The next installment of an ongoing hit job on Amazon in the Seattle Times:
Amazon.com strives to be increasingly efficient to ship customers’ orders as quickly as possible from its fulfillment centers around the world. And while the company has a safety record better than most, some warehouse employees say the relentless drive to boost production wears them down and costs them their jobs.
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On an average day, 51-year-old Connie Milby covered more than 10 miles in her tennis shoes, walking and climbing up and down three flights of stairs to retrieve tools, toys and a vast array of other merchandise for Amazon.com shoppers.
She filled online orders for more than a decade, working through summer heat and winter chill inside the company’s south-central Kentucky warehouse.
One constant was the pace that Milby tried to keep to avoid write-ups from her supervisors that could put her $12.50-per-hour job at risk.
“At my age around here, there are not very many other opportunities to make what we make,” Milby said before beginning her 6:30 a.m. shift last October. “As long as my body holds up, I will keep working. But the way it feels, I don’t know how long that will be.”
Milby’s job here in Kentucky is a world away from Amazon’s rapidly expanding campus in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, where high-tech talent has created one of the cutting-edge companies of the Internet age.
She has been part of the massive blue-collar work force required to fulfill founder Jeff Bezos’ ambitious vision of Amazon as a company that rivals Microsoft and Apple in technological prowess, but also offers one-stop shopping worthy of a Wal-Mart.
According to Amazon, more than 15,000 of the company’s full-time employees work in its U.S. warehouses, called “fulfillment centers.” Amazon is expanding its work force at a breakneck pace to staff its global network of some 70 centers — 17 opened just last year.
In an industry that often offers scant benefits, Amazon provides full-time employees with stock shares after two years on the job, a matching 401(k) and health insurance. Temporary workers, such as those hired during the holiday rush, can buy medical coverage through staffing agencies.
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To get a better — although not comprehensive — sense of life on an Amazon warehouse floor, The Seattle Times interviewed more than 40 current and former Amazon warehouse workers. Reporters visited Campbellsville, home of one of Amazon’s oldest fulfillment centers, and Sumner, Pierce County, home of one of its newest facilities. A reporter also toured a two-year-old warehouse in West Phoenix while accompanied by company officials.
They found some employees who relished the challenges of working at an innovative company and appreciated the emphasis on safety. But they also found others who said that in its relentless push for efficiency, Amazon was quick to shed workers who, regardless of their tenure, could no longer measure up.
The majority of the current and former workers would speak only if guaranteed anonymity because they were worried that speaking publicly could harm their careers.
Of the three sites, Times reporters heard the harshest complaints about Campbellsville.
Amazon was greeted as an economic savior when it opened its warehouse there in 1999, soon after the town’s largest employer, Fruit of the Loom, shut down its textile plant.
The county’s unemployment rate then topped 22 percent. The state offered $19 million in tax credits to help offset the company’s $38 million investment. And Campbellsville, located within a day’s drive of more than half the nation’s population, had geography in its favor.
The area boasted a work force that, while somewhat older in profile than elsewhere in the Amazon network, had long tackled tough blue-collar jobs. Amazon hired more than 700 full-time workers and suddenly became the largest private employer in Taylor County, according to county statistics.
Early on, Bezos impressed the employees by taking time to work with warehouse crews during visits to the town.
“The Amazon motto is ‘Work hard, have fun and make history,’ and that’s what we did,” said Wethington, who worked for more than a decade at the Campbellsville fulfillment center before she was fired last year for a safety violation.
But over time, said former workers at Campbellsville, production pressure from headquarters intensified amid constant turnover.
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At Amazon warehouses around the country, work shifts often begin with stretches and pep talks focused on customer service, which Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has repeatedly said is key to the company’s survival.
“The first thing I know is that you need to obsess over the customers,” Bezos declared in a 2009 video. “I can tell you that we have been doing this from the very beginning, and it is the only reason that Amazon exists today in any form. We always put the customer first.”
The drive to serve customers has put Amazon on the leading edge of innovation in the warehouse industry, which increasingly has been restructured to serve online retailing.
