June 18, 2015


With 6,000 new warehouse jobs, what is Amazon really delivering? (Jessica Bruder, June 17, 2015, Reuters)

On his 2013 jobs tour, President Barack Obama stopped to deliver a speech at the aforementioned Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga. The audience cheered when he called for restoring the middle class through "good jobs with good wages." But today that same warehouse is hiring at $11.25 an hour. That's $23,400 annually, or $850 below the poverty line for a family of four.

Hourly wages at the other warehouses listed in Amazon's recent hiring announcement range from $11 in Jefferson, Indiana to $12.75 an hour in Robbinsville, New Jersey and Windsor, Connecticut.

Even by industry standards, those are some thin paychecks. Wal-Mart pays distribution center employees an average hourly wage of $19, said a spokesman for that company.

Meanwhile, Amazon's treatment of warehouse workers has been under scrutiny since 2011, when an investigation by the Allentown Morning Call newspaper revealed what were -- quite literally -- sweatshop conditions. When summer temperatures exceeded 100 degrees inside the company's Breinigsville, Pennsylvania warehouse, managers would not open the loading bay doors for fear of theft. Instead, they hired paramedics to wait outside in ambulances, ready to extract heat-stricken employees on stretchers and in wheelchairs, the investigation found. Workers also said they were pressured to meet ever-greater production targets, a strategy colloquially known as "management by stress."

Amazon declined to answer the newspaper's specific questions about working conditions in the warehouse but, eight months after the story was released, company officials announced that they'd spent $52 million to retrofit warehouses with air conditioning.

In my own interviews with dozens of Amazon warehouse workers, I've heard reports of repetitive stress injuries, pain and exhaustion. (Some called themselves "Amazombies." Others said they tried to think of the job as a free fitness program.)

Those issues relate to job quality. What about job quantity?

On the same day Amazon announced 6,000 new hires, teams from around the globe competed in the first-ever "Amazon Picking Challenge" in Seattle. Their goal? Build robots that can "pick" shelved items -- in this case, the objects ranged from rubber ducks to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - with enough dexterity to someday replace human hands. (Amazon already has some 15,000 Kiva robots that transport shelves of merchandise to human "pickers," but the act of picking has proved much harder to automate.)

Amazon maintains a very low headcount for its sales volume, which rose to $89 billion last year. Amazon creates just 17 jobs for every $10 million in sales, according to figures in its annual report. Compare that with traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, which create jobs at more than twice that rate: 42 positions for each $10 million in sales, according to an analysis of census data by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"From a regional perspective, this is clearly not a path to greater employment and more economic activity," said Stacy Mitchell, the organization's director. 

Losing forty pounds was worth some repetitive motion problems.
Posted by at June 18, 2015 7:14 PM

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