Infamously, Amazon punishes and sometimes fires warehouse workers who it believes are wasting time at work. A new filing obtained by Motherboard gives detailed insight into how Amazon tracks and records every minute of "time off task" (which it calls TOT) with radio-frequency handheld scanners that warehouse associates use to track customer packages.
The documents, filed with the National Labor Relations Board as part of a dispute at the recently-unionized Amazon warehouse in Staten Island called JFK8, reveal that workers can receive a written warning for accumulating 30 minutes of time off task in a day one time in a rolling one year period. They can be fired if they accumulate 120 minutes of time off task in a single day or if they have accumulated 30 minutes of time off task on three separate days in a one year period. Examples and sample spreadsheets provided in the documents show Amazon tracking, down to the minute, the amount of time individual workers spent in the bathroom and infractions such as "talking to another Amazon associate," going to the wrong floor of a warehouse, and, as an example, an unaccounted for 11-minute period where a worker "does not remember" what they were doing.
A set of guidelines for TOT reveals that Amazon asked managers at JFK8 in 2019 to use a tracking tool every shift to identify a “top offender,” the person who accumulated the most time off task in a shift as calculated by inactivity on their item scanner. The manager was then required to ask the top offender about their whereabouts for each time stamp registered in the system as unproductive, and discipline them when appropriate. Each shift “managers will use the TOT tool to identify and engage the top offender per manager,” the guidelines say. As an example of this, Amazon shows a summary of how a manager might ask their employees to account for how long they used the bathroom at a certain time of day: "Amazon Associate understands the process. AA stated he was in the bathroom for the 10 TOT. Coached AA on the TOT policy." The New York Times first reported that Amazon tracks TOT “top offenders” at JFK8.
While Amazon managers were trained to write up the “top offender” per shift, they could interrogate at least three workers about their whereabouts per shift, the documents show. A template for a worker who registered 47 minutes of time off task on March 17, 2019 shows that Amazon’s tool registered the five blocks of time as TOT. Subsequently a manager asked the worker for an explanation for what they were doing during each block of time.
“18:22-18:37 – [worker] went to floor one and was sent to floor 2.”
“20:30-20:40 – [worker] was in bathroom”
“20:00-20:05 – [worker] had [equipment] issue, verified with [process assistant] (time not counted into TOT)”
“21:13-21:23 – [worker] was talking to another [worker] with no barriers identified.”
“23:04: 23:15 – [worker] does not remember”
According to the example, Amazon forgave the worker for the time spent going to the bathroom and experiencing an equipment issue, but not for time spent going to the wrong workstation, time spent speaking to another employee, or for time that they could not remember where they were.
In one of the documents, Amazon explains the purpose of its TOT policy to associates, saying workers’ “commitment to completing assigned tasks is critical in order to be Earth's most customer-centric company.”
Motherboard also obtained an internal list of 18 warehouse workers at JFK8 who were terminated for accumulating more than two hours of TOT in a single day between January 1, 2020 and February 25, 2020.
The documents provide new clarity about a much-talked-about but until now opaque process that is used to surveil, discipline, and sometimes terminate Amazon warehouse workers around the United States. Amazon warehouse workers who have talked to Motherboard say they don’t have insight into how much TOT they’ve accumulated, and have said they skip water and bathroom breaks because they fear being disciplined and terminated. As the country’s second largest employer, Amazon’s productivity policies impact hundreds of thousands of workers.
The documents also include screenshots of Amazon's "Time Off Task Tool" which is used to track individual employees' TOT.
Amazon’s time off task tracking tool.
After identifying the “top offender” for every shift, the manager is then required to have a conversation with the worker to let them explain “if there were any true barriers that would warrant the deduction of time” from the total TOT tracked by the scanner.” The manager makes any adjustments to the total time off task, and provides feedback and disciplinary write-ups when appropriate. If the top offender during a shift is found to have justified TOT, the manager is then required to coach the worker with the second highest amount of TOT. A tool allows managers to sort through the top offenders on any shift. The documents also indicate that Amazon uses surveillance footage to corroborate employees’ claims about their whereabouts, and describes an instance in which a worker's alibi was later disproven using "video footage."
A proposed script for having a conversation with the "top offender" reads as follows: "Your recent time-on-task performance has fallen below behavioral expectations. On [DATE] at various points throughout your scheduled shift you were observed to be off-task for a total of [total TOT minutes after subtraction]. This number was reached by calculating all of your TOT for the day which totaled [Total TOT without subtracting breaks/standup] minutes then subtracting 12 minutes for standups and 17 minutes for each of the paid breaks. During a 'Seek to understand' conversation you stated that you faced the following barriers [FINDINGS FROM STU]. These behaviors are violations of Amazon's Standards of Conduct and Attendance policy. 'Failure to adhere to starting time, quitting time, or break time policies, or wasting time' is considered a Category 2 violation of the Standards of Conduct. "
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Amazon previously stated that less than 1 percent of terminations in 2019 were for time off task or failing to meet rate requirements, and in its own guidelines suggests that tracking TOT is primarily used to motivate workers to stay productive. The goal, Amazon’s guidelines say, “of auditing this TOT is to create an environment not where we are writing everyone up, but that associates know that we are auditing for TOT, and will own their own time to be within standard.”
According to the guidelines for JFK8 obtained by Motherboard, workers should receive a first written warning when they accumulate 30 to 59 minutes of time off task for the first time in a given 12 month period. Managers should give workers a final written warning if the tool tracks an hour to 119 minutes of T.O.T in a single day, or between 30 and 59 minutes of TOT and a first written warning within the same 12 month period. Amazon says that a termination is warranted when a worker accumulates two hours of TOT in a given shift or has received a final written warning and has registered 30 minutes or more of TOT within the same 12 month period.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, or questions about whether these policies are still in place at JFK8 or used by other Amazon warehouses around the country.
Morgan Lewis, a high-profile law firm that represents Amazon and specializes in fighting union drives, submitted the documents to the National Labor Relations Board in February 2020 in order to dismiss a charge that Amazon had unlawfully retaliated against a JFK8 warehouse worker who collected signatures from their coworkers for a petition. The documents were then obtained via public records request. A note from Morgan Lewis’ attorney says that these documents should be treated “as confidential” and that Amazon requested that the labor board not reveal any of the contents without its “prior written consent.”
The documents include an example of a JFK8 employee who was registered as the top offender and then fired for accumulating three hours and 57 minutes of TOT in a single day in 2019, internal documents show. That employee’s manager then provided them a list of all of the times during that shift, minute by minute, when their scanner was inactive, so that the employee could explain any periods of justified inactivity. For example, the scanner registered inactivity from 7:25am to 7:37am, but the employee explained that they were having workstation issues, so Amazon subsequently subtracted that time from their total TOT.
In the end, the employee could only provide justification for an hour and 12 minutes of inactivity during that shift and subsequently lost their job. “Amazon terminated [redacted]’s employment because [redacted was unjustifiably and completely unproductive for at least 2 hours and 45 minutes,” a letter Amazon sent to the National Labor Relations Board said.