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Amazon Confidential: Week 9, The Power of Peak

Just a few weeks ago the Amazon fulfillment center where I work as a temporary stower was just gearing up for the first big holiday sales of the year. The entire plant now hums with the steady sound of rumbling conveyor belts which never stop. On Saturday night my friend George tells me to go up on the second floor mezzanine to get the full effect, which I do. I gaze down upon a long stream of yellow totes filled with merchandise headed to shipping. Coming from every direction in the plant, hundreds of items an hour are pouring over those conveyor belts. It was truly impressive to see.

At the nightly meeting at the beginning of our shift, we learn our fulfillment center has the dubious distinction of processing more product than any other Amazon plant – at least that is what our handlers tell us.

If this was meant to motivate, it didn’t work. Many of us feel more tired than we did upon arrival. Most of the super stowers have been transferred to the picking department, where due to their speed they get to process even more orders. The general consensus is, work hard, they increase your production goals. Work even harder, you get rewarded with a transfer to a more difficult position.

Me? I’ve decided slow but steady wins the race. I took to heart those words during our orientation meeting: It’s a job, not a career. I’m here to make money. I’m working hard, but I’m not going to kill myself for Amazon. I have come away with a certain admiration for this giant corporation that has grown so quickly in the past ten years. I also have a number of concerns.

Like what’s in the dust we’re all inhaling on a daily basis, the same stuff being blown around by those giant fans located throughout the plant? The same stuff that coats my clothing in a white film by the time I come home every night, and settles on all the plant shelving. And what is it doing to my lungs?

And how about the noise? That constant rumble of conveyor belts ten to twelve hours a day?

I often wonder what will happen to some of the more seriously injured workampers. At least one man I know has been unable to return to work after receiving a head injury in the early days at the plant. He is still out on workman’s comp, receiving medical care and getting lots of doctor’s appointments. But winter has also set in and he and his wife are living in the same campground as I am. I will soon be departing but they can make no plans for the future, at least not right now. Spending the winter living in a trailer in a snowbound campground is not my idea of fun.

My number one suggestion Amazon: Let your Managers manage on the ground level… and get rid of about half of them. There are so any managerial layers in this one plant alone, I can’t envision how this company is actually making money. It takes an act of God to get anything done, or for someone to make a decision.

My number two suggestion: get rid of the donut shift. When I first heard I’d been placed on a donut shift, I didn’t think much about it. But once the stowers got busy and we went to fifty hour weeks, never getting two days off together became really tiring.

For almost two months now I’ve worked four ten hour nights, had 1 day off, went back to work the following night for ten hours, had the following day off, then worked four more ten hour nights. There isn’t enough time to shop for groceries, never mind walk the dog…or go see a movie. And before you ask, I did request a transfer to a different schedule and was denied.

I’m sure in a few years or less, as leases expire and processing of orders becomes even more automated, these enormous fulfillment centers will become a thing of the past. The RV parks and campgrounds, restaurants and parts stores that cater to the “camperforce” workampers will shrink in size or close all together. Smaller, local fulfillment centers will become the norm and this vast army of workers will become just one more cog in the wheel of Amazon advancement.

Personally I won’t be returning to Amazon next year, though they’ve already asked us our intentions. Processing Sugar Beets in Minnesota next fall is sounding real good about now