Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

On September 17, 2011, the Morning Call ran this story called Inside Amazon’s warehouse: Lehigh Valley workers tell of brutal heat, dizzying pace at online retailer by Spencer Soper. I recommend you read it if you haven’t despite the length. Although I will sum it up here a bit, what I am going to do here is comment on Amazon’s behavior.

The article is written around interviews with people working at the Allentown, PA warehouse. There is no discussion of what is going on at other warehouses. I imagine it is similar, but it may not be. The TL;DR version is that Amazon is overheating workers, knows, and does not care. This also has to do with that they are using temporary workers heavily, and not only do temps not generally have health insurance (or if they do, it’s not on Amazon’s dime) but in this economy there is always someone else in need of work, which creates a class of workers who are essentially disposable and unable to protect themselves collectively.

Now the long version.

Let’s start with their recruitment ad, actually the recruitment ad from the temp agency.

“Chart your course to Amazon with ISS Warehouse positions in Allentown, PA. Looking for a new direction? Are you interested in working in a fun, fast-paced atmosphere earning up to $12.25 per hour? Let Integrity be your guide to a rewarding career with Amazon, the Internet superstore.”

The ads say applicants should be able to lift and move up to 49 pounds. They also say warehouse temperatures range between 60 and 95 degrees and “occasionally exceed 95 degrees.”

60 to 95 degrees, occasionally higher. In a warehouse where people are moving around carrying things all the time. 95 is getting a little warm for that, so it’s good that that’s the upward cap, right?

Oh, wait. Later in the article, they talk about summer heat well in excess of 95 degrees. A clear distinction is not made between the heat and the heat index, but the functional temperature in the warehouse apparently exceeded 110 on at least one of the days in question, and has gotten as high as 114.

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.

So Amazon knows that people are in danger of overheating, and this is a common enough occurrence that they have had paramedics waiting this summer during the heat wave, where heat wave seems to mean summer weather.

I guess it’s cheaper to keep paramedics on hand than it is to cool the warehouse.

Wait, doesn’t Amazon need to take care of its workers?

The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon’s warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers don’t work for Amazon, they work for the temp agency.

Oh. I guess not. So what’s up with how hot the warehouse is? Is that a problem with warehouses in general?

Goris, the Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature when it got too hot, he said.

The reason Amazon gives for not opening the doors is fear of theft.

This was the reason given for locking the doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory: to prevent theft. Too bad no one working there has time to read all the books they have on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the history of labor organizing.

So what happens when it gets too hot?

On June 2, a warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers collapsed. The employee also complained that workers who had to go home due to heat symptoms received disciplinary points.

People collapse and Amazon counts it against them if they go home. Wow.

The second complaint came from a doctor in the local emergency room. I don’t know the last time anyone else was in the emergency room, but I’ve had to go a few times over the years and the staff always seem really busy, like they don’t really have a lot of time to make phone calls.

Amazon responds by pointing out the number of people who didn’t have heat-related health events, and it looks like about 1% of the employees were affected badly enough to go to the hospital. While it is true that this is a small minority, it’s also true that we’re talking about only June 2 here. Amazon does not address how many employees were affected but did not go to the hospital, how many went on other days, how this has affected turnover rates, or what the acceptable level of preventable heat-related distress is. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if this is totally preventable by opening the doors, then the acceptable level is 0%.

Especially since the article goes on to say that Amazon has everyone carrying hand-held scanners, which track where stuff is at all times and that means that it also tracks where people are at all times, and when someone gets logged out of the system to, like, pee or something. That sounds like a pretty easy way for them to prevent theft.

And since people are penalized for leaving early:

Previously, workers who left early due to heat-related symptoms faced demerits that could ultimately result in termination if they didn’t provide doctor’s notes saying they can’t work in excessive heat, workers said.

Am I the only one who thinks that excessive heat is described as excessive because you don’t need a doctor’s note saying you shouldn’t be exposed to it? Also, how many temps can go to the doctor short of it being an emergency? Most temp agencies don’t provide benefits, and even when they do the benefits are generally shitty.

Amazon kept going back and forth with OSHA over the summer and started doing things to mitigate the damage like handing out ice pops.

They did not open the doors, though.

