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Amazon 'Career Choice' Offering Warehouse Workers Tuition Help A PR Stunt, Critics Say

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NEW YORK -- Seeking to blunt reports of poor working conditions in its warehouses, Amazon said on Monday that it would offer full-time employees up to $2,000 a year in college and vocational training tuition assistance -- even if they plan to leave the company for industries as far afield as dentistry and nursing.

A letter from CEO Jeff Bezos about the new program was featured prominently on the online retail giant's homepage for much of Monday and Tuesday.

"Many of our fulfillment center employees will choose to build their careers at Amazon. For others, a job at Amazon might be a step towards a career in another field. We want to make it easier for employees to make that choice and pursue their aspirations," Bezos wrote. "This is one innovation that we hope other companies in this economy will copy."

But without further details, it's difficult to determine whether the program, called Career Choice, represents a generous olive branch to warehouse employees -- or merely an attempt at corporate damage control.

John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, said he thinks the latter. Career Choice, he said, ranks in "the bottom quarter" of what he has seen the best firms offering in his two decades of studying tuition reimbursement.

"It will have a low impact on employees, but it will gain the firm some positive press," Sullivan said. He did note that Amazon will reimburse tuition at the start of the semester, a big plus for someone earning $11 an hour.

Amazon's problems started in September 2011 with an article in the Allentown, Pa. Morning Call about the company's packing and shipping warehouse, where the heat often topped 100 degrees during the summer. Employees described a relentlessly fast-paced work environment, and company was forced to have paramedics stationed outside in ambulances to treat heat exhaustion and dehydration. Then the company's hometown newspaper, the Seattle Times, followed up with a series detailing everything from Amazon's lack of philanthropic giving to injuries in warehouses.

Much of what those newspapers found suggests that not all warehouse employees will be able to take advantage of tuition reimbursement. There are some significant catches to Amazon's offer: employees must be directly employed by Amazon, and for at least three years.

As the newspapers detailed, however, many of the workers in the warehouses are technically employed by third-party temporary staffing agencies. And many work seasonal jobs for only a few months before moving on.

"Amazon is known as a relatively harsh place to work, so their turnover is relatively high and only a percentage of workers will even make it to three years," said Sullivan. "Their heavy use of contractors, robotics and their liberal termination policy will also restrict the number that will ever qualify for this benefit. "

Amazon did not respond to a request from The Huffington Post for the number of its warehouse workers who are full-time employees who have worked for the company for at least three years.

"They've tried their hardest to make sure that nobody knows the number" of employees who are actually working via contracting companies, said Ori Korin, a spokeswoman for the union advocacy group American Rights at Work.

"We would certainly applaud Amazon for their efforts to offer benefits to their employees, we think that's great," Korin said. But in Korin's mind that is far from enough: "What we'd want is for the company to really get their [temporary] workers on a path to permanent employee status."

Sullivan said the fact that Amazon's program was open to at least some warehouse workers, rather than just headquarters staff, was relatively unique. But the $2,000 limit on reimbursement placed it behind companies like Smuckers and Capital One, which don't restrict reimbursement. And Amazon has further stipulated that the program will "exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand," and not cover bachelors and masters degrees. Those limits will make the program less desirable for many workers, Sullivan said.

Bersin & Associates, an enterprise learning and talent management research firm, said 80 percent of companies offer tuition reimbursement, at an average of $3,769 per year. The average annual tuition and fees at a community college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, is $2,963.

Amazon's move, said Bersin & Associates CEO Josh Bersin, was "a pretty bold statement." But it may also have been a smart financial decision: The company's number-crunchers probably figured Career Choice would help retain enough employees to save money in the end.

"My guess was that the way this would be cost-justified was that this would reduce our turnover by X percent and pay for itself," Bersin said. But he said he was unsure that many warehouse workers packing boxes for 40 or 50 hours a week would take advantage of it.

"How much energy do you have to go and take courses at night?" Bersin asked.

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