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The Secret Lives of Amazon's Elves 202

Posted by timothy
from the supply-meets-demand dept.
theodp writes "If Amazon is Santa, says Gizmodo's Joel Johnson, then the 400 folks living in RVs outside the Coffeyville, KS fulfillment center at Christmas time are the elves. Amazon didn't always lure in 'workcampers' from the RV community with the promise of free campgrounds and $10.50-$11 an hour seasonal jobs. 'Amazon had a bad experience busing in people from Tulsa,' explained tech nomad Chris Dunphy. 'There was a lot of theft and a lot of people who weren't really serious.' Workers from Tulsa were adding a 4-hour round-trip commute to a grueling 10-to-12 hour shift, Cherie Ve Ard added. 'They'd get there exhausted.' The work wasn't exactly what Cherie had envisioned."
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The Secret Lives of Amazon's Elves

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 26, 2009 @09:37PM (#30560000)

    They accepted terms of employment. A willing employer got a willing employee. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this, if the employees are unhappy they can always get another job, no shortages of those!

    • by Dan541 (1032000)

      $11 an hour shouldn't even be legal.

  • Robots (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Aren't industrial robots able to do most of the packaging tasks Amazon needs done? Given the enormous size of Amazon in terms of books sent, even just one plant catering to the US automated with robots could well make a significant impact on costs/delivery times/etc. Restricting automation to just ordinary books could be a great way to demonstrate methods to calculate the optimal packaging/arrangement per order.

    • Re:Robots (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 26, 2009 @10:15PM (#30560152)

      Robots cost too much when compared to low-paid human labor. Also, robotics in such plants are still mostly experimental. I worked at several plants similar as described in the article. They were trying to introduce robots in one of them.

      One robot was designated as "beer master". Its sole purpose was to pick beer crates. It usually jammed up at least twice a day. Most of the time it stood idle as the guy on forklift duty couldn't keep up with it.

      The second robot (if you want to call it that) was extremely large. It was designed to handle (store, pick, sort and package) anything box-shaped. In the 6 months I was working there I never saw that machine running, aside from a few test runs.

      Those very computers that decide the most optimal packing tend to screw up royally when one of the white collars upstairs feeds it the wrong dimensions. I remember my load being considerably oversized on more that one occasion due to someone missing a digit. Nor can they decide if the "this side up" marker can be safely ignored in order to make the load more compact and/or stable.

      Robotics (for now) can only operate efficiently when their task contains few variables. Unless designers stop thinking up weird-sized packages and consumers stop mixing products around, the human factor will most likely remain.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Sulphur (1548251)

        At the end of a conveyor belt, a worker took castings, turned, and removed the sprue with a punch press.

        A salesman came in and said that there were neat advantages with a robot : It would never come in late, organize the shop, chase your wife, or sue. They bought one.

        What was not mentioned was that the robot was perfectly willing to have its hand in the way of the press.

        Now the worker takes castings and walks around the robot.

    • Re:Robots (Score:4, Insightful)

      by MightyYar (622222) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @10:25PM (#30560174)

      Robots might make sense to handle their routine volume, but the holiday rush is probably cheaper to handle with humans which don't require the large capital expense.

      • Re:Robots (Score:4, Interesting)

        by fm6 (162816) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @11:38PM (#30560470) Homepage Journal

        Robots might make sense to handle their routine volume,

        I think not. From what I know of industrial robots, they can do repetitive tasks, but have no adaptability. Good on assembly lines [youtube.com], but useless when even the most basic decision-making is required.

        I have to wonder what Amazon was thinking, building such a labor-intensive operation four hours from the nearest major labor pool.

        • by Nimey (114278)

          Taxes?

          • by rtb61 (674572)

            I would think it is a little bit more than that. Building a major distribution centre away from a city gives you better traffic access and egress. You can place it where it is central to several major towns and cities. Land cost will be significantly reduced. The most subtle one is of course leverage, when you a by far the major employer in a small town it gives you a lot of leverage, no taxes, priority on all services, local government priority including police and fire and the community will myopically d

        • by Kjella (173770)

          I think not. From what I know of industrial robots, they can do repetitive tasks, but have no adaptability. Good on assembly lines, but useless when even the most basic decision-making is required.

          I don't think that's true anymore, if you can make a reasonable parametrization of the task then robots do it. Like they can handle any x*y*z package within reasonable bounds but not oddly shaped stuff and things like that. We might be far away from the general household robot, but they do have a lot more sensors and rely more on those than the old "blind" robots who'd to the same operation no matter what was happening.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by MightyYar (622222)

          but useless when even the most basic decision-making is required.

          So don't let them make any decisions. Stick a bar code on everything as it comes in and weigh it. Let the robots do the multi-mile treks around the factory, and all they have to be smart enough to do is scan a bar code and double-check the weight.

          Robots are used at Newegg [anandtech.com], for instance. It's just that sizing the costly capital equipment for the peaks probably would increase the payback period by quite a bit! Better to use seasonal workers.

          I have to wonder what Amazon was thinking, building such a labor-intensive operation four hours from the nearest major labor pool.