They also did not slow down the production rate. I’d think that if you were having trouble with production because the heat in combination with having to go fast made people have to leave for medical attention and you couldn’t fix the heat problem, you’d hire a few more temps and let everyone slow down. It’s too bad that Amazon can’t do that because it’s having such a tough time financially, I mean look at this:

Amazon had 2010 revenues exceeding $34 billion, more than triple its sales just five years earlier.

and its poor CEO!

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, keeps climbing the ranks of the world’s wealthiest people. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be $18.1 billion this year, making him the 30th wealthiest person in the world.

and their stock value!

That wealth is tied to the value of Amazon stock, which has grown about eightfold to nearly $240 per share over the past five years.

What choice does he have but to push his lazy, thieving employees to work so that he can break even, despite his diet of ramen noodles and frozen peas? I guess he’s got no options but to try to erode those pesky worker protection laws, ensuring that a smaller and smaller workforce is pushed ever-harder with less and less recourse. Amazon and similar companies are working to create a permanent underclass of people who are unemployed and desperate, because people in that situation have little choice other than to take what is offered. Using temp agencies gives them a few advantages. First, temps aren’t Amazon’s employees, they’re the employees of the temporary agency. This means Amazon doesn’t have to insure them, and that the workers have little or no grounds to argue that an assignment was ended unfairly or without proper proceedings. Second, it is very hard for a temp to win a worker’s comp claim, so if they are hurt, they can quietly have their assignment ended without recourse. Third, temp workers have little or no opportunity to unionize, especially if the assignments are relatively short term, and Amazon’s own employees will have less ability to unionize if most of their coworkers are temps or if they know they can be easily replaced. While it is illegal to fire someone for organizing, it is not illegal to terminate someone for failure to meet a production quota, even if that quota is functionally impossible.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was 100 years ago now, but apparently we haven’t learned the lesson yet.


going to the doctor

I read this article: Do Medical School Curricula Hypersexualize the LGBT Population? and started thinking about all of the stuff I’ve had to deal with at the doctor’s office with homophobic and underinformed providers and how I would like to see that change.

My experience is that when I go to the doctor especially for a yearly exam but really anytime they are all like BIRTH CONTROL BIRTH CONTROL BIRTH CONTROL and I basically have to come out just to get them to quit trying to give me oral contraceptives or whatever it is they’re going to push. I don’t really know what they’re going to go on about because I always kill the conversation at this point: what kind of birth control am I using? N/A. Somehow that’s not one of the little boxes you can check on the form.

And this has meant that I’ve had to deal with a lot of bullshit, because doctors are frequently not okay with my lack of interest in birth control and the related activity. I’ve had a couple of doctors tell me I was confused and would get over it and a rather horrible incident with a psychiatrist who insisted I was a virgin when I said I had sex with women. Usually I get more minor discomfort, like the doctor is trying to be cool but doesn’t really know how, and on the more extreme end there’s a palpable temperature drop: providers who have been friendly become distant. Instead of being a font of information, they have nothing to say at all.

This is especially uncomfortable if there’s a speculum involved.

I worry in this situation about being able to get real care, effective care, rather than essentially having them follow what looks like real procedure but in substance declining to treat me. I’ve had a couple providers who were cool, but only one who had any knowledge that there might be different health issues involved for lesbians and other queer women than for straight women beyond the difference in risk for cervical cancer.

I’d like to say more about this, but I really know next to nothing because my doctors never tell me anything about it.

Instead, I’m going to talk about what I’d like to see.

I’d like to see a doctor’s office as a safe space. I’m relieved that they ask me if I’m being beaten and I hope doctors will expand on this toward a more comprehensive safety evaluation. What I would like to see in this direction is better assessment of whether people are out, and what kind of pressures we’re under. Is it safe for us to be out in the world? Are there supportive people in our lives, or are we isolated? Especially for teens and people who are financially dependent on relatives due to disability or student status or just the current crappy economy, would being out to our families be safe for us? What would happen if we were outed? Are we being harassed at school or at work? Are there other religious or cultural issues having an impact here?

Are we having issues with a family member who is uninsured because our families aren’t recognized? What about other issues around lack of official status?

Are we being abused by a partner we can’t out?

These are questions I can’t imagine being asked at my doctor’s office, and as a white cis woman with a professional job I know there are a ton of other things I am missing. I am really interested in what other LGBT folks’ experiences of going to the doctor are like, and what improvements in care you would like to see.


the other side of jury duty

For the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I am going to write about one of the most important ways that you as an individual can help ensure a more just society: jury duty.

