Unions might not be the tech giant’s biggest labor threat.
Amazon is facing a looming crisis: It could run out of people to hire in its US warehouses by 2024, according to leaked Amazon internal research from mid-2021 that Recode reviewed. If that happens, the online retailer’s service quality and growth plans could be at risk, and its e-commerce dominance along with it.
Raising wages and increasing warehouse automation are two of the six “levers” Amazon could pull to delay this labor crisis by a few years, but only a series of sweeping changes to how the company does business and manages its employees will significantly alter the timeline, Amazon staff predicted.
“If we continue business as usual, Amazon will deplete the available labor supply in the US network by 2024,” the research, which hasn’t previously been reported, says.
The report warned that Amazon’s labor crisis was especially imminent in a few locales, with internal models showing that the company was expected to exhaust its entire available labor pool in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area by the end of 2021, and in the Inland Empire region of California, roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles, by the end of 2022. Amazon’s internal report calculated the available pool of workers based on characteristics like income levels and a household’s proximity to current or planned Amazon facilities; the pool does not include the entire US adult population.
Amazon spokesperson Rena Lunak didn’t refute the contents of the internal report Recode obtained but declined to comment on it.
The research provides a rare glimpse into the staffing challenges that Amazon is now facing behind its slick veil of one-click online shopping and same-day Prime delivery. And it pointedly reveals how much of Amazon’s business success and its longtime position as a darling of Wall Street investors is dependent on its workforce of more than 1 million people who pick, pack, and ship its customers’ orders nearly 24/7.
The leaked internal findings also serve as a cautionary tale for other employers who seek to emulate the Amazon Way of management, which emphasizes worker productivity over just about everything else and churns through the equivalent of its entire front-line workforce year after year.
In the past, that churn wasn’t a problem for Amazon — it was even desirable at some points. Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos saw his warehouse workforce as necessary but replaceable, and feared that workers who remained at the company too long would turn complacent or, worse, disgruntled, according to reporting by the New York Times. But now, as the internal report Recode reviewed shows, some inside Amazon are realizing that strategy won’t work much longer, especially if leaders truly want to transform it into “Earth’s best employer,” as Bezos proclaimed in 2021.
To be sure, part of Amazon’s turnover issue relates to how some employees view working in a warehouse as a brief pit stop on the way to better things. But some workers have long complained of stresses unique to Amazon’s workplace, from the pace and repetition of the labor to the unrelenting computerized surveillance of workers’ every move to comparatively high injury rates. In a company survey of 31,000 workers who left Amazon that was referenced in the report, some former Amazon workers say it’s worse to work at Amazon than some big-name competitors like Walmart or FedEx. In that survey, those who joined another employer soon after leaving the tech giant “rated Amazon significantly worse on work fitting skills or interests, demands of the work, shift length and shift schedule.”
With traditional competitors ramping up their investments in e-commerce warehouses, Amazon is no longer a slam-dunk top choice for those seeking work in these types of facilities and the starting minimum wage that comes along with it. And that dynamic is already playing out in some parts of the country.
In the Inland Empire region of California, for example, Amazon may cycle through every worker who’d be interested in applying for a warehouse job by the end of 2022, the internal report warned. One of the reasons is that Amazon is increasingly finding itself in a bidding war for workers with rivals in the area, which is a key logistics region because it is within a two-hour drive of 20 million potential customers and two of the largest container ports in the US.
“We are hearing a lot of [Amazon] workers say, ‘I can just go across the street to Target or Walmart,’” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, co-executive director of an Inland Empire nonprofit called the Warehouse Worker Resource Center. Kaoosji added that Walmart is offering some workers with past warehouse experience as much as $25 an hour. An Amazon executive told Reuters in late 2021 that the company was bumping the average starting wage for new hires in the US to more than $18 an hour, attributing the decision to intense competition among employers. He also said Amazon had increased hiring bonuses to as much as $3,000 in some geographies.
And internal forecasts showed the situation was dire in Phoenix, Arizona, with Amazon projected to exhaust its entire potential workforce by the end of 2021. The Phoenix metro area has been a key market for Amazon since it opened its first warehouse there in 2007. The company currently operates more than 20 facilities in the region. But attrition at Amazon’s facilities in the area grew from 128 percent in 2019 to 205 percent in 2020, as the pandemic upended labor markets and online shopping boomed, putting pressure on fulfillment center employees.