          It looks like they took over a former Golden Books warehouse. I have

          • by fm6 (162816)

            OK, I stand corrected on the robots. Though "robot" is probably the wrong word.

            I have no insight, but a glance at the map shows that it is smack in the middle of a bunch of area population centers - kind of the center of mass of Wichita, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Springfield.

            Did you miss the part about workers not being able to handle the 2-hour commute from Tulsa? According to Google Maps, Wichita and Springfield are 3 hours, and OC is 4. They may be in a part of the country with a lot of population centers, but they're not close to a single one of them.

            • by MightyYar (622222)

              LOL, out in farm country a two-hour drive is "close"! :)

              No I just meant that they picked a regional distribution center that seems to be roughly in the middle of where they are likely to ship. They are probably far more concerned about where the trucks have to go than where the people have to come from. I suspect their shipping fees far outstrip their wages, considering that the article said that a worker is expected to pack 150 X-Boxes an hour! Only 1 of those X-Boxes probably costs more to ship than the w

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Local hippie couple heads to the heartland and learns about hard work.

    Seriously, wtf is the point of this article?
    • by OrangeTide (124937) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @10:17PM (#30560156) Homepage Journal

      I used to work for Amazon. Their fulfillment centers are pretty impressive. Before I started working there I would have never realized that so much though, planning and technology went into packing the right stuff into the right boxes. If you would have RTFA you should have gotten to the point where that little bit was discussed.

      The other interesting thing is to use RVers to handle some of the seasonal demand. In some ways it is a little offensive though. RVers typically aren't looking for a steady paying job, but end up doing a little work at Amazon "for the experience" (ie they thought it might be fun). While there are lots of people out there that have no job, and have real bills to pay, and mouths to feed. But if they are offering $10/hr and people without jobs don't want to commute 4 hours a day for it, I guess that's just the free market being fair about it.

      • by Animats (122034) on Sunday December 27, 2009 @02:55AM (#30561246) Homepage

        Their fulfillment centers are pretty impressive. Before I started working there I would have never realized that so much though, planning and technology went into packing the right stuff into the right boxes.

        The basic system is a century old and was invented at Sears, Roebuck and Company, the first really big mail order operation. They had several city blocks in Chicago for what they called "The Works", their fulfillment center.

        In the "schedule system" at Sears, orders came in, and each order was assigned a assembly bin for a 15-minute window. Picking tickets were generated for the various departments, each with the bin number and 15-minute window. The stock pickers in each department started on a new batch of tickets every 15 minutes, and as they picked items in their department, they attached the pick ticket to the item or a basket containing it, and sent it to the order assembly area by chute, conveyor, or pneumatic tube. At the order assembly area, incoming items were routed to the appropriate bin. At the end of each 15 minute window, each assembly bin was dumped to a basket, which went on a conveyor to the checking and accounting section. There, the items in the bin were matched against the order and the bill totaled up. The baskets then went to the packaging and shipping section and out of the Works.

        Amazon's plant works about the same way, except that their computers know what's in inventory, so they don't have many "fails", where an item can't be found. They don't have to work to such a rigid clock-driven timetable, because the computers know when an order is fully assembled, and can allow more or less time depending on the complexity of the order. The basic concept, that a set of orders is being picked at any one time, picking orders fan out to departments, and items come back to an assigned bin for checking and packaging, remains the same.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MightyYar (622222)

      What else do you want from a Huff Post article? That's where you go for this sort of thing. Complaining about the Huff Post being whiny is like pointing out factual errors in a Michael Moore movie or pointing out that rushlimbaugh.com seems to have a bias.

      • How about reading it?

        There's hard work, then there's doing this. But when you're talking about 10 hour days, with ludicrous packing quotas, limited breaks, low pay, and grueling intensive labor, we're talking about abuse. Sometimes, some jobs take 20 hour work days, but usually the pay is much better. While on one hand, this is what they're willing to work for, on the other hand, they don't have many options and that's pretty fucked up that they're abusing this situation like this.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by MightyYar (622222)

          How about reading it?

          I did. I often read the Huff Post... it's good to keep up to date on perspectives of other people, even when it's not always in agreement with your own. People are hardly ever evil or crazy - they just don't see the world in the same way.

          But when you're talking about 10 hour days, with ludicrous packing quotas, limited breaks, low pay, and grueling intensive labor, we're talking about abuse.

          Oh, please. I'm afraid I'll disappoint you now and just fall back on a Libertarian yarn... if it is such a bad job, then why were people driving to it 4 hours a day? Why are people camping out in their RVs for a month to take this horrible, temporary job? They aren't abusin

          • Listen you heartless Paulite, they are abusing captive sources of labour. Yes, my computer was probably put together with, or uses components that were assembled with worse working conditions than this but that doesn't make this any better.

            The job isn't particularly glamorous, the job isn't very well paying. My guess is, given the economic conditions, THEY CAN'T FIND BETTER JOBS. And after the new year, they're going to be out on their asses.

