Amazon's US$3,000 signing bonuses irk workers who got US$10 turkey vouchers

Amazon will spend more than US$10 billion this year fighting Covid in its warehouses.
Amazon will spend more than US$10 billion this year fighting Covid in its warehouses.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEATTLE (BLOOMBERG) - Amazon.com is doling out hiring bonuses as high as US$3,000 (S$4,026) to make sure it has enough people to squeak through the busy holiday shopping season. That's stoking resentment among existing workers who recently got coupons for Thanksgiving turkeys as a thank you for their hard work.

Social-media chatrooms where Amazon workers congregate have lit up. One worker shared a photo of a US$15 turkey voucher, prompting others to boast they received coupons for US$20 or US$25, while others lamented that they got nothing. When a worker in Alabama said his warehouse got US$10 vouchers, colleagues joked that it was barely enough to buy a turkey leg. Others mordantly counseled fellow workers to look on the bright side - at least the turkey vouchers were tax-free, unlike the bonuses.

Amazon's willingness to risk dissension in the ranks reflects a dawning reality: Many Americans are reluctant to re-enter the workforce, despite a national unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent, double the pre-pandemic level. Searches for seasonal work dropped 25 per cent from 2019, according to job site Indeed.com. Partly that's because some workers still receive unemployment benefits. Partly it's because they're afraid of catching Covid-19.

To help avoid delivery delays during what's already shaping up to be a blockbuster holiday season, the world's largest online retailer has decided to throw people at the problem, even if it ends up with too many workers. So a few weeks ago, Amazon began dangling signing bonuses. The sums depend on where the recruits live: US$3,000 at some facilities in California and Illinois, US$2,000 in Maryland and Massachusetts and US$1,500 at many other facilities around the country.

"People who in the past might be thinking about picking up some money moonlighting with a part-time job are now thinking about the Covid-19 risk," said Peter Cappelli, a management professor and director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "Many people without jobs still expect to be recalled, so they are having the same thought, whether picking up a short-term job is worth the risk. That's why it is harder to find people even with the high rates of joblessness."

Amazon didn't address Bloomberg's queries about staff concerns. The company offers workers a minimum of US$15 an hour, health and retirement benefits, job training and opportunities for career growth, Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said. "We encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and workplace environment to other retailers and major employers across the country," she said.

When the outbreak struck the US earlier this year, Amazon was overwhelmed by a spike in orders as Americans avoided physical stores. To get deliveries back on track and entice fearful workers to show up, the company offered temporary pay raises of US$2 per hour as well as unlimited unpaid time off, no questions asked. Amazon also hired 250,000 workers to keep its operation running smoothly and will spend more than US$10 billion this year fighting Covid in its warehouses.

Warehouse protests

In June, with Amazon's stuttering delivery machine regaining momentum, the company ended the pandemic raises and began forcing workers to justify requests for time off. The decision was poorly received in the warehouses, which have been roiled this year by protests.

On Monday workers in Alabama filed a petition with the US National Labor Relations Board to form a union. With enough support, the petition will proceed to a vote among those working at the warehouse outside Birmingham on whether to unionize and be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Some Amazon warehouse workers in Europe are union members, but the company's US workforce isn't unionized.

Meanwhile, with Covid-19 cases resurging across the country, many workers believe it's time their employer brought back the temporary raises, which many equate to danger pay.

That's why receiving turkey coupons, when newbies are getting bonuses, rankles so much. Some workers see the vouchers as a slap in the face when they've toiled through the pandemic, helping to push the stock and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos's wealth to record highs. The net worth of the world's wealthiest man has surged more than US$67 billion this year to US$182.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire's index.