Destroying Freight at Amazon

Even though I know that shipping at Amazon works the same way it does at FedEx, UPS, or the United States Postal Service, I would never buy a laptop from Amazon. I know how their workers treat the product. It’s not that I’m intentionally careless, or that I subconsciously take out my anger on the freight. Quite the contrary, as soon as I walk through security in the morning I’m as brainwashed as anybody else at Amazon, perhaps more. There are times when I’d probably be willing to take a bullet for a badly packed bag of cat litter. No responsible cat owner deserves to be punished just because an active shooter decides to target my dirty little corner of hell. But the pace at which we’re required to work makes it almost inevitable there will be extensive damage.

Being an able-bodied male, I’m rarely allowed to scan. Instead the PAs (Process Assistants, low level supervisors) usually send me back to “inbound,” were I spend the inside a tractor trailer breaking down 8-foot-high walls of boxes and throwing them on a conveyer belt. Physically it’s the most demanding job in the whole warehouse, especially in the Summer when the temperature inside the trailers is over 100 degrees and the “safety tip of the day” is almost always “make sure to hydrate.” Psychologically it’s one of the easiest, a kind of tradeoff. If you’re willing to do the hard, brutal job of unloading trucks in the Summer, you can avoid the inevitable political infighting out on the warehouse floor scanning.

Depending on how fast the (mostly women) on the warehouse floor are scanning, I can do two, maybe even three full size tractor trailers in a 5-hour shift. Think about how many packages that is. The typical tractor trailer is 53 long without the cab, and the boxes are almost always packed tightly all the way up to the ceiling. I’ve never tried to count but since we’re required to send at least 1800 an hour down the conveyor belts and I’m rarely spoken to about my “throw rate” my guess is I do about 10,000 a day. Handling packages with care is not a problem in one of the “fluid tracks,” where you work mostly with boxes that weigh under 5 pounds. It’s impossible in one of the “noncon” trucks, where each item can weigh anywhere between 25 and 50 pounds. Since one of Amazon’s “safety tips” is that you can’t work inside a truck that’s obstructed by large boxes, nor “noncons” (boxes too big to put on the conveyor belt) and since nobody at Amazon wants to lift anything over 10 pounds, I have to get them out of the trailer as quickly as possible. Often, I simply throw them through the air, big, cumbersome rugs, and 30-pound kitchen tables flying out of the back of the trailer and landing on the floor with a thud. When I can get them on the conveyor belt I’m never particularly careful how I handle them. I can’t be. If I tried, a Process Assistant would almost miraculously appear, assure me that I’m doing a great job, but also let me know that if I could work a little faster that would be great.

While we usually don’t get to see the product we’re handling — the boxes are mostly plain brown crates with a UPS or Amazon label slapped on the front — every once in a while, the fulfillment center just slaps a label on the manufacturers box. Paradoxically the least well protected items are almost always the most valuable, MacBooks, Lenovo ThinkPads, computer monitors, copying machines. On one particularly hot day this Summer (it was at least 110 degrees inside the sun baked trailer) I found myself slamming down big, heavy boxes onto the center of the belt, box after box, row after row, for close to a half hour. When I finally decided to pay attention, I realized I had just thrown about 500,000 dollars’ worth of 27 inch of Dell Ultra Sharp monitors down onto a conveyor belt, often dropping them right off the top of the 8-foot row. “Thump, rattle, thump, rattle, thump, rattle,” the belt said, “doesn’t it feel good just to slam something heavy on a hot summer’s day?”

Amazon of course has the money to pay for damaged freight. It’s figured into their business model. They’re not going to haggle over a 300-dollar computer monitor like some guy selling knockoffs on Canal Street.  But I wonder sometimes. A MacBook, a ThinkPad or a Nikon D700 that gets crushed between a 90-pound box of replacement disc brakes will be replaced, no questions asked. But what about the items that sustain minor, even unnoticeable damage, the laptop that never quite works right or the digital SLR with its shutter knocked slightly out of alignment? Working at Amazon sometimes feels as if I’m watching our cheap, disposable society get cheaper and more disposable in real time.