NEWARK, NJ — In the spring of 2018, Amazon fever hit New Jersey hard.

After the company announced its was looking for a city to place its new, $5 billion headquarters in, rallying cries began to sound across New Jersey on all sides of the political spectrum, each clamoring for the retail giant to bring its 50,000 new jobs to the Garden State.

Newark – which made the list of 20 finalist cities – ultimately lost its bid to land Amazon H2Q. But meanwhile, the buzz in New Jersey about working at Amazon picked up steam when the company announced that it was raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour, and that it planned to bring 9,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs to the state.

However, according to a recently released report from a coalition of labor activists calling themselves Warehouse Workers Stand Up, the jobs that Amazon is bringing to New Jersey may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

In fact, the group claims, some of them are downright dangerous.

The activists pointed to the tragic death of 57-year old Roland Smith, who was dragged and crushed by a conveyor belt at an Amazon warehouse in Avenel in 2013, as an example of what can go wrong on the job.

“Warehouse workers perform at breakneck speed under grueling, exploitative and often unsafe conditions that have resulted in injury and, in some cases, death,” Warehouse Workers Stand Up alleged in a report released earlier this week. (Read the full report here)

Amazon spokespeople have lambasted the report as being riddled with inaccuracies, and have claimed that the safety and economic well-being of the company’s associates is its number one priority. (Read Amazon’s full statement below)

“We are proud of our focus on safety, employee engagement, open-door communication culture and industry leading benefits,” a spokesperson told Patch on Thursday. “We encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centers.”

Amazon’s presence in the Garden State is enormous, according to Warehouse Workers Stand Up. The company operates several facilities in New Jersey totaling millions of square feet. Overall, Amazon operates more warehouse distribution centers in New Jersey than any other company, making it one of the largest employers in the state.

It’s not just Amazon that is reliant on New Jersey’s warehouse industry, the coalition pointed out. Target operates an e-commerce facility in Perth Amboy. Best Buy has a distribution warehouse in Piscataway.

It’s a changing landscape, workers say.

“Since Amazon got big, around ten years ago, our work has changed a lot,” said Geneva Collins, a longtime warehouse worker at Macy’s logistics in Secaucus. “The company uses more part-timers, seasonal workers, even temps. When I started, these were all full-time jobs. These jobs are so different today for young people who come looking for work.”

While employees at Amazon’s warehouses in New Jersey will see a pay increase to $15 per hour, that wage boost can be quickly eroded by “erratic, unpredictable schedules,” the group claims.

At the same time, other warehouse workers “in Amazon’s New Jersey supply chain” will not be part of the much-publicized pay bump to $15, the group said.

For example, warehouse workers at Freeze Central Mills regularly pack products to be sent to Amazon customers, but they aren’t eligible for a $15 per hour wage because they are not “direct employees of Amazon,” the activists claimed.

“In the warehouse where I work, we even had to go on strike simply to force the company to bring up the salaries to $10 and $11 an hour,” said a longtime worker at the Freeze warehouse in Dayton, New Jersey, who asked not to be named in the report. “We don’t have a proper medical plan either.”

The employee said that the facility does “a lot of work” for Amazon.

“The state of New Jersey is filling up with warehouse distribution centers,” he said. “But most workers don’t even have permanent jobs. Warehouse workers need and deserve to work in dignity, with permanent jobs, decent pay, fair benefits and the right to organize with a union… It’s about time that the state of New Jersey pays attention.”

Warehouse Workers Stand Up spokespeople said that the group conducted “candid, anonymous interviews” about what it was like to be employed at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey.

Some quotes from the report include:

Nationwide, seven Amazon workers have died in accidents at Amazon warehouses since 2013, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health said.

Coincidentally, the Warehouse Workers Stand Up report came out a week after dozens of Amazon warehouse workers in Robbinsville, New Jersey were sickened by a can of bear repellent.

Story continues below video.

AMAZON: ‘COME SEE FOR YOURSELF’

Warehouse Workers Stand Up proposed a “Code of Conduct” for New Jersey warehouses, which can be seen in full here.

There’s just one problem, Amazon spokespeople told Patch… the company already follows most of the group’s suggestions to the letter.

“Amazon already provides each of the items suggested, including our $15 hourly minimum wage across the U.S., which in New Jersey ranges from $15 to $18.15. We also offer industry leading benefits, including comprehensive healthcare from day one, prepaid education through Career Choice, and up to 20 weeks paid parental leave. We are proud of our focus on safety, employee engagement, open door communication culture and industry leading benefits. We encourage anyone to compare our compensation, benefits, and workplace to other retailers, and to come take a tour and see for yourself through our public fulfillment center tours.”

Amazon provided the following list of rebuttals to the Warehouse Workers Stand Up report.

“A living wage, including a wage floor of $15/h” – Earlier this year, Amazon announced that the company would be increasing our minimum wage to $15 for all Amazon employees – full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal. The wage went into effective November 1 and benefits more than 250,000 Amazon employees, as well as over 100,000 seasonal employees, and the more than 16,000 employees across the state of New Jersey. Amazon’s $15 minimum wage is on top of our industry-leading benefits – including comprehensive healthcare on day 1, up to 20-weeks paid parental leave, and Amazon’s innovative Career Choice program, which prepays 95% of tuition for courses in high-demand fields.

