What you see on Amazon's public warehouse tours

Heike Geissler wrote her memo from 2018 of working in an Amazon distribution center in Leipzig, Germany, as a novel. This is probably partly for legal reasons, but especially to give her the space to make the story feel more universal, as much of it is written in the second person. & # 39; You, & # 39; the reader, is the one your manager laughs at because he pauses to read the back of a book that you should pass from box to box.

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"You don't quite understand how a fortune can be made from these things on both sides of you and from books and data carriers and a program and a website, a fortune that is still growing," Geissler writes in Seasonal employee. "You also do not understand why that fortune should not have an inverse effect on the hall, to add some comfort or shine. It is not that you do not realize that the fortune is intentionally prevented from flowing back to the employees; you it just doesn't understand, and of course it can't be understood. "

"You spend ten hours on foot, there are no windows in the room and you are not allowed to talk to people – no interaction is allowed," former Amazon warehouse employee Seth King told Vox last summer. "I got a feeling in no time that they were killing people or until they got too tired to keep working. I felt that I could not work there and maintain a healthy state of mind."

Last November, Chavie Lieber reported to Vox how the holidays are going in an Amazon fulfillment center, and quoted another employee who said, "Everyone works six days a week. The employees work 10 hours a day, the managers 14 to 18. The is mandatory overtime, the hours are not voluntary and they are all at your feet. "In March a warehouse worker in Staten Island was fired for a minor security breach and filed a lawsuit against Amazon, claiming that his real offense was attempted the month before tried to lead to trade union.

And while outrage over the conditions in Amazon facilities has escalated in recent years, horrible accounts date back to at least 2011 when the daily newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania that the heat index in his local warehouse had reached 102 degrees, workers collapsed, and those who left because of the heat received disciplinary points. The managers called 911 so many times that Amazon, instead of closing operations until the heat wave was over, only paid for a fleet of ambulances to stay outside.


The assembly line system at an Amazon fulfillment center in Sacramento, California, before the facility opened in 2017.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

With all this loomingly large in public opinion, Amazon started tours twice a day this year at 46 out of more than 250 locations worldwide. (Previously, they were offered only five times a month in five locations.) Anyone can sign up online without signing a non-disclosure agreement or promising to keep what they see for themselves. "Come see the magic," the website suggests. "Tour through one of our fulfillment centers and see with your own eyes how we deliver." There is nothing to hide.

So last Thursday morning I drove to the Amazon fulfillment center in West Deptford, New Jersey – called ACY1 because of its proximity to Atlantic City airport, although it is also only about 20 minutes from Philadelphia.

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The website of the city website is proud of business opportunities – great infrastructure, low property taxes, and the presence of NuStar Energy. It is a generic prosperous city with a population of just over 20,000 mostly white, middle class Barack Obama and Chris Christie voters, almost half registered as independent. It annually organizes the Senior Little League Baseball Eastern Regional Tournament, the biggest fame of baseball racing, and is in the midst of redecorating and redesigning. its historic port on the Delaware river.

The Amazon facility is located in the forest behind the city exit, lined with a solar farm, a construction company and a health component for behavior. It has a parking lot of several hundred cars and is about the size of a megaplex cinema. ACY1 employs 2,000 people, of the 17,500 Amazon employees in the state of New Jersey. The company employs more than 647,000 people around the world, of which 125,000 at American fulfillment centers such as the ones I visited.

Knowing what Amazon & # 39; s typical rule is, I will now say: this is of course a fraction of the 1.5 million people employed by Walmart in the US (2.2 million worldwide), and I do not claim that the way Walmart works has and defines the American worker is anything but extremely important, probably more important than the current definition of Amazon. But since Amazon would also like to believe that this is the future and that retail for large boxes is the past, much attention has been paid to it: what does this work look like best, when everything is as pleasant as it can be made possible be to appear?

My tour included a grandmother who escorted two girls and a boy between the ages of about 6 and 10, an older man who was alone, seven businessmen who later told me they were running the third-party Amazon fulfillment company Paragon Trading Post (and also told me unsolicited that they earned $ 5 million last year), and I – quickly identified as a reporter by my guide, who suggested that the tour was off-the-record, but it wasn't, but I'm going to finish to see directly quoting everything he said out of respect for this clear confusion.

