Inside Amazon’s most serious human-resources issue

Tara Jones, an Amazon warehouse worker in Oklahoma, cuddled her child and checked her pay stub on her phone a year ago, only to discover that she had been underpaid by $90 out of $540.

Even after she reported the problem, the error continued to occur. Jones had attended accounting lessons at a community college and became so frustrated that she sent an email to Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos.

“I’m behind on bills,” she wrote weeks later, “all because the pay team screwed up.” “As I type this email, I’m crying.”
Jones had no idea that her communication to Bezos had sparked an internal probe, which led to the conclusion that she was far from alone. According to a private study on the findings, Amazon has been shortchanging new parents, patients dealing with medical crises, and other vulnerable workers on leave for at least 1 1/2 years, including amid periods of record earnings. Since it opened its doors over a year ago, some of the salary computations at her institution have been incorrect. Up to 179 of the company’s other warehouses could have been affected as well.
According to Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesman, the business is still identifying and compensating workers.

According to dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of internal papers obtained by The New York Times, that blunder is only one strand in a long-running tangle of issues with Amazon’s system for handling paid and unpaid breaks. The documents and interviews show that the problems were more pervasive — impacting both blue-collar and white-collar employees — and more detrimental than previously thought, amounting to one of the business’s most serious human resources difficulties, according to multiple corporate insiders.

According to past and present human resources staff employees, some of whom will only speak anonymously for fear of retaliation, workers across the country battling medical problems and other life crises have been fired when the attendance software wrongly marked them as no-shows. Doctors’ notes slipped into Amazon’s databases like black holes. Employees had trouble reaching their case managers due to automated phone trees that redirected their calls to overworked back-office staff in Costa Rica, India, and Las Vegas. Furthermore, the entire leave system was run on a patchwork of applications that frequently did not communicate with one another.

Some workers who were ready to return were unable to do so because the system was overburdened, resulting in weeks or months of lost wages. Higher-paid corporate employees who had to deal with the same processes discovered that scheduling a normal break could be a nightmare.

Administrators warned of “inadequate service levels,” “poor processes,” and systems that are “prone to delay and mistake” in internal correspondence.

The scope of the problem highlights how, during Amazon’s spectacular rise to retail dominance, its employees often took a back place to customers. Amazon outpaced competitors by building cutting-edge package processing facilities to cater to buyers’ need for speedy delivery. However, many longtime employees claim that the company did not commit enough resources and attention to how it served its employees.

In an interview, Bethany Reyes, who was recently put in charge of repairing the leave system, stated, “A lot of times, because we’ve optimised for the user experience, we’ve been focused on that.” She emphasised that the corporation was making strenuous efforts to realign those priorities.

The company’s treatment of its massive workforce — which now numbers over 1.3 million employees and is rapidly growing — is under fire. Labor activists and lawmakers claim that the company does not effectively protect warehouse workers’ safety and that internal opponents are unfairly punished. Workers in Alabama formed a major, though ultimately unsuccessful, unionisation threat against the corporation this year, furious with the company’s minute-by-minute surveillance of their productivity.

A Times investigation published in June revealed how poorly the leave process became clogged during the pandemic, revealing that it was only one of numerous employment failures during the company’s most prosperous period. Amazon has made a commitment to become “Earth’s best employer” since then. Andy Jassy, who took over as CEO from Jeff Bezos in July, recently mentioned the leave system as an area where the company can demonstrate its commitment to improvement. At a recent event, he stated that the process “didn’t operate the way we expected it to work.”

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Amazon emphasised on its efforts to remedy the system’s “pain points” and “pay concerns,” as Reyes described it in the interview, in response to more recent revelations on the problems with its leave programme. “The most severe thing that you could have,” she said of the erroneous terminations. Hundreds of people are being hired, systems are being streamlined and connected, communications are being clarified, and human resources employees are being trained to be more empathic.

However, numerous problems continue, resulting in catastrophic failures. A Tennessee warehouse worker’s disability payments were unexpectedly suspended last spring, leaving his family unable to pay for food, transportation, or medical care.

“There was never a hint that there was ever an issue,” said James Watts, 54, who worked at Amazon in Chattanooga for six years before being forced to take disability leave due to recurring heart attacks and strokes. The loss of his benefits came as a shock, and his car was repossessed because he had been without income for two weeks. Watts and his wife sold their wedding rings to pay for food and medical bills.

He stated, “We’re losing everything.”

Several months later, the benefits were reinstated without explanation, but the couple is still fighting to regain their footing. Nantel said Amazon was sorry for Watts’ position, that the process was overly complicated, and that it was striving to make it easier to navigate around.

Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer, offers a variety of paid and unpaid absences, as well as medical and personal leave that is not required by law. Amazon used to outsource the management of its leave programmes, but when vendors couldn’t keep up with the company’s expansion, it brought the effort in-house. It is presently one of the country’s largest leave administrators.

Employees can apply for leaves online, through an internal app, or by dialling a number from an automated phone system. Amazon’s system for managing leaves is a hodgepodge of software from a range of vendors, including Salesforce, Oracle, and Kronos, that does not operate together flawlessly.

According to an internal document, this complexity necessitates human resource staff to enter a large number of permitted leaves, a task that took 67 full-time employees last fall alone. According to Reyes, a permanent bridge connecting the two projects will be completed in March, with incremental enhancements in the meanwhile.

Current and former employees involved in the administration of leaves claim that the company’s response has been to push them so hard that some of them have had to take time off. A corporate manager of the leave system admonished his workers to do more in an email sent out on a Friday about a Sunday deadline last year.

He wrote, “You all know what needs to be done and by when.” “There will be no exceptions!”

Employee burnout was a major concern for Reyes as she began her new job, and she stated she was attempting to address it in a variety of ways.

Internal documents demonstrate that Amazon’s own teams were not always well-versed in the system. According to an external audit conducted last fall, back-office staff members who interact with employees “do not comprehend” the leave process and frequently provide erroneous information to employees. In one audited contact, a phone representative advised a worker that he was too new to be eligible for short-term disability leave, despite the reality that workers are eligible from the first day.

Reyes claims that, because to better training, her workers are now able to fix more than nine out of ten problems on the first call.

Amazon has been accused of breaking the law in some instances. Leslie Tullis, the manager of a children’s subscription product, faced a growing domestic abuse epidemic in 2017 and requested an unpaid vacation that companies are required to provide under Washington state law to protect victims. Tullis would be able to labour on an as-needed basis, with minimal warning, and she would be protected from reprisal if she was accepted.

Amazon agreed to the leave, but it didn’t seem to realise what it had agreed to. According to court filings, it had no policy that complied with the laws of the company’s home state. Tullis claimed that engaging with the employer to handle her leave took her up to eight hours each week. She used to move on a frequent basis in order to keep her children safe. Despite the legal safeguards, her superiors would grow visibly irritated when she was behind on work, acting “as though I was betraying them every day,” she said.

Current and former employees involved in the administration of leaves claim that the company’s response has been to push them so hard that some of them have had to take time off. A corporate manager of the leave system admonished his workers to do more in an email sent out on a Friday about a Sunday deadline last year.

He wrote, “You all know what needs to be done and by when.” “There will be no exceptions!”

Employee burnout was a major concern for Reyes as she began her new job, and she stated she was attempting to address it in a variety of ways.

Internal documents demonstrate that Amazon’s own teams were not always well-versed in the system. According to an external audit conducted last fall, back-office staff members who interact with employees “do not comprehend” the leave process and frequently provide erroneous information to employees. During one reviewed call that lasted 29 minutes, the ph

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