's Latest Attempt to Fix Its Image: "We'll Help You Pay For School! (If You Go Into Programs We Deem Worthy)"

Despite many recent exposes on the misery of working in the warehouses that big online retailers like rely on to ship the goods they sell, the company continues to claim that its "fulfillment center" jobs are just the greatest thing since sliced bread. Example A: A letter to customers on the sitetoday, from CEO Jeff Bezos, saying, in part, "Our high productivity allows us to pay our fulfillment center employees 30% more than traditional physical retail store employees while still offering customers the lowest prices. Our work on safety practices has been so effective that it's statistically safer to work in an Amazon fulfillment center than in a traditional department store." 

But that's not what Bezos's letter is all about! (So we won't linger on the reports of former employees getting carted off by paramedics after fainting on the job--"I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one," one former employee told the Morning Call. "They can do that because there aren't any jobs in the area.")

No, instead Bezos is bragging about a new program that will allow Amazon "fulfillment center" employees to take a step toward a career in another field--after only three years of warehouse work! They'll pay 95 percent of the cost of courses "in areas that are well-paying and in high demand." Gee, thanks, Amazon! 

What's the catch? Oh, plenty. Don't you worry. 

First off, what they'll actually pay: "Amazon will pay up to 95% of the tuition, textbook and associated fees up to a maximum of $2,000 per year for four years." Um, can anyone tell me where you can find an education that costs less than $2,000 per year? I'd love to know, and so would the kids with the skyrocketing student debt. (According to the American Association of Community Colleges, average tuition per year is $2,963

Then, in case you had visions of sweating it out in a warehouse for a few years to put yourself through college for the degree of your choice, there's another catch: Amazon is only going to pay for courses in subjects that it deems worthy: 

The Amazon Career Choice Program will pre-pay 95% of tuition and associated fees at accredited schools for courses that lead to technical and vocational certifications or associate's degrees in eligible in-demand fields, such as Engineering, Information Technology, Mechanical and Electrical Trades, Healthcare, Construction, Transportation, and Accounting. Specific examples include aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technology, medical laboratory science, dental hygiene, and nursing. This program focuses on technical and vocation training programs and does not apply to Bachelors or Master's degree coursework.

It's like a corporate-influenced form of career tracking! How dare you think you might want to be an elementary school teacher, say, or consider actually going to medical school instead of being a lab tech. 

That's not to denigrate any of these fields--nursing, dental hygiene, accounting, and aircraft mechanics are all great jobs. And it's nice to know that Amazon wants to give back to its "fulfillment center" workers. But I've got a better suggestion for them: How about a raise? An extra $2000 a year would be an extra dollar an hour or so for those $11 an hour employees. If Bezos wants to be really generous he could bump them up to $14 an hour--and then they could decide how to spend their own money. 

Until then, this looks like a whole lot of image-polishing and not a lot of substance. 

AlterNet / By Sarah Jaffe

Posted at July 23, 2012, 11:26am