FACT CHECK:   Does Amazon.com employ paramedics at hot warehouses because it’s cheaper than supplying air conditioning for overheated workers?

Claim:   Amazon.com employs paramedics at hot warehouses because it’s cheaper than supplying air conditioning for overheated workers.

   OUTDATED

Example:     [Collected via e-mail, August 2015]

I can’t imagine that this is true

Origins:    On 15 August 2015, the New York Times published an in-depth, widely discussed piece about online retailing giant Amazon.com titled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” (subtitled “The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions”).

The Times‘ article focused renewed attention on Amazon.com for its perennially controversial labor practices. On 15 August 2015 a Reddit user posted a comment about learning that “at an Amazon warehouse in PA, during hot summers the company would station paramedics outside to carry away fainting employees, instead of paying for air conditioning” to the subreddit r/todayilearned. That post linked to a Allentown Morning Call article titled “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse.”

The Morning Call article was written by Spencer Soper and, although it appeared to be dated 17 August 2015, included a notation indicating it had originally been published on 18 September 2011:

Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com’s Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world’s largest online retailer.

The 34-year-old Allentown resident, who has worked in warehouses for more than 10 years, said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the heat and demands that he work mandatory overtime. Working conditions at the warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when heat in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said.

He got light-headed, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

Clearly, interest in a 2015 exposé on Amazon’s treatment of white-collar workers revived interest in a 2011 story on Amazon blue-collar (often temporary) workers. The outcome of the overheated workers scenario described in the above-quoted excerpt was addressed in a Reuters op-ed published on 17 June 2015:

Meanwhile, Amazon’s treatment of warehouse workers has been under scrutiny since 2011, when an investigation by the Allentown Morning Call newspaper revealed what were — quite literally — sweatshop conditions. When summer temperatures exceeded 100 degrees inside the company’s Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, warehouse, managers would not open the loading bay doors for fear of theft. Instead, they hired paramedics to wait outside in ambulances, ready to extract heat-stricken employees on stretchers and in wheelchairs, the investigation found. Workers also said they were pressured to meet ever-greater production targets, a strategy colloquially known as “management by stress.”

Amazon declined to answer the newspaper’s specific questions about working conditions in the warehouse but, eight months after the story was released, company officials announced that they’d spent $52 million to retrofit warehouses with air conditioning.

The New York Times article also addressed that earlier controversy:

In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

The Morning Call also reiterated the issue in a 17 August 2015 article:

In the case of the Pennsylvania warehouse, after The Morning Call published an in-depth look at the appalling conditions the company spent $52 million adding air conditioners there and at other facilities around the country. It had been mistreating low-wage workers who had few options, and it deserved to be shamed into changing its behavior.

So while Amazon was widely criticized in 2011 for heat conditions in a Pennsylvania warehouse, the company has since installed air conditioning at that warehouse (and several other facilities).

Last updated:      18 August 2015

Originally published:    18 August 2015