In spring of 2001 I was arrested for being at the scene of a demonstration. Since I hadn’t done anything, I refused the plea bargain – I was hardly going to pay them $100 to have a conviction follow me around forever – and the police pressed charges against me, which no one thought would come to anything because it was all a lot of nothing.

And then one morning in September, everything changed. I took the bus to work and found out that downtown was being evacuated. When I arrived, we turned on the TV and watched in shock as the planes flew into the buildings.

The rising tide of nationalism in the days and weeks that followed amped up my fear. Would I get a fair trial? Would my jury convict me out of displaced anger? Would my prosecutor, already a vindictive man, try to charge me with something else?

My trial was two months later. My judge was a former police officer who didn’t like people who challenged authority and really didn’t like that I was going to sue the police for abuse, so I was really glad that I’d opted for a jury trial instead of a bench trial. Generally if you’re a defendant and you’re not a cop, you want a jury trial, because a jury will be more sympathetic.

I sat at the table with my attorney while she tried to pick the people who could hear my case fairly and sympathetically. We had to dismiss a few people who said something along the lines of that they couldn’t respect the process or couldn’t be fair to the defense, and one young man who told the attorneys, shaking like a leaf, that he needed to get out of there because he’d been a victim of police abuse too and couldn’t sit through it. In the end, we got a group of people that we weren’t totally thrilled with but who we thought could maybe get through it.

During jury selection my prosecutor started bringing up September 11 and tried to turn my trial from minor misdemeanors into unamerican activities. After a little bit of this, the judge made him stop doing it overtly, but the signal was sent: my prosecutor felt that nationalism compelled a guilty verdict, regardless of the evidence.

My trial took three weeks. When my attorney got to present her defense, I had to testify. We went through everything that had happened that day, and I had to relive the trauma. And then the prosecutor got to cross-examine me, which means he spent two hours trying to trip me up and make me say things I didn’t mean and admit that everything was actually all my fault.

When it finally wrapped up, the judge instructed the jury about what they had to determine and what the law was. I had no idea what they were thinking, since one of the most basic rules of this is that they could have no contact with me or with the attorneys. Apparently there were two men on the jury who felt that it would be patriotic to convict me and they refused to deliberate. My other jurors convinced them to acquit on the only serious charge, and then hung rather than giving in on the others.

So in six months I got to do it again, down to one minor charge, but sitting through the whole horrible mess a second time and with even more abuse from the prosecutor, who was still trying to ride the wave of nationalism and convict me for something, anything, so I couldn’t sue the police.

The second time I was cleared.

I do not know the names of my jurors, but I can never thank them enough. Even with the few who didn’t want to clear me initially, having decent people on my jury kept me from having to go to prison for something I didn’t do. I don’t know where I would be now or how I would be handling things if not for my jurors.

I wish I could pay this forward. I’ve never been summoned and the odds of me being seated are like Han navigating that asteroid field, but that doesn’t diminish my desire. So having been through all of this myself, and knowing that the process was easier on me than it is on many people who do not have the same privileges as I do and for whom so much more is at stake, it cuts me to the bone when people dis on jury duty.

People talk about how much they don’t want to do it. They talk about what you have to say to get out of it, or how jury duty is for people who can’t figure out how to get out of it, stupid people, since the system is stupid.

I’ll be the first in line to say that the system is often stupid and it messes up a lot of things and there’s a lot of injustice, but when you’re called for jury duty, you have a palpable, direct chance to change that. Jury duty is not a random punishment but a civil right, a right that earlier in American history was overtly denied to women and people of color and even now is too often denied quietly with peremptory challenges couched in code. One of the key issues in the Civil Rights Movement was the right to sit on a jury. It’s the right to participate in civic life, to contribute, to help ensure in whatever small way possible that justice is done, to build a world where people are convicted based on evidence and not because the jury can’t relate to their lives or is too pumped up with nationalistic rage or isn’t able to understand the impacts of institutionalized discrimination or doesn’t feel like deliberating or whatever.

The right to sit on a jury is the right to do something besides sit back and shake your head when you see a bad verdict.

It’s the opportunity to give a good verdict. It’s the opportunity to keep someone out of prison.

It could be the most important thing you ever do in your life.


Corrections to why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea

This is what it sounds like: corrections to my prior post, why drug testing people who are applying for assistance is a bad idea.

