Amazon warehouse workers in Canada pushed into dangerous race against time

Leaked images show mega-corporation’s use of ‘virtual foreman,’ which advocates say puts workers’ pandemic safety at risk
Photo: Governor of Virginia / Flickr
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Amazon warehouse workers say a version of the company’s infamous “time off task” productivity-monitoring system is operational in Canada — and it’s pushing them to race against seemingly arbitrary digital timers, at the expense of their health.

Court documents in the United States show that Amazon uses the scanners to help monitor workers’ productivity. Back in 2018 an attorney for Amazon confirmed there are penalties for too much “time off task” between scans.

In the context of physical distancing and other pandemic safety concerns facing workers, Amazon’s practices have made headlines across North America.

Shirley (a pseudonym to protect her identity), who recently quit her “outbound picker” job at Amazon’s fulfillment centre in Bolton, Ontario, told Ricochet the company’s scanner gun technology requires its workers to rush to scan new items in the face of a depleting blue line tracking the time allotted for task completion. Points are deducted for failure to meet time limits and any inaccuracies.

Employee scanner gun and 'virtual foreman'

“The computer system knows where I am. I have a set amount of time, based on that little blue bar, to get where I need to go,” Shirley said.

Ricochet has obtained videos and photographs that confirm this description of the digital time and task-completion tracking system in Amazon’s Canadian facilities.

Upon arriving at the scanner-designated area, she said, she would scan the bin — triggering another timer with its own blue bar, counting down the time she had to find the item.

“Sometimes it can be a tiny piece of jewelry at the bottom, with four or five other products in the bin, and we have to find it. So we run out of time,” she said.

The depleting blue time bar

“Once I’ve scanned an object and put it in my plastic bin, I get a new area to go to — and the blue bar starts running.”

Social distancing ‘is not happening’

Shirley said she “picked” about 350 items daily while her scanner gun scored her speed and accuracy.

“They have to keep up a certain amount of product coming out of the warehouse. Each person who has a scanner is told what they’re picking,” she said.

Against pressure to keep a score between 60 and 70, on some days Shirley only reached 45 to 50.

On one occasion, according to Shirley, she was told by management her scanning was not accurate enough. On another, she said, management sent her workplace policy reminders through her scanner.

“I tried to leave my hair down one day, to see if anybody would say anything. I got a digital message on my scanner telling me to put my hair up. I don’t know who saw me. Did my supervisor walk past me and notice that? How does my scanner know my hair is down?” she said.

According to Shirley, management’s irregularity in assigning appropriate time limits and the crunch of the blue lines sometimes meant neglecting precautions.

“Social distancing while we’re supposed to be picking the products is not happening,” she said. “Because there’s a time limit on what we’re supposed to be picking, we can’t be standing around waiting for people to get out of the way.”

When asked about the photos and videos, an Amazon spokesperson denied the time monitoring and grading is related to “time off task,” or TOT, policies.

“The screenshot you received is NOT related to time off task or any process management system,” company spokesperson Dave Bauer told Ricochet by email. “It’s simply a pace bar that’s used as a guide for how long it should take to sort from one bin to next. Like all companies, we do follow processes that recognize outstanding associate performance and allow us to identify and set up training and coaching for those who need it.”

Some of Amazon’s Canada-based workers have previously said the company’s coaching sessions involve listing scores by colour — green, yellow and red — and pushing those in the “red” to work faster.

Asked if there are any penalties for slowness or inaccuracy, beyond coaching, Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Other Amazon warehouse workers also told Ricochet that they laboured under the “time off task” system.

A worker at the Bolton fulfillment centre said, “In a small aisle there could be like 10 people. You can maintain a distance and not go into the aisle but then your TOT will go up and your rate is going to go down.”

“TOT penalties certainly exist and are being enforced,” a third Amazon fulfillment centre worker in Ontario said.

‘Virtual foreman’ takes its toll

Amazon Canada has previously confirmed it monitors and maintains standards for productivity in its fulfillment centres.

Earlier this year, PressProgress reported on the company performance monitoring after workers complained that the systems were forcing them to violate physical-distancing guidelines for COVID-19.

We have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it corporate employee or fulfillment center associate and we measure actual performance against those expectations. Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.

The Warehouse Workers Centre, a resource and advocacy centre for workers in the logistics sector in Ontario’s Peel Region, has described Amazon’s scanners as a “virtual foreman.” And while the company seems inconsistent about its speed-up and warnings to workers, the crunch takes its toll.

“We’ve heard stories of managers yelling at employees in their 60s to hurry up because their rates were dropping,” said WWC spokesperson Ryan Lum. “This kind of attitude leads to injuries.”

The Centre has campaigned for Amazon to “end productivity-based quotas and other policies that prevent workers from following Health Canada guidelines on hand washing and social distancing.”

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