“Fair scheduling with predictable hours” – Amazon employees tell us they love the flexible shift options, where full-time employees work four days on, three days off. Employees work 10 hour shifts, with paid breaks throughout the day. We also offer part-time opportunities. Employees are prohibited by law from working more than 60 hours per week. Our team follows all state employment laws, and therefore we are staying below that figure. Overtime depends on the department and the requests are short-term during this time of year. Many employees see Peak as the time of year to make extra money through overtime and they welcome the opportunities to take on leadership roles.

“Regular, full-time employment” – Throughout the year, the majority of Amazon employees are regular, full-time employees. In New Jersey, Amazon employs more than 16,000 full-time employees, with our industry-leading benefits starting on day one.

“No misuse of temporary workers” – As a way of finding high-quality permanent employees and to manage variation in customer demand, we also employ seasonal associates. Seasonal employees at Amazon start at $15 an hour, and receive industry-leading benefits.

“Affordable, quality health care” – In addition to the $15 minimum wage, full-time Amazon employees are eligible for comprehensive benefits, starting on day one, including healthcare, vision, dental, 401(k) with 50 percent match and a network of support to help employees succeed. Employees also receive generous maternity and family leave benefits including up to 20 weeks of paid leave, a flexible Ramp Back Program and our Leave Share Program that allows employees the ability to share their paid leave with their spouse or partner. Amazon offers hourly employees innovative programs like Career Choice, where the company will prepay up to 95 percent of tuition for courses related to in-demand fields, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon.

“Reasonable paid time off, paid sick days” – Amazon has a range of initiatives to support our people if they become ill at home or at work and we recently extended these to include improved on-site support. We recognize that there are times someone cannot come to work, even if they want to. If someone is ill, we want to help them get back to work when they are able to safely do so. Associates have multiple ways of managing their needs for time off, including both paid time (vacation and personal/sick) as well as unpaid time off. If exceptions are needed, associates can speak with their managers to find solutions.

“A safe workplace” – The top priority of our fulfillment center network is safety. Amazon has created more than 130,000 jobs in the last year alone and now employees over 575,000 people around the world. Ensuring the safety of these associates is our number one priority. Operational meetings, new hire orientation, process training and new process development begin with safety and have safety metrics and audits integrated within each program. We expect our leadership to continually improve the safety results of their operations by reducing physical risk through the design of processes, equipment and work areas, applying high standards of safety performance each day, improving capabilities through training and coaching using rigorous management reporting systems to track and audit their progress. We have also launched the Safety Leadership Index across our U.S. operations where every associate is surveyed through our Connections Program answering a series of questions each month to measure the perception of safety in their facility. Each of these safety programs and measures apply to everyone working in our facilities — full time, part time, seasonal, and temporary. While any serious incident is one too many, we learn and improve our programs working to prevent future incidents. We are proud of safety record and thousands of Amazonians work hard every day innovating ways to make it even better. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves by taking a tour at one of our fulfillment centers.

“Respect workers’ right to have a say in their working conditions through union representation” – Amazon associates are the heart and soul of our operations, and we respect employees’ right to choose to join or not join a labor union. Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We use our Connections program to ask associates a question every day about how we can make things even better. It is one of many ways associates can provide us with direct feedback. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.

“Reasonable productivity quotas” – Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it corporate employee or fulfillment center associate and we measure actual performance against those expectations. Associate performance is measured and evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations in any given day or hour. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.

“A fair grievance process” – Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution.

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NJ WAREHOUSES: ‘WHO BENEFITS?’

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka – previously one of the state’s biggest proponents of bringing Amazon H2Q to the city – blasted the company in the wake of the Robbinsville bear repellent incident.

“Warehouse workers in New Jersey employed by Amazon and other companies are not receiving the fair treatment they deserve,” said Baraka, adding that “countless items” which New Jersey’s warehouse workers pack and ship to e-commerce customers go through the Port of Newark every day.

“The recent bear spray incident that injured numerous employees in an Amazon warehouse in Robbinsville clearly shows that warehouse workers need greater protections,” Baraka said. “I strongly support the effort to improve workplace conditions and raise job standards in New Jersey’s warehouse distribution centers. I am in favor of requiring warehouse distribution center developers and operators who seek local Newark subsidies and public land to ensure a living wage, safe working conditions and the ability to organize free of intimidation.”

Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz said that New Jersey is home to a growing number of warehouse distribution centers operated by Amazon and other companies.

“Many warehouse workers are immigrants who earn low-wages and struggle to find decent-paying jobs with full-time schedules and benefits,” Diaz said. “They are under enormous pressure to meet rising demands for faster packaging and shipping of products for Amazon and other e-commerce businesses.”

“Whenever warehouse distribution centers receive taxpayer-funded incentive packages in Perth Amboy or elsewhere in New Jersey, they should be required to implement a code of conduct,” Diaz continued. “Our public dollars should not subsidize companies that mistreat or exploit warehouse workers.”

Debra Coyle McFadden, executive director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, said that it’s time for the state to question “who is benefiting” from the thriving warehouse industry.

“When working conditions are unreasonably hot or freezing cold, when workers are passing out on the job, or being taken to the hospital, and when wages are so low and schedules so erratic that earners can’t even take care of themselves, then our state suffers as a whole,” McFadden said.

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Photo: City of Newark

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