            10 hour days with 2 bathroom breaks? Insane, unattainable goal

            • by MightyYar (622222)

              Listen you heartless Paulite

              Heartless? No. I fancy myself pragmatic, though.

              they are abusing captive sources of labour

              Nonsense. This isn't China, where people are forbidden from moving to more prosperous areas. They plopped down in a practically uninhabited hinterland. If cheap labor was their goal, then a city would have been much more appealing to them. You can still find minimum wage workers - and plenty of them. Minimum wage in the US ranges from a low of $5 to as high as $8, depending on state - so they aren't exactly bottom-dragging.

              My guess is, given the economic conditions, THEY CAN'T FIND BETTER JOBS.

              And this is where we have different w

            • by Glonoinha (587375)

              The job isn't very well paying?
              Do the math. Even if the part about not paying 1.5x for overtime is true, these people are making the equiv of $40k per year doing life-size Tetris (ie, moving boxes around and packaging them.) And they aren't paying rent - the pre-tax savings to them is another $500 per month (I will be generous and undervalue their monthly rent in a camper, including the associated bills like water and electricity, rent for the lot, etc, at $325 / month).

              Take the $11 x 12 hours per day x 6

            • by MightyYar (622222)

              It's the "Paulite" again.

              I looked up Kansas minimum wage laws. It's $2.65 an hour, going up to $7.25 next year. Amazon is paying 4x minimum wage. Kansas also only starts overtime at 46 hours, so my calculations are off by $120 or so.

              Also, I'm not a fan of Ron Paul. Do you really think anyone who reads the Huffington Post would follow Ron Paul for anything other than amusement?

              • by xaxa (988988)

                $2.65? Woah...

                Some other countries have a minimum wage of around $10-15, and a maximum amount of time you can work in any day or week. Amazon would probably need to employ 3 people in these countries for every 2 people in the USA facility, and it might increase their costs to do so.

                It is, of course, for the citizens of each country to decide what they want for their people and businesses.

        • by Smauler (915644)

          I work 9 1/2 hour days, with 1/2hr lunch, manual labour and driving, every day for 48 weeks a year. I get paid very little over minimum wage (must be about 10$ an hour, I've not checked the exchange rate recently). I used to code for a living, but I got bored of that. I enjoy my job now.

        • by winwar (114053)

          "There's hard work, then there's doing this. But when you're talking about 10 hour days, with ludicrous packing quotas, limited breaks, low pay, and grueling intensive labor, we're talking about abuse."

          I've read the article. And I have worked in busy distribution warehouses in peak seasons.

          This is: long days, high quotas, limited breaks, intensive labor, good pay for the work and area.

          This is not: ludicrous quotas, low pay, grueling labor, abuse.

          I've worked harder, longer and for less pay in worse conditi

        • 140 X-Box 360s in an hour is a bit over 2 a minute. I'm assuming the packing people are in one place. That would not be very hard. Just do 5-10 at a time or so.

  • by saturndude (609090) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @09:59PM (#30560076) Homepage
    Driving 45 minutes each direction (northern KY, near Cincinnati Airport). (And yes, I rode the motorcycle to work Dec. 24 -- just ask Chan, Ian or Jim. They all saw me). Safety tips, announcements, and stretching. And the day begins. I've been there (CVG1) for 18 months, and I'm still amazed at all the products we carry.

    I'm making more money than I ever have before (I'm 43), the work is steady, benefits are nice (including the exercise I get working), and everyone has a good sense of professionalism. As for firing you for taking off sick (Huff. Post article), um, sorry, no. Not here. (See, someone does read the articles before posting!) Cheating on overtime? I'm going over my financial records right now, and the occasional mistake does get corrected. And I take off for the Men's room whenever I need to.

    Fascinating article, though. Always wondered about our other operations. Sorry some of the campgrounds aren't so nice, hopefully that will improve.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by saturndude (609090)
      Oops, sorry. I drive 45 minutes each direction from a HOUSE. And 6 PM until 2:30 AM five nights a week (until 4:30 AM in the busy season) suits me quite well.
    • You don't happen to park in behind the Atrium do you?
  • by 93 Escort Wagon (326346) on Saturday December 26, 2009 @10:01PM (#30560088)

    - I'm thankful Amazon has this system down pretty much pat. There were a few toys my nieces and nephews REALLY REALLY wanted, and I was coming up dry on in the brick-and-mortar stores around here. Amazon listed them as "in stock", and I was able to order them on the 22nd with standard shipping - they shipped within a few hours and arrived on the 24th.

    - Having read the article... I'm thankful Amazon had the policy of "employees can't carry anything in that is an item we sell". The idiot featured in this story talked about wanting to "tweet" about stupid crap (my description, not his) that he saw. Any policy - even a draconian one - that prevents some dullard from tweeting is okay in my book!

    • by AndrewNeo (979708)

      I was rather amazed too, and I'd certainly love to thank all of these people that work on the floor at Amazon for making it possible, I ordered a Wii and a few games for my family on the 23rd, and had overnight shipping for the 24th. And thanks to Amazon and UPS the package got there on time, and we got it wrapped up for Christmas. All I had to do was click a button, it's rather amazing.

    • by Aladrin (926209)

      Heh. Now I feel kinda bad for ordering mundane things for myself right before XMas and using 2-day shipping. (Prime is a God-send.)

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