11. March 2019 - 189 calls were made from 46 sites, raising new questions about working conditions. One ex-employee said ‘breakdowns [are] a regular occurrence’ at Amazon.
by Max Zahn, Sharif Paget
Operator: Lebanon Police and Fire, where’s your emergency?
Caller: Hi, I’m at 500 Duke Drive in Lebanon, so it’s the Amazon building. I’ve got an associate threatening suicide, she has very specific plans and has shown scratches more than anything on her arms but she’s trying to leave the building. She needs medical help, we can’t keep her here.
Operator: Police dispatch
Caller: Yes, hi, I wanted to see if we could get an officer out to the Amazon facility. I have an associate who had written a suicide letter to her children that was discovered on her today.
Caller: Hey this is Chris, loss prevention Amazon, how you doing?
Operator: Good how are you?
Caller: Not too bad, I need EMS to start our way please. I have a suicidal employee in one of our offices, he attempted to cut himself three or four times tonight. And he is willing to go with EMS.
Operator: OK, what did he attempt to cut himself with?
Caller: One of our safety box cutters.
Dozens and dozens of times over five years, calls were made from Amazon warehouses to 911 dispatchers about men and women on the brink.
There was the suicidal employee in Hebron, Kentucky, who police said “is pregnant and threatening the baby” in December 2016. The 22-year-old woman in Joliet, Illinois, who said she wanted to “stab herself in the stomach” that same month. And the young man who threatened to “jump from [the] second floor” of the warehouse in Chester, Virginia, in January 2015.
Between October 2013 and October 2018, emergency workers were summoned to Amazon warehouses at least 189 times for suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health episodes, according to 911 call logs, ambulance and police reports reviewed and analyzed by The Daily Beast.
The reports came from 46 warehouses in 17 states—roughly a quarter of the sorting and fulfillment centers that comprise the company’s U.S. network. Jurisdictions for other Amazon warehouses either did not have any suicide reports or declined requests for similar logs.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Amazon, founded by the now-richest man in the world, has long faced criticism about working conditions at its warehouses: the high-pressure pace, the stultifying boredom, the timed bathroom breaks, and the digital surveillance that monitors performance.
The 911 calls and police reports collected through open record requests are not evidence that Amazon staffers experience suicidal episodes more often than other American workers, in or out of a warehouse—but they do offer a visceral, real-time glimpse of employees on the edge.
• In Jacksonville, Florida, in December 2017, an older woman said “she was going to go home and kill herself” because she was being fired, according to a sheriff’s report. A supervisor saw her crying and hitting her head against a wall a couple times because she was being dismissed, and “did not have anything to live for.” She told a sheriff’s officer that she planned to cut her wrist with a butter knife, and previously had suicidal thoughts.
• In June 2018, police officers were sent to a warehouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, to help with a suicidal employee. The officers found the woman crying in the first aid office where she admitted that she wanted to kill herself, the police report says. “She mentioned wanting to use box cutters,” police wrote.
• At a warehouse in Etna, Ohio, in July 2018, a young man said, “With all the demands his employer has placed on him and things he’s dealing with in life [sic] is becoming too much and considering hurting himself,” a sheriff’s report says. The worker has been “with Amazon for over a year and is frustrated with his employment because he felt he was lied to by Amazon at his orientation. He keeps saying the company told him they valued his employment and would be treated as if he mattered and not just a number,” the report adds.
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“It’s this isolating colony of hell where people having breakdowns is a regular occurrence,” said Jace Crouch, a former employee at a warehouse in Lakeland, Florida, who had an emotional crisis on the job. It’s “mentally taxing to do the same task super fast for 10-hour shifts, four or five days a week.”
Some employees told The Daily Beast that they struggled with mental health issues before they began working for Amazon. But they believed the exacting work environment made them worse. And in some cases, after they were put on leave, they said they struggled to obtain promised compensation, received counseling they found insufficient or unaffordable, or were even fired.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Amazon said it values the health of its employees and suggested that the number of calls is an “overgeneralization” that “doesn’t take into account the total of our associate population, hours worked, or our growing network.”
“The physical and mental well-being of our associates is our top priority, and we are proud of both our efforts and overall success in this area,” the statement said.
“We provide comprehensive medical care starting on day one so employees have access to the care when they need it most, 24-hour a day free and confidential counseling services, and various leave and medical accommodation options covering both mental and physical health concerns.”