As a result, Amazon seemed to have reversed, or stopped enforcing, some workplace policies at Phoenix warehouses amid the labor shortage, according to a former manager.
“They were so concerned about attrition and losing people that they rolled back all the policies that us as managers had to enforce,” Michael Garrigan, a former entry-level manager at Amazon warehouses in Phoenix from 2020 to early 2022, told Recode. “There was a joke among the … managers that it didn’t matter what [workers] got written up for because we knew HR was gonna exempt it. It was almost impossible to get fired as a worker.”
Lunak, the Amazon spokesperson, declined to comment on Garrigan’s claims.
The internal research also identified the regions surrounding Memphis, Tennessee, and Wilmington, Delaware, as areas where Amazon was on the cusp of exhausting local warehouse labor availability. Amazon’s models used for this internal research were 94 percent accurate in predicting the US geographies where Amazon was significantly understaffed in the lead-up to the Amazon Prime Day shopping event in June 2021, the report noted, which contributed to delivery delays for customers in those markets. The warnings about Amazon’s labor supply shortages indicate that in at least some markets, Amazon shipments could face more severe delays in the future.
Despite its looming labor crisis, Amazon temporarily overcorrected in some markets, going from understaffed to overstaffed. Amazon’s chief financial officer had previously said that the company was understaffed by 10,000 employees during the end of 2021, before the omicron Covid-19 variant had wreaked havoc on much of the US. But in April, the company revealed that it was actually overstaffed in some areas in early 2022 as the first wave of omicron subsided and employees returning from sick leave worked alongside new hires who had been recruited to backfill their roles.
Amazon spokespeople have said that the company will count on natural attrition rates to solve much of the current overstaffing problem, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that a top company official pitched a plan internally to “[thin] out its worker base through attrition.” It’s unclear where exactly Amazon is overstaffed and how long it will take to rightsize its workforce, but it seems unlikely that it is thinning staff in competitive locales like Phoenix and the Inland Empire where it had already exhausted much of the labor pool. It’s also unclear how the current economic climate will impact consumer spending and, relatedly, Amazon’s hiring needs.
For better or worse, the approach of reducing the temporary overstaffing issue through attrition should work for Amazon because it has long churned through its workers at a rapid clip. Amazon’s attrition rates were 123 percent in 2019 before jumping to 159 percent in 2020, according to internal data in the report Recode obtained, while turnover rates across the US transportation and warehouse sectors were much lower: 46 percent and 59 percent respectively in 2019 and 2020, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.
Turnover in the US retail industry was slightly higher than that — 58 percent and nearly 70 percent respectively in 2019 and 2020 — but still only about half as bad as Amazon’s. The high rates of attrition “made some [Amazon] executives worry about running out of workers across America,” the New York Times reported in 2021, though the article did not include specific timelines.
The leaked report viewed by Recode reads like an attempted wake-up call — along with potential solutions to avert the crisis — for some company leaders who long exhibited a nonchalant attitude toward employee attrition.
No silver bullet
Amazon has a variety of potential solutions for its people problem, but they will require the company to shift its mindset and overcome practical or logistical challenges.
On the surface, simply employing its current workers for longer would be a big help. The turnover rate disparity between Amazon and industry averages shows there is ample opportunity for the company to keep employees longer and delay the arrival of the day when it won’t have workers left to recruit. This is not some unsolvable, mysterious problem; the BLS stats show that plenty of companies retain workers much better than Amazon does. In fact, Amazon’s own data shows that nearly 90 percent of new workers say they want to stay at their jobs for at least six months. If Amazon could bring attrition rates down to its 2019 levels, which were still above 100 percent, the company would gain three more years of hiring runway, according to the internal projections.
In other parts of the country, though, where labor shortages aren’t yet a certainty, remnants of Amazon’s longtime aggressive termination practices persist. It’s not uncommon for some of Amazon’s automated computer systems to automatically fire employees for a variety of minor infractions, without exception. Jose Pagan, a former Amazon employee at a warehouse in Bronx, New York, says he got the automated ax recently despite nothing but positive feedback from his managers.
Pagan began working at the Amazon delivery hub in October and, within two months, had been promoted to a role on the safety committee for the facility. The new role didn’t come with a pay raise, and is on top of a worker’s core tasks, but Pagan saw it as a stepping stone to an official promotion. But in April, Pagan told Recode, he took two days off to have an infected tooth looked at and ultimately removed.