He led us through a row of blue and orange metro staircases, past ID-activated vending machines full of safety equipment and Tylenol packages and a dozen paper plates with "Amazonians" career support, day care advice, mental health care and other fun things. All of this was underlined by a tour script that focused – before we even left the first stairwell – on the $ 15 hourly wage in the facility, as well as the 50% 401 (k) matching, robust health benefits, and free community college classes.


Amazon opens new fulfillment center in Aurora, Colorado

A packing station at the Amazon fulfillment center in Aurora, Colorado.
Rick T. Wilking / Getty Images

We listened to him through headphones because the general buzz of the building made it too loud to talk normally. His story was funny and warm; he never sounded overly cautious or guarded, and when he couldn't answer questions, it never seemed like it was because the answers were secrets.

But what he showed us about the building made me feel like my brain had fallen into a barrel of Alka-Seltzer.

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I assume you're familiar with Lee Ann Womack's double-platinum 1999 graduation slideshow classic "I Hope You Dance," which includes the plea "I hope you still feel small when you stand next to the ocean." In 1999 this lyricism went over the ocean. In 2019 this song is about the inside of an Amazon fulfillment center. It is too much to be understood even in panoramic view.

At any time I could see and understand the presence of about 30 of the moving, four-sided, huge ones bookshelf-like robots dance around, covered stuff, called to and fro by the QR codes on the floor. But there were thousands in the building, extending beyond where I could see them. I stood on a narrow bridge overlooking the ground floor and saw a row of open doors on the edge of the building, back and forth, again along my line of sight, steadily fed by conveyor belts covered with individual Amazon packages. I could not understand exactly that every conveyor belt led to the back of a truck with a trailer, even though this was told.


The robots used in Amazon fulfillment centers were built by the Massachusetts company Kiva Systems, which is now owned by Amazon and is called Amazon Robotics.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

At one point, the grandmother of the tour leaned forward and pointed the younger girl's attention to one of the moving towers, just as it spun away from us and said, "Ooh, have you seen the Aveeno lotion?" As if recognizing a product was comparable to seeing a celebrity.

I noted the celebrities I saw: football, detergent, Fancy Feast, Pop-Tarts, kombucha starter kit, protein powder, paper plates, maxi pads. I realized at one point that I was holding my breath, hoping that I would not see anything that I had ever ordered, as if that were the first moment when I would have to acknowledge my personal involvement. (It doesn't matter that I had wiped out a text message from Amazon during my two-hour drive and announced that my Tigi hair spray would arrive later in the day.)

When things fall off the bookshelf robots, we were told that specialists should disable the QR codes for the parts of the floor that enclose the dropped object, and then organize a special operation to go out and pick it up without getting clocked by a tower that I don't know they are there. They are called the "floor health team" and that is their job at ACY1.

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But there are two main tasks related to these robots: picking and stowing. Employees stand at individual, half-enclosed stations at least 15 meters apart and & # 39; retrieve & # 39; things from the robots, scan them and then drop them into a yellow plastic bin, a & # 39; carrier bag & # 39; or they take things out of the bins. scan them and store them in the robots. They are connective tissue, bending and scanning and placing, then bending and scanning and placing. There is no music, no ability to speak out loud to anyone, and no decisions are allowed.


A "stow" station at an Amazon fulfillment center in Orlando, Florida.
Paul Hennessy / Getty Images

Back on the ground floor – although we didn't talk to employees – we met a robot arm called Trudy, which lifts heavy trucks in the middle of the huge space. Trudy is surrounded by rows and rows of packing stations, where employees are told by a computer which format box to use for the items sorted by the computer for them, before a computer spits out a piece of tape exactly the right length to close it . Looking at the shipping labels is stamped by another robot, the older girl asked on the tour if Prime orders are handled differently than regular orders. She was sure that all orders are processed in the same way, regardless of who places them, that everything is valuable to someone – and although she nodded in response to this policy of egalitarianism when purchasing, I could see she was chewing it, maybe a little unsure about the notes it struck.

"Is this all a matter of life and death? I will say no for the time being and return to the question later," writes Geissler at the beginning of Seasonal employee. "At that moment I will say: not directly, but in a sense it is. It is a matter of how far death is allowed in our lives. Or the fatal, that which kills us." Later she will come again on back and adds: "I cannot prove that the work is killing someone. … They are all upright and working well (.)"

After that we were thanked for our time and received instructions about an online survey, as well as new bottles of water that "Amazon FC Tours" read, and then returned to a lobby, which was only then exposed at the back of the hall, which was read "Work hard. Have fun. Make history."

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