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Activists say too many Amazon employees are getting hurt on job

In 2018, 40 workers at Amazon’s Monee plant were injured so badly they were unable to return to work, according to the activists.

Amazon workers and community activists demonstrate outside a downtown Amazon Go store Tuesday.
Amazon workers and community activists demonstrate outside a downtown Amazon Go store Tuesday.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

At first, Brian Whitlock enjoyed his job organizing products — from cellphone cases to 20-pound bags of dog food — on shelves in a massive Amazon warehouse.

For one thing, the pay at the downstate Monee facility was higher than what he’d been making at his previous job, working at an auto parts store.

Beginning in October 2018, Whitlock worked four to five 10-hour shifts each week, he said. But try as he might, he just couldn’t keep up with Amazon’s famously speedy work rate. That’s because Whitlock has Tourette syndrome, which, among other things, causes involuntary muscle spasms.

Whitlock, 35, said he asked his bosses if they’d make a “reasonable accommodation” for his condition. He even brought in a doctor’s note. His bosses refused his request, he says.

“One day, due to the stresses of the job, I ended up having a complete nervous breakdown,” Whitlock said Tuesday, as he joined other former Amazon workers and community activists outside a downtown Amazon Go store. “I was totally unaware of where I was or what I was doing. I was unaware of my surroundings.”

Amazon workers and community activists demonstrate outside a downtown Amazon Go store Tuesday.
Amazon workers and community activists demonstrate outside a downtown Amazon Go store Tuesday.
Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Activists with Warehouse Workers for Justice say they’ve obtained safety records from the Monee plant, showing, among other things, that 25 workers were injured in 2018 during the the holiday season. For all of 2018, 40 workers suffered so severe that they were unable to work at their Amazon jobs, according to the activist group.

“The push for faster and faster deliveries comes with a price — a price paid through the injuries of local workers,” said Robert J. Clack, a spokesman the activist group.

Tuesday’s demonstration comes on the heels of a Nov. 25 report from the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting, which reviewed internal injury records from 23 of Amazon’s 110 fulfillment centers across the nation. The investigation found the rate of serious injury for the 23 facilities was more than double the national average for the warehouse industry.

But Kelly Cheeseman, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said the company takes “an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small, which results in elevated recordable rates and makes comparisons misleading.”

Cheeseman also said that “self-interested critics, particularly unions and groups funded by our competitors, have a vested interest in spreading misinformation about Amazon ... .”

Whitlock said his nervous breakdown led to a week-long hospital stay. His supervisors at Amazon wouldn’t let him return to work without a doctor’s note. But it took Whitlock two weeks to get a doctor’s appointment.

“In that time, they told me I had abandoned my job and they fired me,” Whitlock said.

Whitlock, who is currently unemployed, said he wouldn’t wish his Amazon experience on “my worst enemy.”

“You’re basically a human robot,” he said.

Whitlock said he has considered suing Amazon, but didn’t think he had a “leg to stand on,” going up against the companies teams of lawyers.