My Two Months of Seasonal Work at an Amazon Fulfillment Center

Photo: Scott Lewis/Flickr

Nine days into the seasonal project, I offered my first suggestions about workflow. We were asked to refrain from offering ideas, via a supersized whiteboard, for an unstated period. But I felt as if I were Lucy at the chocolate factory and needed some quick relief.

After boxes and packages dropped down a chute onto a fast-moving conveyor belt, the human splitters divided the flow between the nearest lane and other lanes. Each package and lane was identified by letters of the alphabet, and so was the task of matching.

To keep up, I shuffled across a 10-foot length, partly covered by a mat. About 30 minutes into the shift, the Safety Officer asked that I stay on the mat. I told him that I couldn’t handle the flow. He shrugged and walked away.

The Learning Manager stopped by next, and I told her that either the flow needed adjustment or the mat needed widening. “Be careful,” she said, “of the red trip wire.” If I pulled it, the operation would stop. Ten minutes later, one of the seasonal Human Resources came by to ask that I see her at the end of the shift. Could this be end of my only modest income? It was a fluke that I found this gig through a banner ad at the bottom of some webpage that I visited in late November 2015.

A $10 Hourly Wage

A senior manager from my new job in insurance recently suggested using an online service that maintains your contact list for you so that you can send out greeting cards throughout the year. All you need to do is hire a temporary worker at a mere $10 per hour to create the contact list. This is such a bargain, and so were the manual laborers at the sorting center northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since July 2014, I hadn’t worked for a steady paycheck on a salaried or hourly basis. Growing up in New York City, I knew of seasonal work at department stores like Macy’s, but, through the eyes of friends who were caught in retail for seasonal work, I knew it really wasn’t sustaining. Even so, money is money, and I needed a weekly income.

Part of the application process for the warehouse job sought to find out if prospective workers could play nicely with others — a personality test for short-termers. I passed, and was offered $10 per hour, for 20 hours per week, in their busy year-end cycle. I was fortunate to get the 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. shift at the warehouse, which allowed me to keep searching for better paying jobs in the afternoon. This was $10 an hour manual labor, sorting packages for delivery to customers as far north as Asheville, North Carolina and as far south as Columbia, South Carolina. On any shift between November 24 and Christmas, you might find up to 300 workers getting packages sorted and ready for loading onto UPS, USPS, and FEDEX trucks.

Rank-and-file workers were required to wear their badges on breakable lanyards or on armbands, thin, red vented vests over their shirts or jackets, and highly flexible thin gloves. Requirements about long hair, jewelry, shorts, and piercings also were enforced. Supervisors and managers wore green or blue vests, often with their title and names, or nicknames, across the backs.

Scanning Performance

The daily assignments are posted on a rolling whiteboard. You might scan packages, unload trucks, drive forklifts, split package streams on a fast-moving belt or between two halves of one lane, sort jiffy bags and other smallish parcels, operate a Gaylord box dumper that unloads packages into the upstream conveyor belt, wrap pallets for shipment, and so on. More than a few workers picked their favorite lane and job, and stayed with it throughout the season. No one particularly cared, except for one motivated individual who appealed to management on a supersized talk-to management board.

The scanners’ hourly performance is posted on a whiteboard that’s close to the first lane where splitters, scanners, and water spiders work. High hourly scan rates could result in receiving company gift cards and chits that could be used for company-branded swag.

Jam breakers make sure that packages of many sizes freely ascend and descend conveyor tracks. At the dizziest perch, the worker stands on a 40-foot gangplank and reaches down to unsorted clogs. Hip flexors, awake and sing!

“Grab and go,” and “do not overextend” were two commands that became scanners’ mantras at the warehouse. In other words, don’t dawdle but don’t do stupid human tricks in your effort toward a comfortable rhythm or a record-breaking shift.

Reach the supreme total of 180 scanned and stacked boxes and smaller packages by handling three of them per minute, said a metric area manager. That rate assumed that stacking the boxes and packages was an orderly process with no redo. The ideal pallet stack was foursquare with heaviest boxes at bottom with labels facing outward.

