restricted access Surviving in the Amazon
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Surviving in the Amazon

By August 2010, America had supposedly recovered from the Great Recession. But the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley was nearing double digits, and anyone who suffered losses had no tangible evidence that an economic recovery had ever taken place. Only one job opening was available for every five seekers, so the career counselors who coached applicants were irrelevant as they attempted to convince us that we were free agents capable of landing our dream job if only we chose the most effective resume format and mastered the art of "personal branding" to stand out among the competition.

A major new employer had recently arrived in the Lehigh Valley and its timing could not have been more opportune. It was agreed that the state would not introduce legislation requiring this e-commerce pioneer to collect sales tax from Pennsylvania residents because we desperately needed the jobs it promised to bring.

Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS) launched a sustained advertising blitz to recruit temporary laborers to staff Amazon's new Breinigsville, Pennsylvania fulfillment center (a warehouse) throughout the upcoming holiday season and beyond. Billboards and postcards invited residents of downtrodden neighborhoods in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas to apply. The positions paid up to $12.75 an hour and offered full-time work with possible overtime. I completed an online application, printed out my resume on fancy almond linen paper, and visited the ISS office.

Although I'd resisted staffing agencies for as long as I could, I was respectful when I visited ISS because it offered compensation that topped what the other staffing agencies had advertised; and I liked Amazon delivered nearly-impossible-to-find titles to my door, and I didn't know it sold anything other than books at the time. I imagined myself surrounded by books when I first visited ISS and knew nothing about the actual job that I was to be assigned. I merely had to pass drug, background, and basic skills tests, and was stunned when they told me I'd start working the night shift as an order picker the following week for $12.75 an hour. They never looked at my resume. It was too easy. [End Page 80]

I soon discovered that, despite its technological prowess, Amazon is a labor-intensive operation that sells just about everything imaginable. Receivers catalog inbound inventory; stowers place items on shelves; pickers receive rapid-fire orders through hand-held scanners and place items in plastic totes that are steered around on carts; the totes are placed on conveyer belts and sent to packers; the items are boxed, labeled, and conveyed to shippers. Amazon's Lehigh Valley center is more than six hundred thousand square feet and multi-tiered. Merchandise is stored in "mods." There are three floors on the east end of the warehouse, and three on the west; each floor is roughly the size of a football field and it takes roughly five minutes to walk from one mod to the other. Narrow aisles are numbered and shelving units are divided into scannable bins, with each bin holding random merchandise. I scanned thousands of barcodes a night. Everything had a barcode—even me. My labor was tracked through a barcode printed on a white (to denote temporary status) ID badge that hung from a lanyard I wore around my neck.

I walked approximately ten to fifteen miles a night while I worked, the warehouse was stifling hot, and there wasn't any fresh air to breathe. It had to be pushing 110 degrees on the third floor and, in a fog of confusion, I'd be unable to tell if the numbers and letters were going up or down; or I'd read "twenty-eight" instead of "eighty-two" and walk to the wrong location. When I had to lower myself into a bottom bin and rise again, I'd stagger a little, drop the item in the tote on my cart, and look at my scanner. "Go to P3-G578-D251" it might say, and I'd scurry.

People came from all over. Laid-off teachers, recent high-school graduates, struggling students, and...