“Crack the whip, crack the whip”
The bins came one after another.
It was Nick Veasley’s job to count the items in each one and check the tally against a computer screen to make sure it matched Amazon’s inventory. As soon as he was done, a robot would place another bin in front him—and that’s how it went all night at the warehouse in Etna, Ohio.
Sometimes Veasley, 41, had to hop up a stepstool to count; sometimes he had to bend over, aggravating his knees and back. Either way, he had to count fast—hundreds of pieces an hour—or a manager tracking his progress in real time would prod him to hurry up. He only occasionally talked to coworkers, knowing a supervisor could track the impromptu break, and the warehouse was nearly silent, aside from the shuffling feet of coworkers and the sliding of bins.
The work was at once stressful and boring, so Veasley’s mind wandered: to the water and electric bills he couldn’t pay, the rent checks he owed, to the fiancée and daughter who depended on him. On Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, his thoughts took a dark turn: Killing himself might be a way out, from his problems and what he saw as the relentless pressure of his job.
It wasn’t the first time Veasley had thought about suicide. On his way to work that night, according to a police report, he’d wanted to drive his car off a cliff.
When Veasley started working at Amazon in December 2016, he said, he was thrilled to land the $14.50-an-hour job. “The job was a big deal,” he said. “It was good money, good benefits.”
But standing on his feet all day took a toll. His ankle started to hurt—badly. In February 2017 he went on medical leave for surgery, Amazon said. A snafu with the third party handling his paperwork cost him thousands in income, he said, and he fell behind on his bills. (Amazon disputes this, saying he was paid for his leave.)
“They were wanting money and things started getting shut off,” he said. “I was getting three-day notices on my door and my landlord saying pay this or get out.”
That’s when Veasley first began having suicidal thoughts. After he returned to Amazon in August 2017, it only got worse. The isolation, boredom, stress, and effort to recover leave pay plunged him deeper into depression, he said.
“I had so much on my mind that the quietness of standing in one spot and doing my job, would just let my mind run,” he said.
When Veasley spoke to human resources about how he was feeling, they seemed compassionate, he said. He was allowed to take a two-month leave, which came with a reduction in pay.
His second return to work, that winter, was no easier. “The quota, the boringness, everything,” he said. Managers, he said, acted as enforcers. “Do that, do this, do this,” he said. “Crack the whip, crack the whip, crack the whip.”
Another pressure point: Veasley suffers from irritable bowel syndrome and an intestinal disease called diverticulitis, which he said forced him to take frequent bathroom breaks to relieve pain.
He received two write-ups and was told that another violation could result in suspension or termination, he said. (Amazon called his account “highly unlikely,” saying managers work with HR to have a thorough conversation about “barriers” that lead associates to “accrue time off task.”) “Usually I can get myself out of a problem but I couldn’t do it working at Amazon,” Veasley said. “I felt like I had a thousand pounds wrapped around my ankle and it kept dragging me down and down and down, and there was no way out.”
After he told a guard about wanting to drive his car off a cliff, police were called and Veasley was taken to nearby Licking Memorial Hospital and then psychiatric ward, where he spent three days, he said. He blames Amazon for the ordeal.
“That place screwed me up so much it put me into a depression where I was actually on a 72-hour hold in a psych ward,” he said.
Amazon said it was “unfortunate” that Veasley feels that way. “Many employees will tell you they love their jobs and working in fulfillment centers,” it said in a statement.
It said performance goals are standard in the industry and that “we support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”
“As we would with any associate in need, we supported and attempted to help Nick get the treatment and support he needed and requested. We accommodated his requests, directly engaged with him to understand his needs, provided resources, including outside and emergent crisis intervention help to him. Even though in the end it did not work out for Nick at Amazon, we hope he has found success in his pursuits,” Amazon added.
“They treat us like robots”
Caller: Hi this is Greg, Loss Prevention Specialist with Amazon, calling to report that we have a suicidal person...
Operator: Ok what’s he said that’s made him suicidal?
Caller: His initial utterance is that he’d had thoughts of killing himself, he’s expressed two different plans that crossed his mind. One would be to go to a second or third story and throw himself off a balcony and he has also attempted and or thought of a plan of cutting his wrists.