But those ideal, heavy boxes may arrive late on the roller platform after you’ve loaded small items that needed quick wrapping in heavy plastic, lest they fall off the stack. This semi-skilled approach, mostly tactical, slowed down the pallet-building rate. Typically, specialists — the water spiders — were called on to optimize the pallet in the time allowed. Take the initiative to dismantle a bad stack, and you might be rewarded with chits and commendations.

Helping One Another

“Don’t get ticked off when someone wants to help you.”

“Safety first.”

Area supervisors and safety officers reminded the seasonal workers daily about working carefully together. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration clearly states online this principle and requirement: “Workers have a right to a safe workplace. The law requires employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces.”

On any shift, there were boxes pushed onto the roller platforms that were too heavy, too big, too awkward for many workers. And I usually found that co-workers asked for help or offered help.

I can compare this scenario with the hesitation that I witnessed in high-tech firms among workers about their own and others’ work products. It’s what I do, not what we do together was the mutter or subtext. Perhaps, this is oranges and apples, and not fair to compare. Still, I’m reminded of a religious covenant that also encourages dwelling together in peace and helping one another. So, in meaningful ways, two parts of my life aligned nicely.

Scanning boxes was sociable work, exchanging small talk with splitters, other scanners, and supervisors over the topics of the day or hour. The sentries on the 40- foot gangplank, the upstream jam breakers, were mostly silent as they tamed the conveyor flow with long poles. I could imagine them cooling the Packages god with palm-shaped fans, as they stared into the distance.

Extra Hours

Maximum clock time in a week for a seasonal worker was 32 hours. You could quit at will and be dismissed at will, but the less-productive seasonal or part-time workers typically accumulated points, sometimes on a fractional basis, toward a precarious rating, based on arriving late for a shift or leaving early.

Taking on additional shifts counted as overtime, but was paid at the normal hourly rate, which didn’t align with 40-hour mindsets. The warehouse had opened in 2014, and workers asked for additional shifts on a sign-up sheet using faulty magic markers, taped to a moveable whiteboard. Around January of this year, the company went mobile for the additional shift sign-ups.

The Daily Stand-up

Before the early morning and day shifts started work, the workforce, including managers, gathered near the middle of the warehouse to review safety tips, hear about the last shift’s performance, and what was expected for the current shift. In addition, all workers had to limber up through stretching. One hearty soul volunteered to lead the groaning assembly. This was called the “Daily Stand-up.”

The water spiders were the most skillful general workers at the warehouse. They were responsible for building sturdy, tidy, serviceable pallets. They had access to the label makers, and operated the small forklifts to move the finished pallets. Water spiders were singled out for their pluck at every stand-up that I attended.

The management behaviorists knew that music motivated some number of workers, so their mainstay selections were techno and hip hop, blasted from underperforming speakers. Area managers and supervisors used microphones to announce the good news and requirements of the day. Foolishly, they asked about the current day’s success at the warehouse as a pep point, which most of us who didn’t work the earlier shift wouldn’t know about.

At the end of the stand-up, the leader went off-mic to lead the cheer: “Who are we? C-L-T. Who are we? C-L-T. Who are we? C-L-T. What do we do? WIN.

Some workers offered a different “what do we do” response: SLEEP, TURNOVER, FORGET ABOUT IT, and so on.

During Christmas week, the senior area manager asked, with a dour expression on his face, that we sing in the lanes as we worked. The next day I brought in lead sheets for several Christmas songs, and convinced an atonal supervisor to sing the “Twelve Days of Christmas” with me.

Becoming an Employee

In non-seasonal months, a temporary part-time worker could apply for permanent part-time work, with a $1 per hour bump and some perks, after working for 90 days (read: 90 shifts). Because they handled larger workloads, often with higher productivity, seasonal workers could often jump to permanent part-time status. This year, seasonal workers could apply on January 9th.

People worked at the warehouse for many reasons: It was convenient; it was a godsend in a down economy; they were on school break; it paid for Christmas presents; they were a stay-at-home mom; it was the only work they could get because of their tattoos; the hours worked for them; they could be hired for permanent work; and on and on.

I left three days before the application date to try for the third time to make a living as a life insurance agent. I had met my future agency supervisor in the lobby of the hotel where the orientation meeting for the warehouse job was held. He was attending a boot camp event. Were our lives so different?

Paul Turner is a singer, published poet and lyricist, playwright, and makes a living in the insurance business, in Greater Charlotte, North Carolina.