit of treating people like things that can and should be optimized for abstract values. That is it’s own categorical evil. But it’s not unique to Amazon, and neither is the looming solution-turned-new-problem: automation.


What *does* seem to be pretty unique here are Amazon's incentives to artificially prop up the number of people on the payroll instead of (or in addition to) just hiring / laying off seasonal help. If a seasonal worker is brought on, they're generally aware they'll be gone when the season changes. But here we have Amazon using the promise of "full-time" "permanent" "jobs" to secure lucrative incentives from the municipalities where their facilities are located, when in reality, it's more of a gig economy situation, but with the worker having even less control. This has the effect of both cheating taxpayers and misleading workers, who might actually need the full-time hours that were originally promised, and may have to pass on other opportunities to fill the gaps because Amazon could increase their workload any time their algorithms decide it's necessary.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:48 AM on June 14, 2018 [25 favorites]


Not defending Amazon by any means, but aren't they really just going by the Operations Management 101 playbook used by manufacturing and logistics organizations everywhere ? i.e. Use a flexible/variable labor model to scale up or down depending on forecasted volumes? The standard way of doing this is with a seasonal or temp workforce - not FTEs.
posted by bwvol at 8:48 AM on June 14, 2018


By stringing employees on with reduced hours instead of laying off staff in slow periods, Amazon eliminates claims for unemployment insurance which would be billed to Amazon.
posted by JackFlash at 5:47 PM on June 14, 2018 [7 favorites]


I had VTO at a union job. It worked for me, only thing I hated was going in and then being told that there was time to shed.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 9:10 PM on June 14, 2018


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