The Daily Beast spoke to six current or former Amazon employees who had mental health crises that required emergency assistance at the warehouse. They said much of their at-work stress stemmed from the performance quota.
A former employee in Etna, Ohio, said that it was sometimes physically impossible to stay on pace. “Even if it isn’t your fault, they ignore any explanation that you could give.”
He was constantly fearful that he would receive citations for falling short. “Once you have enough write-ups, you’re out the door,” he said. “There goes your livelihood.”
“There was a constant sense of, ‘did I screw that up, did I screw that up, did I screw that up?” he said. “[It] stays with you and almost becomes a permanent anxiety.”
“They treat us like robots,” said another employee who was on leave after making a threat of suicide at a warehouse in Lebanon, Tennessee.
Some workers cited a stringent break policy. Managers flagged any lull in performance longer than a handful of minutes, Veasley said. Former employees who worked 12-hour shifts said they received two 30-minute breaks and a 15-minute break. But just walking across the massive warehouse ate up chunks of free time.
Crouch said he has struggled with depression for much of his life, which continued at Amazon. “It made it really hard for me to deal with that dehumanization at work,” he said. “I would come home, not talk to anyone, sit in bed, and cry.”
To be sure, not all the incidents at Amazon facilities were triggered by work-related issues.
A young woman who worked at the Jacksonville warehouse told a co-worker in February 2018 that she was suicidal over the loss of a friend.
An employee who had “multiple thoughts of killing himself throughout the day,” according to an August 2015 police report in Lakeland, told The Daily Beast that “nothing about Amazon was stressing me out.”
In some cases, emergency workers were called to Amazon facilities for people who were not workers. In September 2016, police went to a warehouse in Bellevue, Washington, to assist with an employee’s suicidal fiancée, who had used a saw to cut her leg, according to police.
“They need to interact to feel human”
The details in the emergency calls and police reports follow a long series of reports about conditions in Amazon warehouses that can only be described as hellish.
A British journalist who went undercover described a clock-watching culture so extreme that some employees urinated in bottles rather than trek to restrooms and risk being marked AWOL.
Amazon retrofit some warehouses with air conditioning after a Pennsylvania newspaper reported in 2011 that temperatures at one facility would reach 100 degrees and that paramedics were stationed outside during heat waves.
The company’s anti-theft and security screening procedures mean long lines before some workers can clock in. A lawsuit over the unpaid waiting time ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Amazon.
There are myriad reports of workers being injured on the job. Two dozen employees were hospitalized last year when a robot punctured a can of bear repellent, releasing toxic fumes; it was at least the third such incident in three years.
Scholars and researchers who study the effect of work on mental health declined to discuss Amazon’s employment practices. But many of the conditions cited by Amazon workers with suicide incidents were mentioned by the experts, who said a pressure cooker environment and mental illness can be dangerously toxic combination.
“High levels of workplace stressors can be bad for pre-existing mental health conditions and can exacerbate them,” said Naomi Swanson, a lead researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, adding that research in the area was scarce.
A workplace that asks a lot from employees but does not offer leeway in how they complete their tasks can be unhealthy.
“If you’re doing something that is just too hard for you, you can’t do it worried about your performance. That would be stressful, leading to mood disorders and anxiety disorders,” said William Eaton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins’ school of public health.
Working in social isolation is another red flag. People need social contact, said Ron Goetzel, another Johns Hopkins professor. “They need to interact to feel human.”
But researchers also agree that mental health disorders and suicidal behavior are complex.
“You’ve got individuals who experience stress from a variety of sources,” said Yeates Conwell, a professor at the University of Rochester Center for Study and Prevention of Suicide. “The workplace may be one in which those things come together and get expressed as stress, mental illness, suicidal ideation behavior.”
“He started going into a dark place”
Like Nick Veasley, Jonathan Forrest was elated when Amazon offered him a job in the same warehouse. “Half nervous but mostly excited to start a new journey in life!” Forrest, then 36, posted on Facebook in the fall of 2016.
He was a picker, charged with putting items in bins.
“The board at Amazon showed the top 10 pickers of my shift and of well over 100 pickers, I ranked #8,” he wrote on Facebook a few weeks after he began. “At least there’s 1 thing to make me feel proud of myself.”
