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Spencer Soper Wins October Sidney

in
October, 2011

Morning Call reporter Spencer Soper won the October Sidney Award for “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” an exposé of brutal working conditions at Amazon.com’s warehouse in Lehigh Valley, PA.

When the warehouse opened in 2010, workers felt lucky to get a position in this region where jobs are scarce. However, they quickly found the pace of work punishing and risked losing their jobs for failure to meet quotas. Workers described how they felt obligated to push themselves to the point of exhaustion and even collapse.

The following summer, the heat in the warehouse rose dangerously high, but many workers were afraid to take time off or seek medical attention because of penalties. At the height of a heat wave, Amazon hired an ambulance company to set up on site to treat sick workers and a local emergency room doctor complained to authorities about the influx of patients from the warehouse.

Spencer Soper is a senior reporter on the business beat at the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, PA. He writes Valley Business Buzz, a daily digital business newsletter, and On The Cheap, a column about the clever and quirky things people do to save money. Soper joined the Morning Call in 2005 after reporting for papers in New York and California.

Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein spoke with Soper about his investigation.

How did you find out there was something amiss at the Amazon warehouse in Lehigh Valley, PA?
Amazon established the warehouse operation in mid 2010. It was a big story because it was a large, prominent company opening a new operation and offering jobs. As we reported about the company, we started hearing concerns from workers about conditions in the warehouse.

Did you start this project knowing it was going to be a big investigation, or did the scope of the project grow as you went along?
We had no expectation of size and scope. We published when we were confident in the depth of our reporting and the significance of what we had learned.

You interviewed 20 current and former Amazon employees for this story. How did you convince people to open up to the point of showing you their tax returns and talking about their health?
People did not have a problem showing pay stubs or tax returns. It was a formality, and they seemed to appreciate we were being vigilant in fact-checking the story. Some were hesitant to share their identities. Current employees feared they would get fired for speaking to the media. And some former employees looking for new jobs feared speaking with the media could make it difficult for them to find work.

Why is this warehouse so critical to Amazon's business, geographically and financially?
Not sure. In general, the Lehigh Valley offers access to major cities along the Eastern Seaboard, so we have a lot of warehouses here.

How does Amazon's approach to heat safety differ from other warehouses?
Some workers we interviewed who had previous warehouse experience said other warehouses would open loading doors on hot days to let fresh air circulate through the building. This was not done at Amazon, they said, due to concerns about theft. But the employees were not concerned about heat alone. It was both the heat and the production rate. Workers were concerned that when it was so hot, multiple workers were experiencing heat-related symptoms and being taken to hospital emergency rooms. Amazon did not reduce rapid production expectations. Failure to meet those production metrics can result in termination.

Have there been any further developments since the story was published?
We had a follow story about customers corresponding with the company about their concerns about working conditions in the warehouse. We heard from Amazon customers around the country who read the story and said it was influencing their shopping decisions. Amazon customer service representatives had a prepared statement they sent to customers who expressed concerns. Some customers told us they did not appreciate the "canned" response since it did not address their concerns about how warehouse workers were being treated.

Do you think the story of the warehouse holds any larger lessons about the U.S. economy?
The lesson I learned from people we interviewed for this story is that many people are desperate for work, and they are willing to tolerate treatment they consider unfair because they don't have other options.

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