Tyler Hamilton has optimized his every waking minute. Between Black Friday and Christmas, five nights a week, he pulls himself out of bed, brushes his teeth, and rushes to his car just before sunset. On his drive to the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, he stops at Wendy’s to buy two bourbon bacon burgers, two large chilis, fries, and a drink.
Hamilton eats the burgers as he drives and then punches in to start his shift arranging incoming product inventory just before 5 pm. In the middle of the night, he takes thirty minutes of unpaid break time and reheats the chilis. By the time he clocks out at 5:30 am, his car has frozen, so Hamilton sits huddled in the dark until it warms enough that he can drive home.
“Then I have to shower, because working at Amazon for 12 and a half hours means you’re going to be filthy,” he says. “I’ll have some juice and maybe watch a little bit of YouTube or something and just pass out.” The next evening, he’ll do it all again.
As holiday shopping reaches a climax this week, Amazon’s two-day Prime shipping remains one of the few options left for desperate shoppers still hoping to order online. It’s a notoriously exhausting and demanding time for workers at the company, where the period between Black Friday and Christmas day is known as “peak season.”
During peak, Amazon requires that workers add a full 10- or 11-hour shift to their already demanding weekly schedules, multiple employees told Startup, and penalizes those who do not by removing a day of unpaid leave for each missed extra shift. The company also increases workers’ daily expected productivity rate, defined with metrics such as items packaged per hour, workers say.
The four workers interviewed for this piece also say that their managers speak less about safety and instead emphasize speed during this period. All have been involved in organizing fellow employees to try and improve working conditions, but none work at a facility where a unionization petition has been filed.
Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly denies that the company increases its productivity expectations for workers, and says they are set carefully. “We assess performance based on safe and achievable expectations that take into account time and tenure, peer performance, and adherence to safe work practices,” he says.
Amazon has become the dominant online retailer in the US and in countries such the UK and Germany in large part through its massive logistics operations. But the company’s facilities have developed a reputation for punishing working conditions. Amazon is the second largest private sector employer in the US—behind Walmart—and employed nearly 800,000 workers in blue-collar “labor” roles in 2021. Workers at a Staten Island Amazon facility won a unionization vote this year, but the company is disputing the result.
This year’s holiday season occurs at a difficult time for both Amazon’s leaders and its logistics workers. In 2022, the company’s revenue grew at the slowest rate in more than 20 years, and in November it began laying off 10,000 corporate employees. Amazon also lost almost 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers this year, it told investors, mainly by not replacing people who left the company, which has a high rate of turnover in those roles. The company still hired extra staff to manage the seasonal rush, announcing in October it would add 150,000 temporary workers to its warehousing and delivery operations.