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A workers in the packing area at Amazon's warehouse on Staten Island, called JFK8, on March 2, 2021. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Amazon workers churn through a vast mechanism that hires and monitors, disciplines and fires. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Last September, Ann Castillo saw an email from Amazon that made no sense. Her husband had worked for the company for five years, most recently at the supersize warehouse on Staten Island that served as the retailer's critical pipeline to New York City. Now it wanted him back on the night shift.

"We notified your manager and HR about your return to work on Oct. 1, 2020," the message said.

Castillo was incredulous. While working mandatory overtime in the spring, her 42-year-old husband, Alberto, had been among the first wave of employees at the site to test positive for the coronavirus. Ravaged by fevers and infections, he suffered extensive brain damage. On tests of responsiveness, Ann Castillo said, "his score was almost nothing."

For months, Ann Castillo, a polite, get-it-done physical therapist, had been alerting the company that her husband, who had been proud to work for the retail giant, was severely ill. The responses were disjointed and confusing.

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Ana Castillo tends to her husband, Alberto Castillo, at their home in Fords, N.J., on Dec. 4, 2020. While working mandatory overtime at Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York City, in the spring, Castillo had been among the first wave of employees at the site to test positive for the coronavirus. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)

Emails and calls to Amazon's automated systems often dead-ended. The company's benefits were generous, but she had been left panicking as disability payments mysteriously halted. She managed to speak to several human resources workers, one of whom reinstated the payments, but after that, the dialogue mostly reverted to phone trees, auto-replies and voicemail messages on her husband's phone asking if he was coming back.

The return-to-work summons deepened her suspicion that Amazon didn't fully register his situation. "Haven't they kept track of what happened to him?" she said. She wanted to ask the company: "Are your workers disposable? Can you just replace them?"

Alberto Castillo's workplace, the only Amazon fulfillment center in America's largest city, was achieving the impossible during the pandemic. With New York's classic industries suffering mass collapse, the warehouse, called JFK8, absorbed hotel workers, actors, bartenders and dancers, paying nearly $18 an hour. Driven by a new sense of mission to serve customers afraid to shop in person, JFK8 helped Amazon smash shipping records, reach stratospheric sales, and book the equivalent of the previous three years' profits rolled into one.

That success, speed and agility were possible because Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, had pioneered new ways of mass-managing people through technology, relying on a maze of systems that minimized human contact to grow unconstrained.

But the company was faltering in ways outsiders could not see, according to a New York Times examination of JFK8 over the last year.

In contrast to its precise, sophisticated processing of packages, Amazon's model for managing people — heavily reliant on metrics, apps and chatbots — was uneven and strained even before the coronavirus arrived, with employees often having to act as their own caseworkers, interviews and records show. Amid the pandemic, Amazon's system burned through workers, resulted in inadvertent firings and stalled benefits, and impeded communication, casting a shadow over a business success story for the ages.

Amazon took steps unprecedented at the company to offer leniency, but then at times contradicted or ended them. Workers like Alberto Castillo at JFK8 were told to take as much unpaid time off as they needed, then hit with mandatory overtime. When Amazon offered employees flexible personal leaves, the system handling them jammed, issuing a blizzard of job-abandonment notices to workers and sending staff scrambling to save them, according to human resources and warehouse employees.

After absences initially soared and disrupted shipping, Amazon left employees mostly in the dark about the toll of the virus. The company did not tell workers at JFK8 or other warehouses the number of cases, causing them to worry whether notifications about "individuals" testing positive meant two or 22. While Amazon said publicly that it was disclosing confirmed cases to health officials, New York City records show no reported cases until November. The company and city officials dispute what happened.

Amazon continued to track every minute of most warehouse workers' shifts, from how fast they packed merchandise to how long they paused — the kind of monitoring that spurred a failed unionization drive led by frustrated Black employees at an Alabama warehouse this spring. If productivity flagged, Amazon's computers assumed the worker was to blame. Early in the pandemic, the online retailer paused its firing of employees for low output, but that change was not announced clearly at JFK8, so some workers still feared that moving too slowly would cost them their livelihoods.

"It is very important that area managers understand that associates are more than just numbers," an employee wrote on JFK8's internal feedback board last fall, adding: "We are human beings. We are not tools used to make their daily/weekly goals and rates."

