When we last checked in with Amazon warehouse workers in November 2015, the consensus was that life as an employee at one of the company’s 110 domestic fulfillment centers was physically challenging but financially rewarding. On their feet for most of the day, these “Amazonians” (the company’s term for workers) receive, stock, sort, pick, pack, ship, and problem-solve the hundreds of thousands of items carried by the e-tailer in massive facilities between 600,000 and 800,000 square feet in size. Each can employ over 1500 full-time associates.
These days, the pay is going up. Amazon recently announced hourly raises between 50 cents and $3 for 500,000 warehouse workers and other fulfillment jobs, adding to the existing minimum starting wage of $15. Employees generally agree that if you don’t mind some manual labor, you can find benefits—just not Prime benefits—inside these massive buildings.
For more on the job, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former employees. Here’s what they had to say about working with robots, finding time to pee, and the overall experience of what social media has dubbed “Amazon vest life.”
1. Amazon warehouse employees handle a lot of sex toys.
Amazon prides itself on being the “everything store,” and they mean it. Kyle, a picker who grabs items from inventory to prepare for shipping, tells Mental Floss that adult novelty items are steady sellers. Such as? “Dildos,” he says. “Sex toys. I pull out a dozen every night. BDSM shibari straps. Stuff I’ve never seen or heard of.”
2. Amazon warehouse employees have robots for co-workers.
If you find some of your co-workers a little standoffish, be glad you’re not stationed in an Amazon warehouse. An increasing number of the sites are moving to automated robots to take the burden off pickers, who can walk up to 15 miles a day searching the cavernous buildings for ordered items. Massive machines dubbed Kivas reverse that task, bringing towering eight-foot pods full of items to a picker’s workstation after they’ve been loaded by employees known as stowers.
“The robots are bringing the pods, these tall yellow pods that are coded with bins,” Kyle says. “There are eight different levels and columns with hundreds of items. The pod has four sides and can weigh up to 750 pounds. Before it comes to your station, it’s facing you with the side that has the item. If it has to turn, it will move, come back, and rotate.”
Kyle says proficient pickers who meet a quota can sometimes get their name on a robot. But that would require picking roughly 5000 items in one 10-hour shift.
3. Amazon warehouse employees can never, ever get in the way of the robots.
If the idea of a robot carrying nearly a half-ton of products while traveling at 20 mph sounds dangerous, it could be. According to Donald, a warehouse employee trained in packing and stowing, it’s forbidden for anyone but trained robot technicians to walk into the path of the motoring machines.
“There have been times [when] something falls on the robotics floor, and only a trained person can go retrieve the item from the floor,” he tells Mental Floss. “If someone who is not trained reaches or steps out onto the robotics floor, you are instantly terminated, no matter what role you play … it is a serious safety violation.”
Fortunately, robotics workers have a protective tech vest with built-in sensors to help negate the chances of a collision. “The robotic tech vest is a specialized vest worn by trained staff,” Donald says. “The vest tells the robots on the Amazon robotics floor that they are out on the floor and pretty much communicates with the robots so that the person doesn’t get run over. The robots will not stop for anything unless a person is on the floor with a robotics tech vest.”
4. Amazon warehouse employees have vending machines that dispense medication.
Working at an Amazon warehouse can be physically challenging, with lots of bending, lifting, and moving. As a result, their vending machines offer more than just candy bars and potato chips. “We have no-cost medical vending machines,” Alex, a packer at an Amazon warehouse, tells Mental Floss. “They hold individual dosage packets of things like Advil, Tylenol, Tums. I've used them before when I ran out of my own stash that I bring in my bag, and they come in handy.”
Amazon also maintains a nurse’s station dubbed AMCARE (Amazon Cares) for anything requiring medical attention. “People would go there for headaches, pulled muscles, cuts, etc.,” Alex says. “It's basically like the nurse’s office in school.”
5. Amazon warehouse employees can read your gift notes.
Packers—employees who prepare items for shipping—are the ones responsible for printing out gift notes and putting them into the packages. And it's very possible for them to catch a glimpse of what they say. “We have a gift note printer for any item that includes one that we have to grab and then toss in the box,” Alex says. “I don't read them, though. For one, I don't have time to stop and read if I'm going to hit rate, but also I feel like it's rude. I know others do.”
Alex did catch one, though. “The only interesting story I have on that—and it's probably only interesting to me—was a gift receipt for a toilet plunger. No note, just a receipt.”
6. Amazon warehouse employees keep a digital manager with them at all times.
Many roles in an Amazon warehouse are directed by a handheld scanner dubbed a Zebra, which can tell workers what items need to be retrieved and can also inform supervisors how busy an employee is. If the scanner catches them slacking, they can be automatically reported. “The scanner brings the alert to a manager, and the manager would do the writing up,” Robert, a picker who worked at an Amazon Fresh warehouse in 2020, tells Mental Floss. “But it’s based on the data the scanner is feeding them. There are different programs. They watch to see how the process is flowing. The manager will look to see if there’s a bottleneck.”
