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Six Months at an Amazon Fulfillment Center

Summary:
Having spent half of a year experiencing firsthand the labyrinthine bowels of an Amazon Fulfillment Center, I must ask: “What are all the complaints about?” Employment at Amazon was not perfect.  Then again, no job will be.  But for those wanting to establish themselves with a job history or get back into the routine of full-time employment, being at Amazon isn’t the torturous ordeal some have described.  Coming off a year’s sabbatical and being a technical writer before that, work at an Amazon facility was a shining opportunity to regain some lost footing. In retrospect, I can’t but be thankful for that.  It wasn’t just the financial boon, but also the chance to persevere that elicited and encouraged growth and strength in both

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Having spent half of a year experiencing firsthand the labyrinthine bowels of an Amazon Fulfillment Center, I must ask:

“What are all the complaints about?”

Employment at Amazon was not perfect.  Then again, no job will be.  But for those wanting to establish themselves with a job history or get back into the routine of full-time employment, being at Amazon isn’t the torturous ordeal some have described.  Coming off a year’s sabbatical and being a technical writer before that, work at an Amazon facility was a shining opportunity to regain some lost footing.

In retrospect, I can’t but be thankful for that.  It wasn’t just the financial boon, but also the chance to persevere that elicited and encouraged growth and strength in both physical and mental senses.

Getting hired by Amazon was almost too easily achieved.  Applying online hearkens back to the glorious days of spinach-green Game Boy screens.  Pass a series of ridiculously simple mini-games and you are almost guaranteed an offer of conditional employment.  Show up for a scheduled orientation a few days later and there’s a rundown of various tasks, basic processes, and of course the benefits.

Speaking of benefits, they are more than liberal for an operation of Amazon’s size and scope.  Need time off?  The company is fairly flexible about that.  Employee discounts?  Offered out the wazoo.  Want to follow your dreams toward your one true career?  Stick around for a year and Amazon pays for most of your school tuition and books.  Want health benefits?  You get ‘em, your family gets ‘em, your dog gets ‘em.  The pay itself is better than average.  The one perk that I saw employees constantly begging for but were forever denied was free Amazon Prime.  And that’s no reason to gripe if it’s the worst that the corporate honchos refused to grant.

After that came the training: straightforward and comprehensive.  It could be the most fluid and forgiving training regimen that I’ve seen.  The learning curve was not particularly demanding, and new hires were given leeway as they gained a sense of their assigned tasks.

Every night’s shift began with everyone in the department doing “stand-up”: gathered around the supervisor of the evening,  we were given a brief summary of the night’s work, a rundown of any issues, and encouragement about what to look forward to during the next several hours.  A few stretching exercises and then it was off to the races.  For the next ten hours we were on Jeff Bezos’ time clock.

Is the labor hard?  At times, yes.  Especially during “Peak Season” between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.  Otherwise it’s much like… gasp!… real work.  My schedule was Wednesday through Saturday nights, 6 p.m. until 4:30 in the morning.  There were two fifteen-minute breaks and one unpaid half-hour for lunch around 11.  The break room had six large-screen TVs and forty microwave ovens.  The vending machines were loaded with enough confectionary to feed a Texas county.

My primary mission was stowing.  It means pushing a cart of merchandise around the warehouse, finding bin space that a product can fit in, using a laser scanner on the bar codes and then physically moving the item into the bin.  The facility’s inventory system was at all times tracking the associate’s rate of work as well as accuracy.  Several times during the night the rates were posted so that each employee could see how he or she was faring.  And as many who have written about working at Amazon have already noted, the managers are looking hard at those rates…

My stowing during those first few weeks?  Abysmal.  In fact, I was the very worst of the lot from our orientation group.  Getting fired would be a decision born within the circuitry of the Amazon master computer somewhere in Seattle, not any human judgment.  My career came a few steps too close to ending during that first month or so.

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