Many, if not all of us have had bad days at work. It’s making a living, not making margaritas, right? Maybe your boss has wanted something unreasonable done, or a client has suddenly and unexpectedly really needed your deliverable by EoD. Most of us, however, haven’t had a work day as bad as one Amazon driver: Forced to, potentially, choose between her living and her life.
On December 10th, a tornado demolished an Amazon fulfillment center in Edwardsville, IL. One driver, out making deliveries in the tornado’s path, heard warnings on the radio and relayed them to her dispatcher. Then she heard the sirens. Then she heard that returning to the distribution center would cost her her job. Bloomberg obtained, and verified, a series of texts between the driver and dispatcher:
Driver: Radios been going off.
Dispatch: OK. Just keep driving. We can’t just call people back for a warning unless Amazon tells us to do so.
Driver: Just relaying in case y’all didn’t hear it over there.
Driver: Tornado alarms are going off over here.
Dispatch: Just keep delivering for now. We have to wait for word from Amazon. If we need to bring people back, the decision will ultimately be up to them. I will let you know if the situation changes at all. I’m talking with them now about it.
Driver: How about for my own personal safety, I’m going to head back. Having alarms going off next to me and nothing but locked building around me isn’t sheltering in place. That’s wanting to turn this van into a casket. Hour left of delivery time. And if you look at the radar, the worst of the storm is going to be right on top of me in 30 minutes.
Driver: It was actual sirens.
Dispatch: “If you decided to come back, that choice is yours. But I can tell you it won’t be viewed as for your own safety. The safest practice is to stay exactly where you are. If you decide to return with your packages, it will be viewed as you refusing your route, which will ultimately end with you not having a job come tomorrow morning. The sirens are just a warning.
Driver: I’m literally stuck in this damn van without a safe place to go with a tornado on the ground.
Dispatch: Amazon is saying shelter in place.
Dispatch: I will know when they say anything else to me.
Dispatch: [Driver name] you need to shelter in place. The wind just came through the warehouse and ripped the rts door and broke it so even if you got back here, you can’t get in the building. You need to stop and shelter in place.
A spokesperson for Amazon has said that the dispatcher “didn’t follow the standard safety practice,” and that “Under no circumstance should the dispatcher have threatened the driver’s employment.”
An informed reading, however, shows that the dispatcher may not have been threatening to fire the driver. They may merely have been referring to Amazon’s well-known automated employee management tools, and how those would view a series of failed deliveries.
The CDC’s guidelines for tornadoes, shockingly, do not include the phrase “sit it out in a van and then continue working like nothing happened.” In fact, they say (in bold letters) “Do not stay in a mobile home.” A van may not be a mobile home, but other motor vehicles aren’t’ better: “If you are in a car, do not try to outrun a tornado but instead find the nearest sturdy building.”
Amazon’s drivers have long struggled with even basic dignity on the job. This, however, appears to be a new low: A willingness to sacrifice a driver’s life rather than let her packages go undelivered.