State press releases heralded Amazon as the "biggest jobs announcement since 2004." The release quoted Gov. Bob McDonnell saying that "the skill and availability of the region's workforce were key factors."
Availability, yes. At about $11 an hour, these jobs may go fast, but will they take you far?
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos spent a well-publicized week in March 2009 working alongside employees at his company's 600,000-square-foot Lexington, Ky., fulfillment center. The stint was part of a no-exceptions policy requiring all Amazon corporate employees to cross-train both as fulfillment-center employees and as call-center representatives.
Any more than a week and Bezos may have seen the work more as penance than positive PR, according to some Lexington-area Amazon workers.
The company's Lexington facility, built in 2000, is similar to the one under construction in Chesterfield, offering a glimpse of Chesterfield's future. It also offers a glimpse for prospective employees vying for the hundreds of jobs it will create here.
Those jobs, starting at $11 and topping out at $14.75 per hour, will offer solid employment in the midst of nationwide economic uncertainty. But workers should be prepared to hustle for every dollar, say nearly a dozen current and former employees of the Lexington facility. Richmond magazine visited the city in May.
When Bezos visited, the Lexington center had no climate control, a fact confirmed by a dozen current and former employees. Some reported temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees indoors.
At the time of Richmond magazine's visit, two massive temporary air-conditioning units on flatbed trailers had recently been parked at the site, and Amazon confirms that many of its older facilities lacked HVAC until recently.
"In recent years, we've built our new fulfillment centers with air-conditioning units installed," wrote Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako in an email response to Richmond magazine queries. "This year, we are also investing $52 million to retrofit our other fulfillment centers with air conditioning."
The Chesterfield plant will be heated and cooled — no less than 40 degrees in the winter and no more than 80 degrees in the summer, according to Chesterfield officials.
Scanning the Scene
Billy Payton, 21, worked at the Lexington fulfillment facility as a "picker" for about six months before being dismissed for "inventory errors," he says.
Payton says he was often praised by management for maintaining a speed and accuracy rate of 130 percent. Required to retrieve more than 1,000 "picks" of merchandise in a day, he said he once managed 2,400. Those who fall short of their daily retrieval rate are awarded a point, and earning six points equates a dismissal, employees say.
Payton says his scanner — pickers must scan each item they pick from shelves before placing it in their pushcart — was not working properly the day before he was dismissed. But he also says he had bruised his hip on the edge of a conveyor belt on the day he was let go and had reported it to his supervisors.
"They wanted to make clear that [my dismissal] had nothing to do with getting hurt," says Payton.
Dismissals like Payton's don't disqualify ex-employees from reapplying and being rehired after 90 days, workers say. Three months of unemployment is standard for all temporary workers, all of whom are allowed to stay with the company for up to six months, after which "they either hire you [full time as "permanent" Amazon employee] or let you go," Payton says.
When asked about employees who shared instances of injuries or minor illnesses that they say led to termination, Osako responded that it isn't possible to accurately portray the effectiveness of Amazon's procedures with anecdotes. Fulfillment employees, whether permanent or temporary, receive benefits, Osako reported. Permanent employees receive medical, vision and dental benefits. Temp workers "are eligible to enroll for benefits ... immediately upon hire," Osako wrote. She also indicated that temp workers "receive medical or sick leave." Temporary workers said they were given 20 hours of scheduled leave time, and if they took unscheduled leave for sickness or other absences, they would be awarded a half to one point. Osako also provided workplace safety statistics. From Jan. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30, 2011, Amazon fulfillment centers had an annual average recordable incidence rate of 2.5 to 4.2 per 100 workers.
"Belinda" is a permanent Amazon employee who started as a temp worker through Amazon's hiring partner in Lexington, Integrity Staffing Solutions. She also says on-the-job injuries are a near-guarantee that supervisors will find some work-related reason to terminate a worker.
"If you get on the hurt list, you might as well say it's over," says Belinda, who asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of risking her employment. All employees sign a confidentiality agreement when they're hired. Belinda lives in Lexington, meaning she doesn't squander the $14.75 she earns an hour (the top end of the pay scale) on the hour-plus car commute many of her co-workers make. Osako says median pay inside the company's U.S. fulfillment centers is 30 percent higher than that of traditional retail stores." Federal employment statistics confirm this.
Scouting for Workers
Chesterfield residents, who enjoy the region's highest median income levels, seem unlikely to make up the bulk of Amazon's workforce. "We know we're going to draw from three or four areas for employment," says Karen Aylward, a Chesterfield County assistant economic-development director.
"You draw a 30-mile radius [around both the Chesterfield and Dinwiddie sites] and … there would be people who are willing to drive that far," says Aylward, pointing to Amelia and Prince Edward counties to the west and Hampton Roads to the east.
"I wouldn't do it," she says, acknowledging the long distances. However, she adds, the unemployment rates in those regions are much higher than in Richmond suburbs.
And the effort to quickly recruit workers represents a breakthrough partnership between dozens of state and local agencies, including the Virginia Employment Commission, the Virginia Community College System and state Department of Labor, Aylward says.
Amazon's Osako confirms the company will be doing its own hiring for the Virginia facilities, as reflected in job postings on its corporate website.
"From Amazon's perspective, what [our] group can do is pre-screening," Aylward says. And more importantly, she says, now that the partnership is in place, it will play a pivotal role in providing screening and workforce training for other employers who follow Amazon.
The Pace and the Benefits
James Hammond's family has strong ties to Nicholasville, a suburb of Lexington. His grandfather was chief of police here, and the younger Hammond plans to follow him into the family business.
He'll have plenty to do if he makes the force. Nicholasville wilts in the shadow of its prosperous neighbor, Lexington. Crystal meth and a small-time prostitution industry are significant economic drivers here, according to locals.
Almost two years ago, Hammond walked through the door of an anonymous-looking glass-front storefront in a strip mall anchored by a Food Lion in downtown Lexington. Integrity Staffing Solutions is where everyone hoping to work for Amazon in Lexington — and in a dozen or more communities around the country where Integrity is Amazon's partner — follow an assembly-line process of online applications followed by a march along a series of color-coded arrows on the temp service's floor. The arrows lead through a series of pre-qualifying steps that the applicants hope will lead them to the orientation video at the end of the rainbow.
As with all but a handful of the 200 or so people in his orientation, Hammond's employment ended promptly and unceremoniously at the end of his six-month stint.
He recounts his break-time routine. Fifteen-minute breaks, he says, started immediately with the last item he scanned. Despite being off the clock, he says he still had to deliver his cart of merchandise to a station where he'd unload.
Only then could he make for the employee break room near the other end of the thousand-foot-long building: "By the time you get to the break room, you almost have to turn around."
Nonetheless, he says, Amazon's pace is "completely understandable." They're running a worldwide business, Hammond says, and the economy is bad, which makes the work attractive and fair.
And there are big benefits at Amazon. Belinda says she's thankful that with permanent employment status comes shares of Amazon stock. Health care, dental, vision and retirement also are part of the package. "But we still need a pay raise," she says.