7. Amazon warehouse employees don’t get to decide how your order gets packed.
If you’ve ever wondered how a box of protein bars winds up in a soft envelope or why a small item gets packed in an oversized box, so do many employees. “When we scan an item, we get a notification on our screen telling us which box size or envelope size to use,” Alex says. “If the chosen box [or] envelope won't work for the item, we can override it and choose a better one, but too many overrides goes against our [packing] rate … so we are supposed to only do that if we have to.”
Third-party sellers may choose how items get packed, saving money on boxes, or may opt to pack the items themselves, bypassing packers entirely.
Alex adds that owing to employees meeting quotas, they may opt to use a different box without making a note of it, or skip air pillows. If you find a strangely empty box, it’s probably because the packer wanted to keep things moving. “Doing that process as quick as Amazon wants is the key,” Alex says. “That's why you'll find packers who override box sizes but don't note it on the account, don't use dunnage [air pillows], or don't care that items are damaged when packing. I think that's a small percentage of packers, though.”
8. Amazon warehouse employees have some complaints about break times.
Because Amazon monitors activity, employees tend to adhere pretty strictly to the allotted 30-minute and 15-minute break periods. The problem, according to Kyle, is that these windows don’t account for the fact that it takes time to navigate the massive facility to get to a break room, bathroom, or to the parking lot.
“When you take a break, you log out and are supposed to come back within 30 minutes, so there’s no more than 30 minutes between the last time you scanned an item and the next item,” Kyle says. “But the problem is it takes five to seven minutes to walk to your car or to the break room, so it’s not really a full 30-minute break.”
Taking a load off at your workstation, at least in Kyle’s warehouse, is off-limits. “You’re not allowed to sit on things at a station. There are no chairs provided. You can make chairs with totes or sit on the steps. I usually choose to go to my car.”
9. Some Amazon warehouse employees have to have a spotter.
According to Donald, working in the Trailer Docking and Releasing (TDR) area of a warehouse is a critical position. “Depending on the facility, the trailer yard can have anywhere from 20 to hundreds of trailers in them. [It] is an active yard, and safety precautions are a must,” Donald says. He explains that the TDR work, including the safety checklist, is done through a Kindle app. But one employee can't do it alone.
“You always need another person to go with you when you do TDRs because you need someone to be a spotter,” Donald says. “You enter a very active trailer yard, and while one person is doing the work on the Kindle, the other person is there to spot so that they do not get hit with a trailer or a truck. If you go into a trailer yard without a spotter, you are instantly terminated, as this is a severe safety hazard.”
10. Some Amazon warehouse employees have a countdown timer.
Like Jack Bauer in 24, some Amazon employees often have to deal with the tension of a timer counting down the seconds remaining to complete a task. “It’s called takt time,” Kyle says. “You’re supposed to grab an item within 6.5 seconds of an item appearing on the screen.” While it’s doable, Kyle says it’s possible to meet quota even if it’s a little slower. “You’re trying to keep up, but it’s more like 7.5 to eight seconds.” Kyle also says finding certain items can take as long as 30 seconds.
11. Amazon warehouse employees have competitions.
In order to boost morale and productivity, Amazon fulfillment centers promote timed competitions to see who can excel at a task like picking. Though the name varies by location, some facilities call it Power Hour or King of the Hill. “We have pick competitions, where you pick a certain amount of items in a certain amount of time,” Kyle says. “They give you Amazon Bucks, or Swag Bucks, that you can turn in for [Amazon] gear.”
The reward, according to Kyle, isn’t worth the additional effort. “I ignore [competitions] now. It’s not worth it to get $1 off.”
12. Amazon warehouse employees are kind of annoyed when you order kitty litter.
Although robots are doing the heavy lifting, dragging large items from the pods can be difficult. Kyle says heavy pet items are particularly troublesome. “Most people hate kitty litter or dog food, bulky items like that,” he says. “They’re hard to handle.”
13. Amazon warehouse employees can find the work pretty isolating.
Depending on the position—and state of the pandemic—Amazon workers can find themselves going for long periods of time without talking to anyone else. “You see managers during the first couple weeks of training,” Kyle says. “But [then] you won’t have much interaction except on breaks. Even then, it’s limited.”
That's not necessarily a bad thing for some. “I just want a job that I can punch in and out and make good money,” Alex says. “And preferably not have to interact with a bunch of people socially. Amazon gives me that.”
14. Amazon warehouse employees hear some Japanese.
According to Robert, Amazon has embraced certain tenets of Japanese logistics—so much so that words like andon (a processing mistake) and gemba (the worksite) are utilized in the fulfillment centers. “It’s part of their management philosophy,” Robert says. “It was new to me. I looked up the terms. They were from Japanese logistics ideas … When you’re new, none of it gets explained.”
15. No, Amazon warehouse employees do not get Amazon Prime for free.
For all the shipping they facilitate, there’s no free two-day shipping for warehouse employees. According to Kyle, a free Amazon Prime membership isn’t offered. “We do get a $100 a year discount code for items sold directly by Amazon,” he says.
16. Amazon warehouse employees have a mascot.
His name is Peccy, and he’s available on pins given to employees as a reward for things like perfect attendance. The amorphous orange blob (above) was apparently named for Amazon’s self-described peculiar business strategies and has become a hit among employees. “He’s the Amazon mascot,” Kyle says. “I collect [the pins]. I guess that’s an incentive.”