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Many of these seasonal hires come through Integrity Staffing Solutions, a Delaware-based temp firm. Many companies choose to outsource shipping work to so-called third-party logistics providers, which in turn contract the work to staffing companies. The temp model also extends far beyond retail. If you don't have it, it sends costs way up. The justices ruled unanimously in Integrity's favor. For employers, the appeal of this system is obvious.
It allows companies to meet demand while keeping their permanent workforce at a minimum, along with all the costs that go with it—payroll taxes, benefits, workers' compensation costs and certain legal liabilities. For employees, though, it means showing up to work every day with the knowledge that you are always disposable. You are at least one entity removed from the company where you work, and you are only as good as your last recorded input in a computerized performance monitoring system.
In the event that something goes wrong in your life—illness, injury, a family crisis—you have few, if any, protections. And yet for Americans like Jeff, this precarious existence now represents one of the only remaining potential paths to a middle-class life. Jeff Lockhart took a warehouse temp job because it was the best opportunity he could find.
The two dated for a while—Jeff even gave her a promise ring—but later drifted apart. After high school, Jeff hoped to make a career in electronics, and left for Ohio to get a degree at DeVry, the for-profit college. He wound up returning to Virginia with student debt and few job prospects. Unemployment in Petersburg is high—the jobless rate is still over 9 percent.
First, Jeff loaded pastries onto trucks for a vending company. Later, he landed a job at a building supply store where his father worked. He and Di-Key reconnected in their early 20s. The two made a striking couple—a tall, imposing white guy and his petite African-American girlfriend. But after she and Jeff got together, they slowly started to build a more secure life. Di-Key worked a series of jobs in retail and office cleaning, and Jeff stayed on at the building supply store. Then, not long after the housing crash, the building supply store closed down, and both Jeff and his father lost their jobs.
Jeff went on unemployment and started hunting for work with his usual dedication. But callbacks were hard to come by. Jeff helped his father run a kettle corn concession stand, while Di-Key baked and sold cakes for birthdays and weddings, finding customers through word-of-mouth and Facebook. He had always taken a lot of pride in providing for his family, and after months of fruitless searching, he became anxious and depressed. He got up later and spent more time hanging around the house.
Something he can work his way up. The arrival of an Amazon warehouse in Chester felt a bit like the opening of a Ford plant might have a century earlier. At the time, Amazon was aggressively expanding its logistics network to speed up delivery to customers. Jeff interviewed at Integrity's local office, which is sandwiched between a Papa John's and a nail salon.
Job seekers had to pass a background check and be willing to work overtime. By all accounts, Jeff viewed the job as an audition for a permanent position with Amazon. Over the past year and a half, I interviewed more than 50 current and former temporary and full-time Amazon warehouse workers from around the country. Most of the temp workers I spoke with said they were told that if they performed well, there was a decent chance Amazon would hire them full-time.
For temps hired outside of peak, the probability of converting was reasonably high, many workers said. But many of the temps hired for the busy season told me they lost their jobs with little or no notice. Within the warehouse, a quiet caste system separated the Integrity temps from the full-timers. Integrity workers technically answer to Integrity managers and receive Integrity paychecks. Amazon employees receive basic benefits , but the temps typically said they did not. Integrity says it offers health care coverage in line with the Affordable Care Act, as well as other supplemental insurance plans, though for many temps the cost of participating would likely have represented a sizeable portion of their wages.
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There were other differences, too. Integrity will not. Amazon will give you time to work up to your rate. Integrity will ride you until you get to your rate. It is a lot easier to lose your job with Integrity. After surviving most of the cutbacks, Jeff told friends and family that he would soon be wearing a blue badge. He hadn't gotten an official offer, but he was confident it was coming soon.
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Around Christmas, he put a deposit down on a customized cane for Kelton. The handle of the cane would be carved to look like the head of Kelton's favorite comic-book character, Spiderman. It was the kind of small indulgence that seemed newly within reach.
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Whoever found Jeff on the third floor apparently alerted Amcare, Amazon's in-house medical team, which is staffed with EMTs and other medical personnel. In the event of a health issue, Amazon instructs workers to notify security before calling emergency services. Do Not call ! Tell Security the nature of the medical emergency and location.
He began performing CPR and put Jeff on an electronic defibrillator, a device that can save a life during cardiac events when deployed quickly. Di-Key got a call from Integrity telling her Jeff had been taken to the hospital, where she was met by a manager. At a. I learned about it through public records requests for safety investigations of Amazon facilities. The aisle where Jeff collapsed. Photo from the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry. The examiner found no prior documentation of an irregular heartbeat, although there was a "verbal report" of one during a physical Jeff received at a previous job, according to the autopsy.
There is no evidence his size was a factor though the examination shows that he had an unusually large heart. This condition, known to sometimes kill young athletes in the middle of competition , causes the heart to beat out of rhythm, frequently during strenuous activity.
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The disease is often genetic and is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in people under Still, even if Jeff did suffer from the condition, he could have died from it at any time. Mike Roth, vice president of North American operations for Amazon, said the company ensures employees are working at a safe pace.
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If an employee has a medical condition, Integrity says it will allow for more frequent breaks or lifting restrictions. Still, she said, some workers were clearly unprepared for the pace. You are going to crawl into bed and pray you can get out in the morning.
In , the Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, published an extensive report on the physical pressures inside an Amazon warehouse in Lehigh Valley. One worker told officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that 15 people had collapsed in a single day. The local fire and EMS department had dispatched personnel to its address at least 34 times during that period, according to data obtained through a public records request.
In its first two and a half years of operation, more than calls were placed to , many of them for patients in their 20s and 30s. The most common issues cited were difficulty breathing, chest pains, cardiac problems, spells of unconsciousness or other undefined illnesses. The frequency of calls tended to climb during peak season. Amazon and Integrity say the vast majority of emergency calls are prompted by existing health issues. The EMS dispatch reports do suggest that some people may have been trying to work while ill. During the peak season of , a year-old woman was experiencing stomach pains and vomiting.
In another case, the Amcare clinic appeared to be understaffed. Amcare was tending to a year-old woman who was between 24 and 36 weeks pregnant with twins. She'd been in labor pain for 20 minutes, and the dispatcher apparently asked Amcare to take her to the front entrance. Tim Taylor, a staff trainer at the warehouse, was working on the first floor when Jeff collapsed. He said he saw warehouse personnel take Jeff off the freight lift on a cart. They worked the same hours and both liked to detail cars in their spare time.
Sometimes, they got breakfast after work and discussed what Jeff needed to do to earn a full-time position. When we talked, Taylor was on temporary leave after having back surgery, although he said his problems had nothing to do with his warehouse work. A grief counselor was made available. Amazon and Integrity say they notified employees immediately, though at least one employee told me he never heard a formal announcement.
Hicks found this advice impractical.