It was a surge unlike any other, even for Amazon.
In the first quarter of 2020, the e-commerce giant’s net sales increased by 26% over the same period a year earlier. It was panic-buying on a grand scale. Amazon.com search rankings from mid-March awarded top billing to toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Clorox wipes, but shelter-in-place orders and social distancing meant online shopping was now the way to buy almost anything. Over the next two months, the company determined, it would need to add 175,000 people—a bit less than the entire population of Providence, Rhode Island—to its workforce. But in order to do it, Amazon would need to convert almost completely to virtual hiring and training.
MIT Technology Review talked with a number of Amazon executives who spearheaded different stages of the hiring overhaul. They described an all-hands-on-deck scramble under unprecedented conditions. For the new hires we spoke to who joined the ranks during the company’s hiring spree, though, it was the first few weeks on the job that proved more disorienting.
Controversy has swirled around the company’s coronavirus safety measures for workers. In mid-April, a warehouse employee in California died after just two weeks on the job, the Los Angeles Times reported—one of at least eight warehouse worker deaths so far due to covid-19. Concerns have led to employee walkouts and online organizing, and the company fired two workers involved in these efforts. A group of warehouse workers has sued Amazon, claiming that lax working conditions and negligent safety measures created unacceptable risk for them and their family members—one of whom allegedly died of covid-19 after an employee contracted it at work. In a lawsuit filed on June 3, they claim that Amazon “has sought to create a façade of compliance”—and that at the end of May, the company announced “additional newly confirmed cases” in its New York JFK8 warehouse, where the plaintiffs work.
On May 19, Amazon announced plans to spend “approximately $4 billion from April to June on covid-related initiatives,” including face masks, gloves and “higher wages for hourly teams.” But there’s still a heightened demand for deliveries, and Amazon hasn’t stopped onboarding new workers. The company recently rolled out its virtual hiring process in Canada, and on May 28, it announced that it would provide 125,000 of the new hires with “the opportunity … to transition into a regular, full-time role beginning in June.”
Gearing up for a sprint
In the midst of the initial turmoil caused by the pandemic, a team of executives began to brainstorm about to adjust Amazon’s hiring process to comply with public health restrictions and still reach the staff levels they needed, says Troy Winters, director of workforce staffing. But, he says, they hadn’t grasped how fast covid-19 would spread or how much the demand for orders would grow as a result. It would, they quickly realized, be “mathematically impossible to process enough people using social distancing if we continued to use our processes,” Winters says.
Social distancing guidelines flew in the face of Amazon’s typical new-hire events, which lasted several hours and involved explanatory videos, job previews, badge processing, and more. On March 4, the team decided they had no choice but to upend their system and convert almost completely to a virtual one.
Doing anything with nearly 200,000 hires—especially something as integral as training—can make even tiny problems enormous. The company had been piloting remote hiring in regions where it didn’t have a significant footprint, markets where Winters says it was “tricky” to build teams to run hiring events. But those practices were nowhere near ready to be rolled out en masse. Before the pandemic, a full implementation of virtual hiring and onboarding was two years away at least, Winters says. Even then, applying it to Amazon’s “big machines,” or aspects of the business with the most employees, would’ve been the last step. But there was no time for the extensive testing or user feedback the company usually employed before a rollout—the overhaul had to happen on the fly.
One big change was in training new employees, which is typically done via instructor-led presentations akin to PowerPoint talks. Missy Daniels, senior manager of training automation, says the content needed to be redesigned for self-led courses in areas like safety, hazardous materials, process training, even fulfillment center tours. And new hires needed to be able to access those courses on their own devices.
Amazon also needed to make sure all 175,000 of the new hires got the specific training they’d need. Daniels says she and her teams had to “add additional logic and complexity” to existing algorithms for this task that were undergoing trials in smaller pilot programs. In this case, a much higher number of new hires in a larger variety of categories would have to be matched with training on the basis of job title, full- or part-time status, and more.
One hourly worker at an Amazon distribution center in California, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job, describes the largely automated process as “pretty straightforward.” After he chose a shift, his “virtual interview” was scheduled for the next day, although he notes that it was “almost like a long Amazon PR video.” The time from application to first day on the job was less than 10 days, he says. He doesn’t recall any mention of covid-19 in the online training.