I recently learned that I may have been incorrect regarding the constitutionality of this measure and of drug testing in general. I stand by what I said about it being a bad policy idea for all of the other reasons I cited, but if I’m wrong about the law I will attempt to correct it.

I originally said:

The legal argument: This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. There is no probable cause to justify a search here. This is just stripping away the rights of people who are too poor to protest. It is unconstitutional. I think this is the only thing that needs to be said, but apparently not.

However, I looked up the case law and found the ACLU page on Drug Testing of Public Assistance Recipients as a Condition of Eligibility, which makes many of the arguments I’ve made but with more research and better examples. It cites to one case, Marchwinski v. Howard, which went through a couple of appeals:

The district court ruled in September 2000, that the testing program violated the recipients’ Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. While the court conceded that testing welfare recipients for drugs is a “laudable and understandable” means to address substance abuse as a barrier to employment, that goal is not a sufficient “special need” to warrant drug testing.

The judge interpreted prior case law as authorizing drug testing only if public safety is at stake, and that there wasn’t sufficient concern about child abuse to say that this was a public safety issue. She also pointed out that the way it was set up, it could be used to test anyone who was receiving public benefits or anyone who has children, which is really a huge number of people.

On appeal a 3-judge panel decided that the drug testing program didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment, reasoning that because no one is constitutionally entitled to welfare benefits the conditions for receiving them are voluntarily accepted by the recipient. But this opinion was vacated, and when the case was reheard there was a tie vote and that meant they had to go with the previous decision, that it was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment right against search and seizure.

There is no Supreme Court decision on the case. So I believe my original point was right, at least for now.

In the part about drug testing for work, I had said:

But I had to get drug tested for my job!: The actions of a private company are not the same as the actions of a governing body administering an entitlement program. It’s also bullshit for your employer to piss-test you unless having clean piss is part of the job itself, but that’s not covered by the Constitution. Learn the difference between public and private.

I checked out the ACLU website again, and found that whether teachers can be drug tested is still being hotly debated. I stuck with teachers as my example since there’s a lot of debate about drug testing them and information was easy to find.

A North Carolina court held that suspicionless drug testing of all school employees violated the North Carolina Constitution, and the school couldn’t just say that teachers were all in safety-sensitive positions. This is a quiet way of saying that using drugs at all is not the same as using drugs in a way that interferes with your job.

A federal court in Louisiana issued a consent decree ending a policy that required any teacher who suffered an injury on the job to submit to a drug test. This policy was obviously messed up since the case here focuses around a woman who was forced to take a drug test after a student punched her.

There’s a case going on in Hawaii over drug testing of teachers. I’m not clear if it’s been resolved, but what it looks like is that Governor Lingle wanted to drug test the teachers, and her super awesome plan to pay for this was to cut services and programs for students. The school board felt that this was a bad idea and said no.

The governor and other people responded not by producing the money, but with the typical Orwellian argument that people who aren’t doing anything wrong have nothing to hide. However, piss tests reveal a whole lot of sensitive information other than merely whether a person is using (some) drugs, such as various health conditions including pregnancy status and what medications someone is taking, and having to divulge this information is at best a violation of privacy rights and at worst could lose someone their job for other reasons.

In West Virginia in 2009, a federal court permanently blocked random suspicionless drug testing of teachers:

The Court had previously halted the drug testing policy in an order issued January 8, 2009, which held that the constitutional right to privacy outweighs the government’s interest in drug testing virtually all public school employees without cause – particularly in light of the government’s inability to document a single instance where student safety had been impacted by employee drug use.

The one Supreme Court decision I can find on point, Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association, states that random drug testing of public employees in “safety sensitive” positions is okay. But it is clear that this is about safety sensitive positions, like… operating a train.

There is not a clear ruling that I can find about the constitutionality of drug testing teachers and other government employees who are not in safety-sensitive positions. It looks like the push is that it is an unreasonable invasion of privacy.

In conclusion I have to update what I said previously, because I was wrong. It is still the case that your private employer can drug test you at their whim, and there can be required drug tests for some government jobs for reasons having to do with physical safety because the safety concerns override the Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search. The jobs that require tests or are allowed to require tests are the exception rather than the default, and in general it is coming to be accepted that you cannot be tested without these substantial safety concerns but we are not quite there yet. So there is a gap between public and private, but it is not as wide or certain as I had originally written.