The problem, he said, was that he only had seven hours of unpaid time off but ended up missing 20 hours of work; he had enough paid vacation time to cover the absence, but he said the company did not pull from that separate bank of days because Pagan would have had to apply for vacation time in advance. Pagan said he also had a doctor’s note but was told the company did not need to accept it as an excuse, even though he had been excused from work with a doctor’s note previously. He said he worked for another full week without issue, until he showed up one night for his overnight shift and his badge no longer worked. He was eventually told he had been terminated.
An HR manager told Pagan that there was nothing he could do about the termination but that Pagan should reapply for a job at the company in three months, per Amazon policy.
“We would love you back in 90 days,” Pagan says the HR staff member told him. In the meantime, Pagan should “do some GrubHub or Uber,” the HR employee said.
“I find the whole situation crazy,” said the 35-year-old Pagan, who was supporting his wife and daughter on his Amazon income. “They’re gonna lose a good worker for nothing.”
Lunak, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company is looking into Pagan’s case.
Besides changing termination or retention policies, increasing pay is another obvious lever that Amazon could pull to expand its labor pool. (All of these are things that workers calling for unionization have demanded from the company.) The report predicted that for every dollar Amazon bumps up its minimum wage, it adds 7 percent more workers to its potential hiring pool. If Amazon were to do a little better, and raise its hourly minimum by just $1.50, that too would expand its pool of potential workers enough to extend its hiring ability in the US by three years.
The internal document also suggested Amazon needs to become more efficient at hiring. At the time the report was written, Amazon needed 6.7 job applicants to apply to fill a single warehouse role. Around 9 percent of applicants were rejected either because they were former employees not permitted to be rehired or because they failed a drug test or had an unsatisfactory background check. (Later in 2021, Amazon said it would stop screening many of its warehouse worker applicants for marijuana use.)
Of course, Amazon could also simply reduce the number of workers it needs by speeding up automation in its warehouses — a controversial approach. Nonetheless, the report revealed that Amazon executives had already in 2021 set a “conservative” goal of improving warehouse productivity by 25 percent by the end of 2024, strictly through increased automation. Hitting that goal on its own would push back the labor crisis as well, but only slightly.
The research team also pondered improvements that could be made to how Amazon already utilizes its existing staff. Amazon’s warehouse staff worked, on average, a little more than 27 hours a week in 2020, according to internal data. If Amazon had increased that weekly number by just 10 percent, the company could have reduced new hires by 118,000 people, the internal report estimated. The report also referenced a team in Amazon’s HR division, called Hamilton, that is building tools to automatically transfer workers between nearby facilities based on staffing levels and order volume. The relocations would come in the form of both “permanent transfers and short-term assignments.”
Lastly, according to the report, Amazon’s HR staffing division wants to play a bigger role in influencing where new warehouses are located so they can ensure the available labor pool is large enough for the company’s needs. For some types of Amazon warehouses, there is little wiggle room. Amazon delivery stations, for example, are the last stop for a package before it’s delivered, so they need to be located within a short driving distance to a large number of Amazon customers. But for others — like “cross dock” facilities that receive merchandise from suppliers, and fulfillment centers that receive goods from cross dock facilities and pack them into customer orders — there is more leeway in the location selection process and so an opportunity to better use internal labor forecasting tools.
“Our longer-term strategy … is to apply labor forecasts to future site selection,” the report read.
Overall, the leaked report offers a variety of solutions to choose from, but each with trade-offs that Amazon executives may not find palatable. Raise wages and the company may need to pull back spending elsewhere. Increase automation and risk the wrath of critics concerned about replacing people with robots at the second-largest private sector employer in the country. A focus on better retaining employees could also mean reducing performance tracking and productivity quotas that have played a role, however controversial, in the company’s historic business success to date.
Amazon has shown time and time again that it values “customer obsession” — and the promises it makes to its customers — above all else. But the customer loyalty that results from that obsession is ultimately at risk if Amazon cannot employ enough people — or robots — to pack and ship the boxes people expect to find outside their front door a day or two after clicking “Place your order.” The company’s new CEO, Andy Jassy, has proclaimed that Amazon is “not close to being done in how we improve the lives of our employees.” As the internal report shows, doing so should no longer be optional for Amazon; it’s an imperative.