On the inside
As we heard from new hires like him, their concerns typically had less to do with rushed or haphazard hiring experiences and more to do with what happened once they showed up for work. The distribution center worker in California started in early April. He recalls that temperature checks and some social distancing guidelines were in place, but he says no masks were provided. “A lot of the new people, including myself, were pretty concerned by that,” he says. “After the first day ... we started to get masks, but they didn’t require [that] people wear them.”
Since then, the workload has been “insane,” he says, adding: “It makes it so that whatever measures … that we’re supposed to be following in terms of wearing a mask or keeping six feet apart—a lot of that goes out the window when you’re behind or [in] crunch time to meet the goals.”
Communication on Amazon’s end had been sparse, the worker says, although it started to pick up toward the end of April.
“I had heard rumors that people were getting sick, even that someone had died, but ... until recently, we hadn’t actually received official notifications about that,” he says. “Now they are doing that, and it seems like it’s only increasing in frequency, the number of messages we get [saying], ‘Another case.’”
In response to the worker's claims, an Amazon spokesperson said, "We provided all employees with masks in early April, long before other retailers and following CDC guidance, were made mandatory to wear," and cited this blog post on the company's site.
Barbara Chandler, a plaintiff in the recent lawsuit against Amazon, has worked for the company since February 2017, according to the filing. She allegedly contracted the coronavirus at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in March “from workers who were explicitly or implicitly encouraged to continue attending work and prevented from adequately washing their hands or sanitizing their workstations.” Several members of Chandler’s household allegedly became sick after she contracted the virus. In early April, the court filing states, Chandler “awoke to find her cousin with whom she lived dead in their bathroom, after he had become ill with COVID-19 symptoms.”
The complaint also states that Amazon has failed to supply necessary hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes, as JFK8 warehouse workers have “at times even resorted to searching the area where damaged products are stored to try to find cleaning supplies.” What’s more, the lawsuit claims that some workers do not take the time to wash their hands and disinfect their workstations, for fear that the lost time would result in lost wages. The walk to and from a bathroom or hand-washing station in the expansive warehouse could take a worker 14 minutes or more and lead to “a significant decrease in their rate,” the lawsuit states.
Frank Paratore, a delivery driver who was rehired by Amazon this month after relocating to Greensboro, North Carolina, says he experiences similar pressure in his day-to-day work.
“The loading procedures for when we go in and pick up our route [are] really chaotic—it’s disorganized,” he says, adding that the problem may be too few sorting associates. “A lot of times, where they make you park the van is not where the packages are, so you have to run around.”
Paratore estimates that he unnecessarily comes into contact with as many as 30 to 40 people during loading, from sorting associates and managers to other drivers searching for their packages. He notes that he and other workers are usually wearing masks and gloves.
"Our top concern is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, and we are following guidelines from health officials and medical experts, and are taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of employees at our sites," the Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email to MIT Technology Review. Those measures include spraying disinfectant, employing social distancing, and communicating promptly with staff whenever a case of covid-19 is confirmed, they said.
‘Business as usual’
In the age of covid-19, the company has moved fast. Whether or not it’s broken things in the process is a matter of some debate—and, in at least one instance, for the courts to decide.
Looking back at the initial sprint to overhaul the hiring process, executives say it reminded them of the origins of Amazon, when instinct informed key decisions. “This felt very much like one of those Day One moments,” says Winters, who joined the company in 2002. “You don't have the luxury of years’ worth of data to tell you what to do, and you have to make some really solid decisions based on assumptions—and then mobilizing teams to move really fast to make it happen.”
For many employees, it’s been a head-snapping ride. Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, the company had initially offered workers the option to use “paid or unpaid time off” to stay home if they were worried about contracting the coronavirus, according to Amazon’s blog. But as of May, workers must either report to work or submit a request for leave, and starting this month Amazon has discontinued the additional $2 per hour it had been paying warehouse workers.
In this way, Amazon’s actions seem emblematic of much of the US. The initial surge of the pandemic in America appears to be subsiding somewhat, and having taken extraordinary measures to adapt, some are eager to declare an end to the emergency. That includes heading back to work. But the threat of infection remains—21 states saw an increase in newly reported cases over the past 14 days, according to New York Times data. Some people, like the distribution center worker in California, worry it’s too soon for a company like Amazon—which employs cities’ worth of people who perform the essential functions of commerce—to resume a normal footing.
“They’re just trying to return to business as usual, even in the midst of the pandemic,” he says.
This article has been updated to include Amazon's responses to workers' claims about their experiences working at the company.