Amazon worker Gerald Bryson had hand-counted thousands of items in his warehouse's inventory over three days when his manager showed him a "Supportive Feedback Document."
Bryson had made 22 errors, the 2018 write-up said, including tallying 19 products in a storage bin that in fact had 20.
If Bryson erred like this six times within a year, the notice stated, he would be fired from the Staten Island warehouse, one of Amazon.com largest in the United States.
Internal Amazon documents, previously unreported, reveal how routinely the company measured workers' performance in minute detail and admonished those who fell even slightly short of expectations - sometimes before their shift ended.
In a single year ending April 2020, the company issued more than 13,000 so-called "disciplines" in Bryson's warehouse alone, one lawyer for Amazon said in court papers. The facility had about 5,300 employees around that time.
The records and interviews of current and former employees show the enormous pressure faced by Amazon line workers to complete tasks as accurately and quickly as the company demands - creating an environment that some workers told Reuters has fueled unionisation efforts around the country.
In March, Bryson's workplace voted to become Amazon's first organised warehouse in the United States, and staff from more than 100 other facilities nationwide are striving to follow suit, according to the Amazon Labor Union, an independent labour group formed in April 2021.
Amazon, the largest online retailer in the United States, disclosed these records in response to a complaint by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over Bryson's dismissal in April 2020.
Many of these documents also were contained in a separate and ongoing federal court lawsuit in which the NLRB sought to stop what it called Amazon's "flagrant unfair labour practices" - actions the company denied in court papers.
In a statement, Amazon said the goals it sets are "fair and based on what the majority of the team is actually accomplishing." The company says it delivers more praise to workers than criticism.
"We give a lot of feedback to employees throughout the year to help them succeed and make sure they understand expectations," Amazon said.
Kathy Drew King, regional director of the NLRB's Brooklyn office, said the board "has vigorously sought" Amazon's compliance with labour law.
An administrative law judge this April ordered Bryson's reinstatement after finding the retailer had fired him illegally for protesting workplace safety conditions.
Amazon is appealing the judge's decision, saying in a statement that the company terminated Bryson for defaming a colleague during a demonstration in the warehouse's parking lot. Bryson said the employee had verbally attacked him.
Bryson, now a union organiser, added that he isn't sure he'll return. "If I walk back through those doors, it's going to show the workers that they can fight," he said.
OFF TASK FOR SIX MINUTES
Amazon told the judge in Bryson's case that it could not meet NLRB demands in a subpoena to provide the thousands of disciplinary notices it delivered to employees that year, calling the requirement "unduly burdensome."
However, it provided statistics for what it called "disciplines" - which include firings, suspensions and warnings - at three warehouses, and it turned over scores of personnel files.
These included more than 600 notices for workers between 2015 and 2021 that were positive, negative or neutral. It is not clear from the records whether the notices were a representative sample of the company's feedback.
Also in the records were worker affidavits and email exchanges between Amazon and government lawyers.
Among the documented violations for which Amazon faulted employees:
- Being off task for six minutes in June 2018, resulting in a reprimand that a Carteret, New Jersey, warehouse worker received at 2.57 am during the same shift.
- Meeting 94 percent of the company's productivity goal instead of 100 percent. For weeks, a worker at the same New Jersey warehouse had surpassed expectations. But Amazon management warned him in October 2017 about possible termination if he didn't improve his rate of scanning and verifying items, which dipped to 164 per hour, below the target of about 175.
- Exceeding break time by four minutes. Although Amazon offers a "5 minute walking grace" period for breaks, the same New Jersey worker who was dinged for productivity also received a write-up in March 2017 telling him not to exceed the time limit.
- Making four errors grabbing items shoppers ordered in a single spring 2019 week, during which a New York City warehouse worker picked more than 15,800 goods correctly for customers.
In its statement, Amazon said these write-ups did not accurately reflect its current policies.
In a June 2021 blog post, the company said it began averaging workers' "time off task" - periods of inactivity - over a longer period before engaging with employees.
It did not specify how the period was extended. Amazon acknowledged that some managers had incorrectly resorted to discipline rather than "coaching" workers.
According to Amazon's statement to Reuters, less than 25 percent of feedback is about what it called "opportunities for improvement," and the majority of that relates to attendance, such as when an employee risks exceeding allotted time off.
Without full records of company notices, Reuters was unable to verify those figures.
However, the raw numbers of "disciplines" cited by Amazon itself in court papers suggested they were prolific. Management for a warehouse in Robbinsville, New Jersey, with an average of about 4,200 workers as of Dec. 2020, gave employees more than 15,000 disciplines in the year leading to April 2020, the lawyer for Amazon wrote.
A North Haven, Connecticut, warehouse, with an average 4,800 workers as of December 2020, issued more than 5,000 such notices in the year ending in April 2020. Some individual employees received numerous disciplinary notices.
WALKING LIKE HE'S ‘1000 YEARS OLD'
A stack of critical notices dogged Bryson despite what he described as his best efforts to meet Amazon's standards. He joined the Staten Island warehouse shortly after it opened in 2018, with starting pay of $16.50 an hour.
His job was to count bin after bin of screws, bolts and other inventory using a gun-shaped scanner.
After first being warned in writing about mistakes, Bryson said he slowed down to get the count right. On Dec. 6 that year, he was faulted for tallying 295 goods per hour, when the company expected 478.
He told Reuters that he tried going twice as fast to make up for a sluggish day and agonised at his kitchen table over whether his performance had sufficed.
"You're sitting there worried about whether you're going to have a job tomorrow because your rate is not where it's supposed to be," recalled Bryson, now 59. "It was horrible."
He got two more write-ups that month even as he picked up speed to an hourly rate of 371, the Amazon documents show.
Bryson said he just kept "counting and moving and counting and moving," and was slapped again with write-ups for errors. Ultimately, he blazed through nearly 8000 items over four days in January 2019 – fast and accurate enough to clinch Amazon's praise.
"Your recent job performance has met or exceeded Productivity expectations," he was advised.
But his feet swelled and his body ached, Bryson said, adding that just walking from his car after work to his apartment made him feel as though he were "1000 years old."
Workers in recent years have flocked to the giant retailer for wages generally higher than its biggest rivals'.
Last September, to hire in a tight labour market, Amazon said it raised its average starting salary for US operations staff to more than US$18 an hour, about 10 percent more than the average salary then offered by Walmart, the country's largest private employer.
But the work took an emotional toll, at least two employees said in the court records. Roshawn Heslop, a ship dock employee in North Haven, said stress led him to lash out in November 2019 after a manager confronted him for leaving his post.
"I'm doing my f*cking job," Heslop said, according to a human resources summary of the incident. According to HR records, the manager was sceptical of Heslop's explanation that he had gone to get a tool.
According to HR records, Heslop said he was usually "a quiet guy" who's "here to work" and occasionally takes walks because of a health condition.
The manager emailed HR three times encouraging the company to discipline Heslop for vulgar language, which the company eventually did. He was placed on probation, with the possibility of termination if he did not measure up.
Amazon said write-ups like that are uncommon, but "it's important to treat each other with respect, and we do not tolerate, at any level, inappropriate behaviour."
Heslop, 28, who still works for Amazon, says the company itself doesn't respect workers like him.
"It doesn't matter how much I work or how good I work," he said. "It's a game you can't win."