AFE (Amazon Fulfillment Engine)

AFE was a real culture shock. I have worked as a laborer most of my life, but I have never experienced a work environment where employees are pitted against each other as they were in AFE in 2014 . There have been some ameliorative changes made through 2015, but the foundational system of AFE remains brutal.

AFE is a hyper-efficient order packing system involving three general operations–sort, re-bin, and pack. I will not go into detail about the operations as AFE is a proprietary system closely guarded by Amazon. Tours are not allowed to see AFE.

I was assigned to AFE pack. Pack tables are very long, with packers working side by side at workstations. Packers are expected to pack at or above a highly efficient, set rate, for a ten hour shift with two fifteen minute paid breaks (officially shortened to ten minutes by walk time), and a thirty minute unpaid lunch. For eleven hour shifts during peak season, an extra five minutes is added to last break.

AFE operations are monitored by AMs (Area Managers) and PAs (Production Assistants). In 2014, spreadsheets of worker’s individual rates were posted four times per day (first break, lunch, second break, end of shift) on a bulletin board at the AFE stand-up area (the area where workers gather for morning and after-lunch mandatory stand-up meetings). The rate lists were delineated by all workers at or above expected rate and all those below rate. A worker could be talked to, or written up for falling below rate for as little as a few hours. These two forms of reprimand were not automatic, but were always looming for a worker who was not working fast enough. AFE sort, re-bin, and pack have their own rates, as do most SDF8 operations.

AFE workers generally internalize these rate expectations, so that not making rate worries the employee: “I better pick it up, so I can make my rate.” I noticed right away, and many employees have said to me, “Amazon is the only job I’ve ever had where to show up and work hard all day is not enough.”

Often, making rate is based on factors beyond an employee’s control. A packer relies on a fast and accurate re-binner, who in turn relies on a fast and accurate sorter. All rely on an adequate amount of work being generated from the pick department. For packers, large orders (a bin with a fifteen item order, for instance, vs. a bin with a two item order) can help bring up the packer’s hourly rate. For this reason, packers, working side by side on a wall, would often try to select the larger orders to pack. This trend pitted packer against packer as a matter of self-preservation. Sometimes the reverse would happen–if an employee who was comfortable with her rate noticed that a fellow employee was falling behind, the first worker might begin offering the larger orders to the slower employee to help him catch up. I sometimes tried to do this for slower packers, but I generally knew that these employees would not be with the company long.

The posting of individual rates every quarter-shift as well as write-ups for failing to meet rates for a quarter-shift was abandoned around April of 2015 in favor a new program of monthly rate evaluations that never really came to fruition. PAs continued to reprimand Tier One associates for not meeting rate expectations for random time periods, and in the June 2016 All Hands meeting, the company announced a new program to post daily rates of all Tier One employees with three “categories of performance management.” I will discuss this new program below.

The results of this environment are disillusionment, low morale, high turnover. Many of my hire group quit in the first week, month, or few months. Several thousand full-time Amazon SDF8 employees have come and gone during my short tenure. Their enthusiasm and excitement turns to sullen capitulation, then they are just gone. I know of only one member of my hire group other than me who is still employed at SDF8. There could be others, I don’t know.

I asked a PA in 2014 about AFE rates. I walked her over to the posted rates and showed her the current postings. At that moment, only about 25% of packers were making rate. (This was really low. Usually it is much higher, maybe 70% to 80%.) She said most of those people were new. She said the expected rates at the Amazon facility she transferred from were much higher, and these rates should be easy to make. The rates were obviously not easy to make–the data was right before our eyes. She had many explanations, but no desire to speak rationally about the rates. This experience became the norm when I have tried to talk to any manager or HR rep about unfair policies. Managers will not vary from script, no matter how diligently an employee tries to engage them in a rational interpersonal discussion. I have only recently been able to get a manager or HR rep to even acknowledge we have a high turnover rate.