In a first, warehouse “picker” Daniel Olayiwola will present a resolution at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.
AMAZON’S ORGANIZING WAREHOUSE workers have been rattling the ecommerce giant, winning union elections, and staging walkouts to agitate for better working conditions. Now, one worker is trying a novel tack. Today, Daniel Olayiwola will become the first warehouse worker in company history to present his own resolution at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting.
Earlier this year, Olayiwola bought Amazon stock, giving him the right to bring a resolution, which he crafted with the worker advocacy organization United for Respect. A picker who has worked at warehouses in Florida and Texas since 2017, Olayiwola is provocatively calling for an end to surveillance and productivity quotas for all Amazon warehouse and delivery workers, including drivers and other third-party contractors. His proposed resolution specifically calls out Amazon’s controversial “Time Off Task” (TOT) policy, which penalizes workers who rack up a certain number of minutes without scanning a product—bathroom breaks included. He’s also calling for an end to the rate system, the number of products employees are expected to scan per hour. Workers who accrue too much TOT or fall short on their rate risk termination.
Olayiwola argues that this system prioritizes productivity over safety, driving workers to exhaustion and injury. The data, he argues, backs him up. An April report from the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labor unions, found that serious injuries at Amazon were more than double those at non-Amazon warehouses last year. The company acknowledges that its injury rate increased from 2020 to 2021 as it trained an influx of new hires, but says that its recordable injury rate declined by more than 13 percent from 2019 to 2021.
The proposal is one of more than a dozen on the docket this year concerning environmental and social issues such as working conditions, diversity, equity, inclusion, and the abuse of technologies such as facial recognition. (They all face long odds; Amazon’s board has advised voting no on every environmental and social proposal it issued a recommendation for.)
WIRED spoke to Olayiwola about his tenure at Amazon, his background as an Army medic, and why, win or lose, he thinks it’s important to put workers’ issues in front of shareholders. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your proposal addresses working conditions for workers across Amazon’s warehouse and distribution network, including “pickers” like yourself. What does being a picker at Amazon entail?
A picker selects the items for packaging and delivery. You stand at your station for 10 hours, usually two and a half to three hours at a time, picking items at a rate of no less than 300 to 350 an hour. If you drop below that, they're going to send you a message or come see you and say, “Hey, why is your picking slow? You need to speed it up during the second part of the day.”
My shift starts at 7:30 in the morning, and I have to prepare two lunches because I’m not leaving the building for a break. [Ed note: Olayiwola gets one 30-minute break and two 15-minute breaks.]
There's quality, rate, and productivity. You can get written up for anything in those categories. If you get written up, you cannot switch positions. So now you're stuck in a position that you may be having difficulty fulfilling because of an injury or it's just too fast for you. You get 60 days, and then if you get another write-up, you're fired.
When did you first realize that things needed to change? Was there a specific incident?
There were a lot of incidents, and they started getting worse. Before Covid, there was just the overall burnout of people being worked to the brink for no bonuses, no equity in the company. [Ed note: Amazon took away stock options and bonuses for hourly employees in 2018 when it raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.] Then other stuff happened, like one of my friends got fired for some medical leave issue. He’d been working here for a year or two and really working hard. There was another incident where someone came and got me because a man was having a diabetic seizure in the parking lot, and I used to be a medic in the Army. They didn’t call an ambulance until I said they had to.
People will say, “Oh, you don't like it? Just quit.” It's not that simple. Especially now with inflation, bills. People need health insurance. People need to have job security.
The quote that I keep saying is: If you keep doing what everyone else is doing, you're going to keep getting what everyone else is getting, and it's trash. It's not fair. And you're just doing it to get by. You definitely deserve better.
I imagine you have to be pretty physically fit to be a medic in the Army. What has working at Amazon been like physically?
You're really not sitting down for the whole 10-hour shift. You're standing, walking, or picking something up. The warehouse I work at now, all the items are selected by a big machine. These are large items like dog food, cases of water, and bunk beds that haven't been put together. So these items are wedged into little crevices, and you’ve got to pull them out, scan them, and put them in a giant cage that’s attached to your vehicle. So in that position, you're standing all day. You’re walking a quarter-mile or half-mile to the bathroom. I see older ladies limping up to the fourth floor.
Did you yourself have any injuries while working there?
I have a history of stress fractures in my shin from the Army. My knees started hurting, so I took a couple of leaves. I ended up having to learn all about this complicated process of getting medical documentation and getting something called a certificate of fitness. A lot of people who work at Amazon, they're not going to be doing that research.
How did you arrive at the idea of proposing a shareholder resolution? Were there other things you tried first?
I was making YouTube videos about how it was in the building. And I posted the videos, and I was talking to people, but everybody in Texas was kind of scared of being called lazy or complaining, and they didn’t really know too much about organizing. Neither did I at the time. When I started talking to people at United for Respect, they explained a lot of stuff to me, and I started learning that there are different ways to talk to your employer, including being a shareholder. And I thought that seemed like the most advantageous situation, because I've been working here for over four years. I have stock. So I definitely should have a say in the company, especially because I have experience here. So that was when I decided to do it.
