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LI workplace experts react to Amazon working conditions story

Workers move merchandise at the Amazon fulfillment center

Workers move merchandise at the Amazon fulfillment center on Cyber Monday, Dec. 1, 2014, in Lebanon, Tenn. Photo Credit: AP / Mark Humphrey

Amazon's employment practices, as described in a Sunday New York Times story, may seem insensitive, and even cruel, but they are not necessarily illegal, some Long Island workplace experts said.

But alleged actions taken against some employees, such as those caring for ailing relatives or raising children, could raise red flags involving anti-discrimination laws, they said.

State and federal labor laws give employers wide latitude to establish policies for their workplaces. What may seem unfair, such as requiring employees to respond quickly to emails sent after midnight, as the Times story reported, can also be legal.

"The laws in general don't dictate that an employer treat its employees well," said attorney Brian Shenker, a labor employment consultant at the labor relations and human resources consulting firm Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates Inc. in Syosset. "They only set a baseline for what is prohibited. And that those decisions are based on protected categories. Outside of that, employers have a lot of leeway on how they treat their employees."

And employers can push those boundaries even further with white-collar executives, such as those profiled in the Times story, which said they routinely worked 80 hours a week. Managers and other executives are exempt from overtime pay, and under federal law can be asked to work any number of hours per week without extra compensation.

So, it may not be illegal for employers to require employees to stay in touch while on vacation and criticize them for having spotty Internet connections during that time, or to require them to attend a marathon phone conference on Thanksgiving, as some Amazon employees were reportedly asked to do.

But other practices cited could raise questions involving anti-discrimination laws, the experts said. For example, a female executive who is also a mother was told that raising children could prevent her from working the long hours needed to move up to a more senior level, according to the Times story.

"It brings up some thoughts of sex discrimination," Shenker said. "Again the facts of each case . . . are going to be so important in determining if there is a violation."

In the case of a woman whose performance ratings turned negative after she cut back her evening and weekend hours to care for her cancer-stricken father, as described by the Times, the alleged harm she suffered could be illegal if she was taking the time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act, even if intermittent. The unpaid FMLA leave protects employees' jobs, benefits, pay and any promotions they were in line for.

"You cannot take adverse action such as demoting or blocking someone from qualifying for a promotion or even restoring her to an equivalent position for reasons related to the need for taking the Family and Medical Leave," said Irv Miljoner, who heads the Long Island office of the U.S. Department of Labor, which enforces the FMLA.

An Amazon executive quoted in the Times story denied that such treatment was a part of the company culture. And Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, subsequently said in an email to employees, "Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero," the Times said Monday.

One career expert said that as with any career decisions, employees have to determine whether a company culture works for them.

"Some people thrive in work environments such as we read about in the Times article," said Glory Borgeson, a Chicago-area career coach and the author of "Personal Branding to Get the Job You Want!" "It behooves us all to know ourselves so well that we know in which environments we thrive and in which environments we don't."


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