On January 25, hundreds of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Chicago were presented with a baffling choice: sign up for a ten-and-a-half-hour graveyard shift, or lose your job.
Management informed workers that their warehouse, known as DCH1, would be shut down, and they were being offered a shift that runs from 1:20am to 11:50am, which is known as "megacycle," at a new Chicago warehouse.
DCH1 has been the target of protests, walkouts, and petitions organized by workers that have changed Amazon's nationwide policies for its warehouses. Its closure will force workers to choose between their lives outside of Amazon and keeping their jobs in the middle of a pandemic.
"[This decision] is cruel and the antithesis of family-friendly corporate responsibility," organized workers at the facility who go by DCH1 Amazonians United, told Motherboard.
"The new schedule is unworkable particularly for many mothers, those who care for elderly relatives and others who need to be home in the morning hours," they continued. "In this COVID-19 environment, kids are home and learning virtually and a parent needs to be with them."
The ultimatum presented to workers at DCH1 reflects a broader strategy in the U.S. for Amazon. The company has been quietly transitioning warehouse workers at delivery stations nationwide to the "megacycle" shift in recent months. The megacycle shift collapses shorter shifts into one 10-hour shift that begins around 1 am and ends around lunchtime. It's unclear where the term megacycle originated but it's used by both managers and workers to describe 10-hour graveyard shifts, workers tell Motherboard. An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that more than half of its last-mile delivery network has already transitioned to the new model.
Workers at DCH1 were previously offered several different shift options, including an eight-hour overnight shift that ends at 4:45 am, a five-hour morning shift, and a four-hour morning shift. Going forward, rank-and-file DCH1 workers will only have the megacycle option at a new facility, DCH1 Amazonians United told Motherboard.
Amazon's nationwide push to move its workers from shorter daytime shifts to longer shifts that begin in the middle of the night fits within the company's efforts to increase efficiency and speed up delivery speed for its customers at the cost of its workers' health and safety.
A delivery station is the smallest type of Amazon warehouse, where packages are prepared by warehouse workers for last-mile deliveries to customers' homes. In August, Bloomberg reported that Amazon had plans to open 1,000 new delivery stations in cities and suburbs around the United States to improve on its two-day Prime delivery times, which faltered during the early days of the pandemic. DCH1 Amazonians United in Chicago and another affiliated group of warehouse workers called Amazonians United NYC told Motherboard that newly opened Amazon delivery stations appear to be on the "mega-cycle shift."
Jen Crowcroft, a spokesperson for Amazon, told Motherboard that the transition to megacycle provides a longer window for customers to place orders and an improved station experience, and makes it easier for different delivery stations to work together.
“We have to choose this option or lose our jobs.”
But labor experts say the move to consolidate shifts in the warehouse industry is a tactic long used by employers to cut back on labor costs; hiring and scheduling fewer workers for longer shifts means paying for fewer benefits.
"There’s been a trend since the 70s of warehouse employers consolidating to longer shifts with few workers," said Jamie McCallum, a professor of sociology at Middlebury College and the author of Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work is Killing the American Dream. "In recent decades, the fixed cost per worker has gone up significantly, particularly healthcare, so it makes sense to hire fewer employees."
DCH1 Amazonians United have already been organizing against the transition to "megacycle," alongside organized Amazon delivery station workers in New York City and Sacramento. According to a group of workers in Sacramento, known as Amazonians United Sacramento, most of the delivery stations in their region have already shifted to megacycle. Workers at a delivery station in Queens in New York City say their warehouse has not yet transitioned to megacycle, but they fear their schedules and lives could be upended with short notice.
On Tuesday, the coalition published a petition demanding $2 an hour extra for megacycle shifts nationwide, accommodations for mothers, parents, and caretakers who can only work part of a megacycle shift, and free Lyft rides to and from work, noting "it's impossible or unsafe to travel via public transportation past midnight."
