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The Human Cost of Amazon's Delivery System to Face Supreme Court Scrutiny

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Some of the "elves" in the company's warehouse are turning on the Big Santa of retail.

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The issue seems at first to be too trivial to appear on the docket of the nation's highest court: Should Amazon (AMZN) be required to compensate warehouse workers for the minutes they spend each day at a security checkpoint?

In the end, the case -- which the Supreme Court announced on Monday that it had agreed to hear -- may turn into a very public denunciation of the labor practices of the global retailing powerhouse by its employees. The workers filed suit in 2010 against Integrity Staffing Solutions, a contractor that hires temporary workers for the Amazon warehouse. Through such contractors, Amazon staffs warehouses across the US and in a dozen countries around the world. A vast army of temporary workers are hired by contractors to handle the holiday rush; a few each year get the chance to stay on after the holidays as permanent Amazon employees.

The issue of pay for delay seems to have been the proverbial last straw for the workers who filed suit regarding their treatment at an Amazon warehouse in Nevada. They weren't paid for the time (close to a half hour sometimes) spent waiting to get through an antitheft security check when going on a break or ending their workday. Apparently, the people who designed the 21st century's most advanced and cost-efficient order fulfillment system didn't make the error of placing the company time clock, or its modern equivalent, at the wrong end of the line that leads out the door.

It's not an outrageous decision. It's a petty nickel-and-diming decision, and Amazon stuck to it as their contractor's ex-employees argued it all the way to the Supreme Court.

This isn't some updated version of the dark satanic mills of the 19th century. Workers hired by Amazon's subcontractors reportedly earn between $9 and $14 an hour in the US, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. They work in vast, ultramodern and famously efficient warehouses that are anything but dark.

Nevertheless, the case is sure to dramatize the human cost of Amazon's superhuman delivery system. The work is grueling and stressful, and for most it's a dead end, with zero job security and very little hope of a permanent position.

We know this in considerable detail because a number of the so-called "Amazon elves" working in warehouses dotted around the globe during the past holiday season were journalists working undercover. The 800,000-square-foot warehouse in Swansea, Wales, actually had two undercover journalists working the line: one from The Guardian newspaper and a second making a documentary for BBC's Panorama.

The reporter for The Guardian admits to a serious Amazon consumption habit but is eloquent about the experience of being "a tiny cog in a massive global distribution machine." Seemingly trivial issues loomed large for her, too. Her 15-minute break dwindled to about 30 seconds of relaxation time after taking into account the time it took to get out of the vast warehouse work area.

So now we know that a job working for Amazon is at least as hellish as any of the millions of stressful, insecure and dead-end jobs that workers of all ages and professional credentials have been forced into in the past few years. Is this a public relations problem for Amazon? Maybe. This is supposed to be the store of the future, and the future isn't looking pretty.

The company has shown itself to be sensitive to its reputation as an employer. It spent $52 million installing air conditioners in its warehouses after the Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, reported that a number of local workers fainted in the 110-degree warehouse heat.

In this new case, the company is expected to argue that time spent in a security check is similar to work-related tasks that traditionally have been unpaid, like time spent changing into a uniform or walking from the parking lot.

Meanwhile, local newspapers reported recently that hundreds of full-time jobs are now available at newly constructed, 100,000-square-foot Amazon warehouses near Newark, New Jersey, and DuPont, Delaware.

Workers are required to have a high school diploma, be able to stand for several hours during an eight-hour shift, and be able to lift 49 pounds.

Related stories:

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Amazon's Prime Move May Be Just Fine With Customers and Investors
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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