 

Expanding job roles

The company touted breathtaking job-creation numbers: From July to October 2020 alone, it scooped up 350,000 new workers, more than the population of St. Louis.

(In Tennessee, Amazon has invested more than $6.5 billion in warehouse facilities and added nearly 10,000 jobs since it opened its first fulfillment centers in Chattanooga and Charleston in 2010.)

Many Amazon recruits — hired through computer screening, with little conversation or vetting last year — lasted just days or weeks.

Even before the pandemic, previously unreported data shows, Amazon lost about 3% of its hourly associates each week, meaning the turnover among its workforce was roughly 150% a year. That rate, almost double that of the retail and logistics industries, has made some executives worry about running out of workers across America.

This April, Bezos said he was proud of the company's work culture, the "achievable" productivity goals, the pay and benefits. In interviews, the head of human resources for warehouses and the general manager of JFK8 said that the company prioritized employee welfare, noted that it had expanded its HR staff and cited internal surveys showing high worker satisfaction. Some managers from JFK8 and beyond described building deep relationships with their teams.

Amazon acknowledged some issues with inadvertent firings, loss of benefits, job abandonment notices and leaves, but declined to disclose how many people were affected. Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, suggested that those problems and some others chronicled in this article were outliers.

Ofori Agboka, the HR leader, noted that social distancing and masking had made it harder to engage employees in personal ways during the pandemic. Still, he said, "98% of everything's going great — people are having the right experiences," getting the help they need when they want it.

But several former executives who helped design Amazon's systems, and still call themselves admirers of the company, said the high turnover, pressure over productivity and consequences of scaling up have become too critical to ignore. The company has not ambitiously addressed those issues, said Paul Stroup, who until recently led corporate teams devoted to understanding warehouse workers.

"Amazon can solve pretty much any problem it puts its mind behind," he said in an interview. The human resources division, though, had nowhere near the focus, rigor and investment of Amazon's logistical operations, where he had previously worked. "It felt like I was in a different company," he said.

David Niekerk, a former Amazon vice president who built the warehouse human resources operations, said that some problems stemmed from ideas the company had developed when it was much smaller. Bezos did not want an entrenched workforce, calling it "a march to mediocrity," Niekerk recalled, and saw low-skilled jobs as relatively short-term. As Amazon rapidly grew, Niekerk said, its policies could not be implemented with fairness and care. "It is just a numbers game in many ways," he said. "The culture gets lost."

Even Bezos, in his final lap as CEO of the company he created, is now making startling concessions about the system he invented. In a recent letter to shareholders, he said the union effort showed that "we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success."

"We have always wanted to be Earth's most customer-centric company," he wrote. Now, he added, "we are going to be Earth's best employer and Earth's safest place to work."

Amazon is on pace to become the nation's largest private employer within a year or two, as it continues expanding. About 1 million people in the United States, most of them hourly workers, now rely on the company's wages and benefits. Many describe the job as rewarding. Adama Ndoye had supported her family on her JFK8 pay while attending college remotely. "Lights on, food, clothes, everything," she said. Dawn George, a chef, said she was grateful to JFK8 for taking her in after hotel kitchen jobs disappeared last spring. "I'm willing to work my socks off just for an hourly income," she said.

Some admire Amazon's ambition. "It was like being a pitcher on a team that had a game every night," said Dan Cavagnaro, who started at JFK8 when it opened in 2018 and worked with Alberto Castillo.

But Cavagnaro was mistakenly fired in July while trying to return from leave, and could not reach anyone to help.

"Please note the following," he wrote in his final, unanswered email plea. "I WISH TO REMAIN EMPLOYED WITH AMAZON."

 

'Like a Ghost Town'

In late March 2020, Traci Weishalla walked the length of JFK8, forgoing the fluorescent vest that marked her as a manager. She wanted an unfiltered look at what she would soon be helping to oversee: a warehouse the size of 15 football fields, serving America's largest metropolis just as it was becoming the national epicenter of the pandemic.

The noise, from conveyor belts whipping around packages, was like the roar of an oncoming subway train. Built to conquer the most lucrative market in the country, the facility ran almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Weishalla had helped open the warehouse a year and a half earlier, and now — as homebound customers across the nation clamored for thermometers, disinfectant and puzzles — she saw opportunity and purpose in her return as assistant general manager. For an organization that dealt in logistical miracles, the coronavirus was just another obstacle to overcome, she said.