"Amazon's change in delivery station shift schedules is throwing our lives into chaos," the petition reads. "They give us 2 weeks to decide between caring for our family and having a job. This is an unacceptable level of corporate control over our lives."
"We have to choose this option or lose our jobs," a DCH1 warehouse worker told Motherboard on the phone. The worker spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Amazon. "It's not a real option. They're basically telling us 'you're fired."
During the pandemic, DCH1 Amazonians United staged a walkout to protest management's handling of positive cases of COVID-19 and more than 200 workers successfully petitioned management for paid time off for all Amazon workers. DCH1 Amazonians United, which calls itself a union but is not certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), formed in the summer of 2019, when workers created a petition demanding higher pay, air conditioning, and health insurance for part time workers. Eventually, management agreed to shut down the warehouse due to 90 degree temperatures.
An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to questions about when the company began rolling out "megacycle" shifts or when the transition will complete.
A labor organizer familiar with Amazon's warehouse presence in Pennsylvania told Motherboard at least one delivery station in the state, in the Philadelphia area, runs on a megacycle shift, adding that "megacycle" creates obstacles for workers who need access to childcare and public transportation for shifts that begin in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile, in online forums, such as the subreddit, r/AmazonDS, which covers topics related to Amazon delivery stations, warehouse workers have discussed the punishing amount of strenuous labor required of the "megacycle" shift.
“Megacycle isn’t not just bad for lifestyle reasons. It’s bad for your body. I don’t think everyone can handle this.”
"You will do all the stuff you are currently doing for like 7 hours. Then after you are done sorting, you pick and stage. That’s when you take all the bags and oversized packages and put them on carts for the drivers. IT SUCKS," one worker recently posted on the subreddit, describing megacycle.
Currently, workers at DCH1 either sort or pick and stage, but not both. Workers have been told on the megacycle shift they'll be asked to sort for eight hours, and then pick and stage for two additional hours.
Another worker wrote, "megacycle is exhausting and the hours are fucking awful."
Posts referencing "megacycle" on Reddit suggest that Amazon warehouses around the country have been rapidly shifting to this new schedule since at least August 2020, often with little warning. For workers used to picking and packing boxes on four or six or eight hour shifts, the transition to the ten hour shift creates an even greater risk for workplace injuries.
The National Employment Law Project found in a 2020 report on workplaces injuries in Amazon warehouses is twice that of the national average for the warehouse industry.
"Amazon’s own internal data paints a very troubling picture about what is happening inside the company’s fulfillment centers," the authors of the report wrote, citing "algorithms being introduced to speed up rates and force workers to work faster" as the driver of high injury rates. Another factor is the exhaustion and fatigue that sets in after lifting boxes for six or eight or 10 hours. Injury rates are highest during Amazon's peak season in the lead-up to Christmas, when standard shifts extend for 10 to 12 hour a day.
"Megacycle isn't not just bad for lifestyle reasons," a warehouse worker at a delivery station in Queens, New York and a member of the group Amazonians United NYC, told Motherboard. "It's bad for your body. I don't think everyone can handle this."
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"If I work more than eight hours, it takes a day and a half to recover, and I'm a very fit person," they continued. "Amazon work can be so demanding that Jeff Bezos doesn't just own your time at work; he owns your entire weekend that you're in bed recovering so you can go back to the warehouse."
Crowcroft, the Amazon spokesperson said that DCH1 employees are receiving individual coaching to place them in one of three recently opened Chicago delivery stations, and that no layoffs will be taking place at the facility. "We are excited to have recently launched three new, next generation delivery stations for DCH1 employees where they can continue to work and grow as an integral part of the Amazon team in state-of-art facilities," she said.
Workers at the facility say management has refused to offer workers any accommodations, which could force many to lose their jobs.
"We asked Amazon during a meeting, will you be providing accommodations for moms? Will you be providing basic accommodations?" the DCH1 worker said. "They said there's no plan for that."