At $17.50 per hour, Forrest was making more money than he ever did before, and was paying down $7,000 in veterinary school debt, his father Butch Forrest said. But a few months in, he began to sour on his job and the company.
“I would like to thank one of the worlds [sic] richest men, multi billionaire Jeff Bezos, for the opportunity to win this overly generous $1 vending machine coupon to use in the Amazon cafeteria as a reward for my hard work today,” Forrest posted in late-January of 2017. “I’m confident that the free snickers bar I consume tomorrow will help further compel me to keep being the best picker that I can be!”
In April, he posted: “After this next week is over, I will have worked 280 hours in 5 weeks...I am ready to stop, take some time to enjoy myself and not work so much, what does my work do????? Mandatory fucking overtime! Seriously???? I am so pissed off right now.” It ended with this plea: “Leave me alone Amazon.”
“He started going into a dark place,” said Donnie Sanford, a close friend.
That summer, Forrest mentioned having suicidal thoughts to a coworker at Amazon and qualified for medical leave, his father said. Forrest saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast.
Forrest returned to work after about a month, his father said, but on Oct. 28, he made another suicidal comment at work. This time an Amazon employee called the police. “Jonathan stated that he has had thoughts of suicide or self harm for several years and that the thoughts have been escalating in recent weeks,” a police report said. “Jonathan stated that he has attempted suicide in the past and that if he ever did commit suicide, it would be a ‘spur of the moment’ event,” the report added. (Butch Forrest and Sanford confirmed that Jonathan had attempted suicide before).
Forrest was taken to the hospital for evaluation, and Amazon allowed him to return to work.
In the last weeks of 2017, Forrest’s mental health deteriorated again. “It seemed like the spark died out in him,” Sanford said. “He didn’t do much toward the end except work. It was pretty much all he had to talk about.”
On Jan. 2, 2018, Sanford received a text message from Forrest: “Just remember I love you.” Around the same time, while sitting down to brunch at a diner, Butch and Jane Forrest received a call from their son, Brian, who told them Jonathan had just posted a suicide note on Facebook. It said: “Sorry y’all. It was inevitably going to happen anyways. I just fired a pistol through the back of my head. Love you all.”
Butch Forrest says his son was struggling on many levels, but he believes his work at Amazon was a major factor in his suicide. “When it came to holidays it would be five days in a row,” he said. “It killed him.”
In a statement, Amazon said Forrest’s death “was a very sad situation and shocking for the team, who very much wanted to see Johnathan [sic] get better.”
“It’s always sad when we lose a member of our team for any reason and our thoughts continue to go out to Johnathan’s family. We encourage anyone who is having suicidal thoughts to call the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Amazon employees should know we have resources available as well,” the company said.
“I didn’t have the money to go to the doctor”
Of the six current or former Amazon workers who spoke to The Daily Beast, five were put on leave from work. They said they struggled to obtain promised compensation, found counseling was insufficient or unaffordable, and in some cases were fired.
After being removed from Amazon by emergency responders—a situation some found humiliating—workers were often put on short-term medical or disability leave, entitling them to 60 percent of their pay and a return to their job after psychiatric clearance.
While on leave, some workers used the company’s employee assistance program, which includes three phone conversations with a counselor, and also sought outside psychiatric help. Even with Amazon-provided health insurance, the costs were often a financial strain.
“The frustrating part was I didn’t have the money to go to the doctor to get the paperwork they need,” said Crouch, the Lakeland, Florida, employee.
Veasley said he attempted to keep his job after leaving the psych ward but was told he had been fired for exceeding the maximum unpaid time off. He said he used many of those hours to go to therapy or doctor’s appointments.
Amazon said in a statement that it could not verify that Veasley used the time off for medical reasons. “Nicholas provided miscellaneous and inconsistent reasons for missing work and was often not able to provide the appropriate medical information needed for a fair excusal,” it said.
“Our teams work diligently to be fair to all employees and time excusal is provided often for employees during times of hardship when they have demonstrated regular attendance and reliability. Because we care about Nicholas, we wanted to help him but could not.”
But Veasley, who now works as a cook, is still angry about how he was treated.
“Amazon—don’t get me wrong—they throw up a lot of sparkly stuff in front of your eyes. Ooh, benefits, great pay, job security, this that and other, ” he said.
“But if you don’t read the fine print down at the bottom of this contract, you’re screwed.”