"That's what we do," Weishalla, 38, explained later. "We work to figure out the impossible problems."

But Amazon's mighty system was lurching. Semi trucks sat at warehouses around the country, without enough workers to unload them. Customers discovered that items the company had deemed nonessential might take a month to arrive — an eternity for a business that had routinely delivered within two days.

One critical reason: Warehouse laborers were not showing up.

To lure them back, Amazon offered a temporary $2-an-hour raise, double pay for overtime and, for the first time, unlimited unpaid time off. Executives thought that workers should be able to stay home without fear of being fired, and that with greater flexibility, some might still come in for part of a shift, according to two people familiar with the decision. (Like some other senior leaders in this article, they spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.)

Across the country, almost a third of Amazon's 500,000 workers were staying home. Some new hires abandoned jobs before they even began, according to former recruiters. JFK8 "was like a ghost town," recalled Arthur Turner, a worker who remained.

JFK8 was also giving contradictory instructions: Despite Amazon's promise of unpaid time off, workers were alerted that every department would be on mandatory overtime.

When Alberto Castillo arrived on March 24, he heard the warehouse had its first positive case. He messaged his boss, who replied, "Yes, forgot to bring that up," and added that everyone who worked with the employee had been notified. Alberto Castillo called his wife to discuss whether to head home. They decided he would finish out his shift.

 

"Wicked smart" managers

Amazon intentionally limited upward mobility for hourly workers, said Niekerk, the former HR vice president who retired in 2016 after nearly 17 years at the company. Dave Clark, then head of operations, had shot down his proposal around 2014 to create more leadership roles for hourly employees, similar to noncommissioned officers in the military, he recalled.

Instead, Clark, who is now chief executive of Amazon's consumer business, wanted to double down on hiring "wicked smart" frontline managers straight out of college, said Niekerk. By contrast, more than 75% of managers in Walmart's U.S. stores started as hourly employees. Following a pattern across Amazon, JFK8 promoted 220 people last year among its more than 5,000 employees, a rate that is less than half of Walmart's.

Amazon's founder didn't want hourly workers to stick around for long, viewing "a large, disgruntled" workforce as a threat, Niekerk recalled. Company data showed that most employees became less eager over time, he said, and Bezos believed that people were inherently lazy. "What he would say is that our nature as humans is to expend as little energy as possible to get what we want or need." That conviction was embedded throughout the business, from the ease of instant ordering to the pervasive use of data to get the most out of employees.

So guaranteed wage increases stopped after three years, and Amazon provided incentives for low-skilled employees to leave. Every year, Palmer saw signs go up offering associates thousands of dollars to resign, and as he entered JFK8 each morning, he passed a classroom for free courses to train them in other fields.

Agboka, the HR leader, said while the company offered training and careers at Amazon to those interested, it was proud to also provide people short-term employment for the "seasons and periods of time" they need.

 

Looking for signs of change

In the final months of Jeff Bezos' tenure as CEO, his high-turnover model looked riskier, and the concerns about how Amazon treated the workers who powered its rise were tarnishing his legacy. During the pandemic, Bezos' personal wealth exploded from $110 billion to more than $190 billion. He had also been building a $500 million superyacht, according to the new book "Amazon Unbound," and preparing for his first spaceflight after investing billions in his rocket company, Blue Origin.

Bezos' commitment in April to become "Earth's best employer" raised questions — about what exactly that meant, and how far he and his successors would go.

Amazon soon rolled out more raises. Starting wages at JFK8 went up 50 cents, to $18.25. The company announced safety initiatives and diversity plans, including a goal to "retain employees at statistically similar rates across all demographics" — an implicit admission that the numbers had been uneven across races. Weishalla's successors on Staten Island were holding weekly "talent review" meetings to ensure that Black and Latino workers, among others, were finding advancement opportunities.

In an interview, Agboka, the head of warehouse human resources, acknowledged that the company had relied too heavily on technology to manage workers. "We're recognizing that in many times, where we thought self-service was good, self-service was not the only — can't be the only — solution," he said. "Every experience matters. And when the experiences aren't right, we've got to find a way to fix it."

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