Image: Natalie Monarrez
Natalie Monarrez's commute to work at Amazon's colossal warehouse in Staten Island, New York City, known as JFK8, is just a few hundred steps. Since 2019, she's been homeless and has lived out of her SUV, camping out in the facility's parking lot. Being a homeless Amazon warehouse worker isn't easy, but Monarrez has made it work. She has a membership at Planet Fitness, where she goes to shower and brush her teeth. She keeps a list of the nearby fast-food chains and big-box stores with public bathrooms that stay open late. She charges up her phone and laptop at Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts.
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
During COVID, things got really hard. "When businesses shut down, it became difficult to find a bathroom," she said. "I ended up having to use anti-bacterial wipes and do the best in my car."When she wakes up in the morning for her 12-hour shift that starts at 6 a.m., she walks past long rows of cars to the lobby, scans her badge, passes through metal detectors, and blends into a sea of workers in orange vests. "The lot has lighting, security, and 24-hour shifts, so I feel safe there," she told Motherboard. Monarrez's warehouse is the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City and has been in the spotlight recently due to a New York Times exposé on how the warehouse, which employs 5,000 workers, mishandled the pandemic, including forcing a worker with COVID-related brain damage back to work. Workers at the facility are now organizing a grassroots union drive, which has drawn large crowds of people, including Monarrez, to barbecues. Monarrez earns $19.30 an hour as a full-time Amazon ship dock worker at JFK8—more than $4 above New York City's $15-an-hour minimum wage. Still it's not enough, she says, to afford a studio apartment in Staten Island or neighboring New Jersey once she subtracts her other expenses such as her cell phone bill, health insurance, the cost of gas and groceries, the lease on her car, car insurance, and her Planet Fitness membership.
"Jeff Bezos donates to homeless shelters for tax write-offs and PR. He needs to know that some of his own workers (without family or a second income) can't afford rent," she said. Median rents in New York City have fallen in recent months but are still among the highest in the country. Inventory is also very low. Few websites scientifically study median rents in Staten Island specifically, but apartment rental site Zumper says the median rent for a studio apartment in Staten Island is $1,588.At 51, Monarrez—a Los Angeles native—is single and has no relatives in New York City. After living out of an Extended Stay America motel in New Jersey for 6 months in 2019 while working at a nearby Amazon warehouse, she racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt. So she gave up on her apartment search, moved into her car, and got a job at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse, which paid more than two other Amazon warehouses in northern New Jersey where she previously worked. Monarrez says she applied for apartments with roommates and studios, but hit a lot of roadblocks. Much of the cheaper housing was strictly for students and residents over 55. Another common living arrangement was older men who were seeking girlfriends, which she didn't want. The prospect of living in tight quarters with other families with children and pets seemed really hard for a single person.
"After six months of searching, I thought I can't find roommates or afford a studio and moved into my car," she said. "A lot of my coworkers live with their families or in houses inherited from their parents. I don’t think we make enough money to afford rent here. We can pay for groceries and cars and gas and public transit, but we don’t make nearly enough to afford rent unless you have a spouse or family member who’s willing to share expenses."Although millions of people find housing in New York City making less than what Natalie earns at Amazon, doing so without a social safety net or community or social capital to rely on is extremely difficult, especially for a 51-year-old woman. Amazon frequently touts its $15 an hour starting wage ($18.25 an hour at JFK8, or about $37,000 a year for full-time workers) for its warehouse jobs, but some Amazon warehouse workers around the country struggle to pay rent and put food on the table, especially in cities like New York. Jeff Bezos, and Amazon itself, have spent billions of dollars building homeless shelters, setting up funds to help homeless families, and investing in affordable housing initiatives—philanthropic efforts with tax write-offs. But the company has also contributed to soaring housing costs in cities where it has offices, driven down wages in warehousing and logistics, and opposed taxes on large corporations intended to fight homelessness. When Amazon announced it was opening a second headquarters in New York City in 2019, the city braced for rising rents and displaced residents (the plan was later scrapped after opposition).
Many Amazon workers in New York City that Motherboard has previously interviewed live with their parents and extended families, work second and third jobs, or commute three hours from the far edges of the Bronx and Queens to get to work. "Me and a group of seven girls commute from the last stop on the 6 train in the Bronx," another JFK8 Amazon warehouse worker told Motherboard earlier this month. "Our commute is 3 hours and 15 minutes, and no, Amazon does not reimburse us or acknowledge that."
Monarrez keeps a couple suitcases and a cooler for food and water in her car. The rest of her belongings are stowed in a storage unit near JFK8. At night she curls up in the backseat of her car and scrolls on her phone. In the winter, she's in a sleeping bag. In the summer, under a single sheet. The sound of Amazon security guards patrolling the parking lot and the bright overhead lights are both comforting and a cause of stress that her cover could be blown. "After being questioned by reporters again and again about whether I can afford rent, I've decided to speak up," she said. "Jeff Bezos has no idea that his workers are homeless, especially in New York, and I'm not the only one. I'm hoping executives will agree to pay workers more and that they know older workers have the right to be promoted like everyone else."An Amazon spokesperson acknowledged a request for comment and a deadline provided to them by Motherboard but did not provide a comment.
Do you have a tip to share with us about Amazon workers who can’t find affordable housing? Please get in touch with Lauren, the reporter, via email Lauren.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal 201-897-2109.