February 1st, 2018

So, I emailed Cleveland Scene writer Sam Allard links to three stories: Amazon fulfillment centers don’t boost employment, analysis finds; Amazon patents wristband that tracks warehouse workers’ movements and a piece from The Atlantic (much more below). Scene has published extensively about the mega-corporation’s tendrils and Cleveland—mostly about the aftermath of our secret society’s attempt to lure the company here—but also the two warehouses the company does intend to build on the sites of the former Randal Park and Euclid Square malls.

The first two stories are important, but the third, Alana Semuels’ What Amazon Does to Poor Cities: The debate over Amazon’s HQ2 obscures the company’s rapid expansion of warehouses in low-income areas is vital. She begins:

This community was still reeling from the recession in 2012 when it got a piece of what seemed like good news. Amazon, the global internet retailer, was opening a massive 950,000-square-foot distribution center, one of its first in California, and hiring more than 1,000 people here.“This opportunity is a rare and wonderful thing,” San Bernardino Mayor Pat Morris told a local newspaper at the time.

In the months and years that followed, Amazon dramatically expanded its footprint in and around San Bernardino, a city 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The company now employs more than 15,000 full-time workers in eight fulfillment centers (where goods are stored and then packed for shipment) and one sortation center (where packages are organized by delivery area) in the Inland Empire, the desert region bordering Los Angeles that encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties. This expansion provided a lifeline to the struggling region, creating jobs and contributing tax revenue to an area sorely in need of both. In San Bernardino, the unemployment rate that was as high as 15 percent in 2012 is now 5 percent.

Yet in many ways, Amazon has not been a “rare and wonderful” opportunity for San Bernardino. Workers say the warehouse jobs are grueling and high-stress, and that few people are able to stay in them long enough to reap the offered benefits, many of which don’t become available until people have been with the company a year or more. Some of the jobs Amazon creates are seasonal or temporary, thrusting workers into a precarious situation in which they don’t know how many hours they’ll work a week or what their schedule will be. Though the company does pay more than the minimum wage, and offers benefits like tuition reimbursement, health care, and stock options, the nature of the work obviates many of those benefits, workers say. “It’s a step back from where we were,” said Pat Morris, the former mayor, about the jobs that Amazon offers. “But it’s a lot better than where we would otherwise be,” he said.

This is not news—I’ve often touted Mac McClelland’s 2012 piece for Mother Jones: I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave but politicians, like our own in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, are desperate to put numbers on the jobs-created score board and they don’t care if the jobs are—to steal a phrase from the sweet potato Saddam in the very White House—shithole jobs.

Semuels continues:

San Bernardino is just one of the many communities across the country grappling with the same question: Is any new job a good job? These places, often located in the outskirts of major cities, have lost retail and manufacturing jobs and, in many cases, are still recovering from the recession and desperate to attract economic activity. This often means battling each other to lure companies like Amazon, which is rapidly expanding its distribution centers across the country. But as the experience of San Bernardino shows, Amazon can exacerbate the economic problems that city leaders had hoped it would solve. The share of people living in poverty in San Bernardino was at 28.1 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which census data is available, compared to 23.4 in 2011, the year before Amazon arrived. The median household income in 2016, at $38,456, is 4 percent lower than it was in 2011. This poverty near Amazon facilities is not just an inland California phenomenon—according to a report by the left-leaning group Policy Matters Ohio, one in 10 Amazon employees in Ohio are on food stamps.

In the last decade I’ve written extensively on this issue of corporate welfare in the form of taxpayer supported supplements to corporations that allow them to pay sub-part hourly rates. My focus there has been almost exclusively Walmart, but I have noted that Amazon, Walmart’s nemesis, has increasingly put the brick-and-mortar giant to shame in the area of shameful behavior.

What could make the difference—and terrifies Jeffrey Preston Bezos and the entire Walton family—for warehouse workers? Union.

The arrival of Amazon has been bittersweet for people like Gabriel Alvarado, 35. He started working at Amazon’s San Bernardino distribution center in 2013, making $12 an hour, hoping that the job would help him support his new wife and two stepdaughters. Amazon proved a stressful place to work, with managers chewing out employees for not moving fast enough, he told me, which was tough to put up with for meager pay. (An Amazon spokeswoman, Nina Lindsey, told me that, like most companies, Amazon has performance expectations, but that it supports people not performing with dedicated coaches to help them improve.)

Meanwhile, Gabriel watched as his 39-year-old brother Jose worked across the street, doing the same type of job at a warehouse for the grocery chain Stater Brothers. The 1,000 workers there are unionized and get full medical benefits, pensions, and retiree medical benefits. Wages start at $26 an hour, but many workers make a lot more than that because Stater Brothers operates an incentive program in which people who grab orders—doing similar tasks to workers at Amazon—are rewarded if they go faster than the average speed. Jose Alvarado is able to support a wife and four children on his Stater Brothers salary. When his son was diagnosed with a rare form of anemia, his insurance covered everything.

Clevelanders, and all Ohioans, need to hold that image in their minds when talking about the disastrous (and duplicitously named Right To Work legislation proposed by Ohio Representative John Becker (R-Union Township).

Anyone who wants to understand what is happening to Cuyahoga County needs to read and think hard about what Semuels has written.

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