I started seeing it was more than just speed. Amazon workers have a lot of stress with their families, their spouses, their brothers or sisters because they’re stressed out all the time.
So you started realizing that you weren't alone in what you were going through.
Yeah, and that was big. I was like, wait a second. You're arguing with your family members too? Or your roommate? They’d say, “Yeah, because I'm pissed off.” I realized everybody's being stressed out by Amazon. I had a younger brother who I was supporting because he didn’t want to work. He ended up having to go to Amazon, and one day he called me to apologize. He said, “I'm so sorry for not understanding how you had to work in there.” This is a verbatim quote. He said, “They want your soul in there.”
Can you talk about how you decided what to put in the resolution and why you felt like those were the highest-priority issues?
People are getting injured so much, and Amazon keeps talking about how much money it’s making. So it's weird that they would just expect people to keep working at this rate for little or no raises, no real bonuses, no equity in the company. So for that reason, I was like, all right. Let's make this more sustainable for the business and for the workers who are the lifeblood of the company. So no more stressing about rate, no more stressing about running the half-mile to the bathroom because of TOT.
Why did you think it was important to include drivers and third-party contractors in the resolution?
Because the drivers have got it even worse. They're out in the real world driving in traffic, and they're still expected to make rate and quotas. It’s nuts because there's a huge variable they can't control, which is the other cars.
Why did you decide to call for an end to quotas and surveillance instead of maybe a slower rate?
Because it highlights the fact that Amazon’s pressing people to make these rates in order for managers and the company to make bonuses and money. It’s to make sure it’s something that will actually benefit the employees’ well-being. This isn't really about money. If they reduce those life stressors on the employees, maybe they'll be OK with the very small raises that they give us, because right now it's just not cutting it.
What remarks do you have planned for the shareholder meeting?
I provided an audio recording. I talked about how high the injury rate is and the fact that it doesn't really benefit the employees or the shareholders for employees to be getting injured like this. It's a constant stressor. From the moment I wake up, I'm worried about time and rate and all this stuff that I'm not getting paid any extra money for. It's just too much. We need to make sure we take a good look at who's doing all this work, that they're properly taken care of from a medical standpoint, even from an emotional standpoint.
When you present it to the shareholders, are you hoping to appeal to their sense of morality, or do you also think there's a business case for the resolution?
For me, I would not rely on the morality of others. The injury rate statistics speak for themselves. It would make a lot more sense to take care of your employees and make sure they're feeling good, so your business can keep running. I really didn't want to be appealing to morality, because a lot of them know what's going on.
What would you say to shareholders who might be concerned that without tracking or quotas, Amazon won't be able to ensure efficiency?
To those shareholders, I would say, I'm glad you noticed that. Now let's talk about making sure that these employees are properly compensated and taken care of, especially from a medical standpoint. We shouldn't be worrying about going to the doctor because we're being pushed to do these rates. So once we open a dialog with them, we'll get a lot further and do a lot better. It just doesn't make sense not to listen to your employees when they speak up.
Have you or United for Respect put pressure on big investors to support the resolution?
I presented my resolution on a webinar to shareholders, worker organizations, and Amazon employees and met with Democratic state treasurers to explain the resolution and discuss the realities of working at Amazon. They wanted to hear my side of the story and understand what Amazon does to communities. [Ed note: United for Respect also took out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times in support of the resolution. On May 12, the Athena Coalition, an Amazon-focused worker rights group, protested outside of Vanguard, a major Amazon shareholder, demanding that the investment company vote for several pro-worker resolutions, including Olayiwola’s.]
If the resolution doesn't pass, will you still feel like you made an impact?
Yes. It is enough even just to start that dialog. This is a continuous thing that keeps coming up. Why not just listen to these people?
Amazon said that it changed the TOT policy last year and started averaging it over a longer period. Did you feel like that made any difference?
No, because they still bring it up to you every time there's a slight issue with productivity. It’s still on the minds of employees.
And do you have transparency into how much TOT you've accrued and how close you are to the limit?
You wouldn't really know, because there's this one-way messaging system for everything. If you're working at a station or on a machine, they'll just message you and say, “Hey, your rate's looking a little low.” You couldn't even tell them, “My rate's low because I'm feeling sick today.”
One of the things that I also wanted to add is the seasonal workers, people with white badges. They're really desperate to get in there. But because they have white badges, they're not subject to UPT. They're subject to this point system, which is even more harsh than the UPT system. They’re trying to get in here permanently. They're not even thinking about moving up; they're just trying to make sure they don't get let go. They really can't be messing up.
Amazon has obviously received a lot of scrutiny of its working conditions in recent years, and Jeff Bezos vowed to make the company Earth's best and safest place to work last year. Have you noticed any changes since he made that pledge?
Not that I can see, but that’s why I’m trying to get people on board. Because the managers still press employees over rate and TOT. So that's not just going to change. And that's what's really driving these injuries and this unsafe workplace. It's unsafe because they're rushing people, for nothing. We can slow it down. We can talk about whatever they want to talk about, but first and foremost is safety.