Elmer Goris spent a year working in an Amazon.com warehouse, where books, CDs and other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world's largest online retailer.
The 34-year-old said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the heat and demands that he work mandatory overtime. Working conditions at the warehouse near Allentown, Pa., got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when temperatures in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said.
One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.
"I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated [so terribly] in any other warehouse but this one," Goris said.
Amazon, which began as an online bookstore, now sells products of all kinds — including lawn mowers and beauty products — and boasts 2010 revenue exceeding $34 billion. But a difference between Amazon and such stores as Barnes & Noble or Walmart is that the entire operation is invisible to customers, other than what they see on their computer screens.
The company has also been embroiled in major controversy with California lawmakers all year over legislation that would require it to collect sales tax on online purchases by California customers. The battle escalated in July when Amazon started a campaign to collect signatures to try to overturn via a referendum a sales tax collection bill that took effect July 1.
The matter was settled eight days ago when Amazon agreed to support a second bill that was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Under the new law, Amazon and some other Internet retailers would start collecting California sales taxes Sept. 15 of next year, unless Congress first passes a nationwide law governing online sales taxes.
At a bill signing ceremony, Amazon Vice President Paul Misener committed the company to creating 10,000 jobs and investing $500 million to build distribution warehouses in California. He provided no details about the locations or design of the so-called fulfillment centers.
The opening of the Pennsylvania warehouse where Goris worked was greeted as good news when it was announced last year.
But his complaints have not been unique. Over the past few months, interviews with 20 current and former warehouse workers provided a glimpse of what it's like to work at the facility near Allentown.
Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.
During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.
In a better economy, not as many people would line up for jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour in a hot warehouse. But Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions, the temporary employment firm that is hiring workers for Amazon, have found eager applicants. Employment ranges from about 900 to 2,000 during peak season, sources say.
"They can get away with it because most workers will take whatever they can get with jobs few and far between," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, legal co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
Goris, an Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open, he said.
Robert Rivas, 38, said he left his permanent Amazon warehouse job after about 13 months to take another job. He said he intensified his job search after the warehouse started getting very hot.
"The heat index got to really outrageous numbers," he said, recalling that the index during one of his shifts hit 114 degrees.
"The safety and welfare of our employees is our No. 1 priority at Amazon, and as the general manager, I take that responsibility seriously," Vickie Mortimer, general manager at the warehouse, said in a statement. "We go to great lengths to ensure a safe work environment, with activities that include free water, snacks, extra fans and cooled air during the summer."
Warehouse workers said Amazon and Integrity Staffing Solutions both emphasized safety measures and passed out fruit and water on hot days.
Amazon in an online statement to its customers Sept. 22 blamed the heat-related injuries at the Breinigsville distribution center on "unusually high temperatures this summer." The company said it responded by spending more than $2.4 million to install industrial air-conditioning units at Breinigsville and three other facilities that became operational by early August.
Any similar facilities eventually built in California would be air-conditioned, the company said.
The Breinigsville air-conditioning units, workers said, didn't always keep upper levels of the warehouse cool on hot summer days.
Ron Heckman, 60, works the overnight shift. He said he has seen co-workers get dizzy and leave during heat waves, but they would return to work the following day, he said.
"A lot of people say it's hot and you feel aggravated at times and you wish it wasn't as hot as it was, but it's the nature of the job," Heckman said.
Out of work for two years, Karen Salasky, 44, said she loved the Amazon job at first.
But when the weather got hot in May, Salasky said, her work pace dropped, which prompted questions from supervisors.
"I just kept pushing myself," she said. "They asked me why my rates were dropping, and I said my rates are dropping because it's hot and I have asthma." After a hot day when she got "really upset," her assignment was terminated.
Integrity Staffing Solutions declined to answer specific questions regarding employee concerns.
"With all of our temporary assignments, we explain the requirements for the position, as well as the criteria for becoming a full-time Amazon employee," company spokeswoman Megan Couch said in an email.
"Our employees' safety is a top priority for us, and the focus on employee safety from Amazon leadership is impressive. We support our employees with a variety of programs to ensure their well-being, including light duty and leaves of absence."
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated complaints and in August issued recommendations that included adding fans, giving more breaks and informing workers of the heat index. Amazon followed those recommendations.
Times Staff Writer Marc Lifsher in Sacramento contributed to this story.
Soper writes for the Allentown Morning Call.