April 17, 2014

Amazon offers an employee buyout with a side of condescension

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Quitting the warehouse? First scale this shame wall we've built.

Quitting the warehouse? First scale this shame wall we’ve built.

Amazon is offering warehouse employees a cash buyout to leave, according to USA TODAY. This being Amazon, the offer is composed of a bland and unappetizing dollar amount wrapped in a jagged, shame-flavored shell of motivational language.

The Telegraph‘s Katherine Rushton writes:

In a letter headed “Please don’t take this offer”, the company has taken the unusual step of offering people who have worked in its warehouse for less than a year $2,000 to walk out the door. … “The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want,” said Jeff Bezos, chief executive. “In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”

We can dismiss out of hand the paternalistic claim that Amazon cares even the slightest for the health of its warehouse employees. An ongoing history of gross mistreatment puts the lie to that pretty quickly.

The idea, Bezos wrote in his recent letter to shareholders, came from Zappo’s, which Amazon bought in 2009. Bezos is savvy enough with a quick PR stunt—he got 60 Minutes to run a twenty minute commercial for him with their drone segment just last year. No doubt some of that logic went into this. But I think Bezos is mostly sincere—he honestly thinks that his company deserves employees that love to spend their days picking and packing many different colors and brands of personal massager. And he sincerely thinks this move will be cheaper.

Employee buyouts are routine. GM offers them. The New York Times has offered one. Heinz is offering one right now. They’re usually predicated on the idea that a company needs to rein in expenses, particularly projected pension costs. Amazon doesn’t offer warehouse employees much in the way of pensions. Often Amazon doesn’t even offer warehouse employees jobs: seasonal workers—which at times can make up the majority of a warehouse’s workforce—are hired and fired by  huge regional temp agencies. As we’ve discussed before, these agencies make a habit of taking injured employees to court after firing them in an effort to deny them unemployment benefits.

But at Amazon, as everywhere, bringing in workers with less seniority is generally cheaper. If those workers feel that they’ve made a momentous choice—foregoing two thousand dollars—to be there, certainly they’re more likely to strive to excel at taping up boxes of adult diapers.

You can say that this is better than layoffs, and that’s true. But Bezos has managed to twist this thing so perversely. First, it’s not as if this program supplants layoffs and firings. So much of the Amazon workforce is seasonal, it’s as if the company is always undergoing massive layoffs. The money could be a nice payout for those that take it, but the language around it is such that those who do accept are implicitly inferior and greedy. It’s twisted, that Amazon should seem generous in offering, but that workers in these warehouses should seem greedy for accepting.

In the end, it is a demand on this workforce, masked as an offer. Give Amazon your twelve-mile-a-day labor. Then give them your enthusiasm; want to be there. Then, on top of that, be generous to this billionaire. He’s testing you, and you want to be worthy, so don’t take the money.

If Amazon wants to offer severance, fine. If not, well, that’s not as good. But worst of all, and trust Amazon to go this route, is to make people feel bad about knowing when to leave, the better to entrap the rest.

 

Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.

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