Amazon has abandoned the old model of parking merchandise in a few centralized locations to open warehouses across the country and around the world.
These distribution hubs store and ship millions of items offered by Amazon, and, in a burgeoning new business, also store and ship the products of other merchants who sell on Amazon.com.
. . . .
At the 2-year-old, air-conditioned warehouse in West Phoenix, workers, most of whom appeared young and fit, moved a record 2,086,548 items from the shelves to the loading docks in one week, an accomplishment emblazoned on a banner in the middle of the warehouse. The 1.2 million-square-foot building hums — literally, and at times loudly — as conveyors whisk items across, around and through the building at speeds of about 20 mph.
“I’m obsessed with efficiency, and this is the most productive place I’ve ever seen,” said Shelby Lewis, a 22-year-old West Phoenix warehouse worker who wants to make her career at Amazon. “We change stuff quickly here. It’s constantly getting better.”
Just like at West Phoenix, performance measurement is paramount at Amazon’s Sumner warehouse.
Employees are coached by a “problem solver” who roams the warehouse floor with a laptop on wheels and offers feedback on how to do things better. Each morning and afternoon, during breaks, management calls out the names of workers who have made their goals.
“They are a driven corporation — more driven than any place I’ve worked,” said one worker who handles freight.
But those who don’t measure up, that worker and others said, can quickly get the boot.
A supervisor in Sumner, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the company keeps track of mistakes, and penalizes workers for errors such as not properly scanning merchandise, even if the scanner itself caused the problem. Safety violations and other missteps also can result in write-ups that lead to firing, employees said.
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Amazon has built its network of fulfillment centers in an era when union membership has been declining. Organized labor now represents less than 8 percent of the warehouse workforce.
In Campbellsville, the mean wage for full-time workers — including incentive pay and stock options that vest after two years on the job — tops $14 an hour, according to an Amazon official. That is substantially higher than the mean hourly wage of less than $10 an hour for warehouse workers in south-central Kentucky. But it lags far behind the top tier of unionized workers in the area, who may make more than $20 per hour after four years on the job at a Kroger grocery warehouse, according to Kenny Lauersdorf with Teamsters Local 89.
Early on, Amazon took a hard line against unions. A high-profile organizing effort by the Communications Workers of America at an Amazon call center in Seattle ended in 2001, when the center was shut down and some 400 workers were laid off as part of a larger company restructuring. At the time, Bezos said union issues played no role in the decision.
Former employees at Amazon distribution centers say that workers are warned of the perils of unions. “We had a meeting once a year, and they would put the unions down and say that they would take money out of our checks,” said Owens, who worked at the Campbellsville plant.
Link to the rest at the Seattle Times
For a little perspective, Passive Guy will say that performing unskilled or semi-skilled physical labor and growing older don’t go well together in any line of work. Farm workers, factory workers, even retail clerks who are on their feet all day can suffer problems as they age.
Any company that employs tens of thousands of unskilled or semi-skilled employees is going to have ex-employees with complaints. Absent access to managers and co-workers at the former employer, it’s impossible to assess the validity of those ex-employee complaints.
The Seattle Times meme for its story about Amazon’s warehouse employees is the same as countless articles about Wal-Mart, another company that actively resists labor unions. These types of articles never consider the more relevant question for the tens of thousands of towns like Campbellsville, Kentucky – what’s the alternative for these Amazon and Wal-Mart employees?
In all probability, the alternatives are clerking at the local convenience store, working next to steaming piles of chicken guts at a horrendous processing plant or a dead-end job at a filthy local warehouse that hasn’t hired anybody new in ten years. And these alternative jobs are at minimum wage and include no medical insurance or any other benefits.
In a place like Campbellsville, it doesn’t take long for the locals to learn what it’s really like to work at Amazon or Wal-Mart. When 1,000 people apply for ten open jobs at the Amazon warehouse, you have a real-world assessment by the people most directly affected about whether Amazon is a good place to work or not.
One other benefit of working at Amazon — unlike the Seattle Times, Amazon doesn’t have mass layoffs right before Christmas.