Work­ers’ Cy­ber Mon­day mantra: Pick, pack and ship

Thousands at Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter in South­east Bal­ti­more work to make the hol­i­days hap­pen on busiest day of the year

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Brit­tany Britto

It’s Cy­ber Mon­day morn­ing at the Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter in South­east Bal­ti­more, and the clock is tick­ing.

In the pack­ing depart­ment, Mar­i­lyn Rochelle stuffs a Don­ald Trump Chia Pet into a card­board box filled with bubble wrap, closes it with Ama­zon logo tape, slaps on a la­bel and places it on a con­veyor belt. Off goes the boxed orange pottery planter re­sem­bling a stoic pres­i­dent-elect: wind­ing through the ware­house, to be scanned and sent down a slide, loaded onto a truck and shipped to the cus­tomer.

Rochelle does this about 100 times an hour, on an 11-hour shift, on the busiest day of the year for the na­tion’s largest on­line re­tailer — and on what was fore­cast to be its big­gest Cy­ber Mon­day yet.

“It’s not dif­fi­cult,” Rochelle says. “It’s team­work.”

Pick, pack and ship is the motto at the ful­fill­ment cen­ter, where more than 3,400 reg­u­lar em­ploy­ees and thousands of sea­sonal helpers are pitch­ing in to help make the hol­i­days hap­pen. Full-time em­ploy­ees who typ­i­cally work 10-hour shifts at least four days a week now work 11-hour shifts five days a week. One can ar­gue that th­ese Ama­zon as­so­ci­ates are the clos­est thing to Santa’s helpers in mod­ern-day busi­ness.

The 24-hour ful­fill­ment cen­ter, which spans 1 mil­lion square feet — the size of 28

foot­ball fields — was hum­ming with roughly 14 miles of con­veyor belts, glid­ing ro­bots and hu­mans pick­ing, pack­ing and ship­ping thousands of prod­ucts ev­ery hour Mon­day morn­ing.

“It all comes to­gether like a sym­phony,” said Eric Pow­ell, 34, an as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager at the Bal­ti­more ful­fill­ment cen­ter. Thousands of units would be pack­aged by the hour there, he es­ti­mated. The re­sult: “a su­per-busy, su­per-ex­cit­ing day.”

The Na­tional Re­tail Fed­er­a­tion first coined the term Cy­ber Mon­day in 2005, in light of the trend of con­sumers shop­ping on­line af­ter Thanks­giv­ing week­end — and re­tail­ers host­ing deals in re­sponse.

The pe­riod of peak on­line shop­ping now ex­tends well be­yond Cy­ber Mon­day — Ama­zon work­ers re­fer to the span of days be­tween Thanks­giv­ing and Cy­ber Mon­day as the “Tur­key Five.”

And this year was primed for growth: Adobe Dig­i­tal In­sights cal­cu­lated late Mon­day that the day was the most suc­cess­ful on­line shop­ping date in his­tory, gen­er­at­ing $3.39 bil­lion in sales with 10.2 per­cent growth over last year. Ama­zon of­fi­cials said this past week­end broke sales records, and they ex­pected to mark their busiest Cy­ber Mon­day to date, though they did not pro­vide pre­dicted sales fig­ure for the sin­gle day.

“Last year on Cy­ber Mon­day, for ref­er­ence, Ama­zon cus­tomers or­dered 54 mil­lion units world­wide. That is 692 items per sec­ond, so that is a stag­ger­ing num­ber, and it’s go­ing to be an even big­ger num­ber this year,” said Ama­zon spokes­woman Julie Law. She said Ama­zon pre­dicted 17 per­cent to 27 per­cent growth in fourth-quar­ter sales com­pared to the same time last year, gen­er­at­ing be­tween $42 bil­lion and $45.5 bil­lion in 2016.

In the Bal­ti­more ful­fill­ment cen­ter — one of more than 70 around the na­tion — work­ers were al­ready feel­ing the ef­fects of “peak sea­son.”

Ni­cholas Rote, who has been work­ing there since its in­cep­tion in March 2015, de­scribes Cy­ber Mon­day in one word: “Crazy.”

Last year was the first hol­i­day sea­son at the ful­fill­ment cen­ter, and Rote said it was “or­ga­nized chaos.”

The 28-year-old Ar­mis­tead Gar­dens res­i­dent, who helps trans­fer large or heavy prod­ucts to other fa­cil­i­ties in the area for shipment, said this year’s peak sea­son is go­ing bet­ter than last year de­spite the ex­pected in­crease. Still, “there’s a lot more go­ing on in­side the build­ing.”

One park­ing lot, which nor­mally sees only a cou­ple of rows of cars, is nearly filled be­cause of the ad­di­tional help this sea­son, Rote said.

“We’ve taken a nice, dras­tic step to en­sure that we get ev­ery­thing in, pro­cessed and out to where they need to be,” said Rote, who helps train Ama­zon’s new em­ploy­ees. “It’s pretty crazy work­ing in­side Ama­zon’s walls, but the best thing that keeps ... your drive alive is the ca­ma­raderie with other Ama­zon peo­ple be­cause it’s re­ally di­verse in there.”

“We all get along and work to­gether. It’s cool to see a lot of peo­ple hav­ing jobs,” said Justin Brown, 27, of North­east Bal­ti­more, who packs items. On this par­tic­u­lar Cy­ber Mon­day, he and col­leagues packed the likes of Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions, mixed nuts, DVDs, ed­u­ca­tional toys, toi­let pa­per, the hot Has­bro Pie Face Show­down game and Ama­zon de­vices such as the Echo Dot.

“Peo­ple don’t want to go to the store. That’s what they do; they just or­der them,” said Chris Smith, 31, of West Bal­ti­more, who works in the same depart­ment as Brown.

Be­fore it was an Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter, the site had been a Gen­eral Mo­tors assem­bly plant, which closed in 2005, tak­ing more than 1,000 lo­cal jobs with it.

Now, full-time Ama­zon as­so­ci­ates in Bal­ti­more av­er­age over $15 an hour and have ben­e­fits such as health in­surance and a 401(K), an Ama­zon spokesper­son said.

In re­cent years, me­dia out­lets have re­ported crit­i­cally on work­ing con­di­tions in Ama­zon. The New York Times de­scribed a pun­ish­ing, all-con­sum­ing cul­ture at the cor­po­rate level, and the Al­len­town Morn­ing Call doc­u­mented heat-re­lated safety is­sues at a dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter. The com­pany de­nied the al­le­ga­tions in The Times re­port and in­stalled air-con­di­tion­ing at its Al­len­town fa­cil­ity (it now has cli­mate con­trol at all its cen­ters, in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more).

“At Ama­zon, safety is our top pri­or­ity,” spokes­woman Kelly Cheese­man said in a state­ment Mon­day. “We have more than 800 ded­i­cated health and safety pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in our U.S. ful­fill­ment cen­ters and all em­ploy­ees start by com­plet­ing a ded­i­cated safety school.”

Work­ers on Mon­day spoke fa­vor­ably about their ex­pe­ri­ences.

Ev­ery day, Brown said, presents a new chal­lenge, with num­bers to meet — es­pe­cially dur­ing peak sea­son — but also the op­por­tu­nity to build skills for a ca­reer.

“It’s fast-paced. They tell us the num­bers we need … to get for the cus­tomers and stuff, so we just push ev­ery­thing out and try to work as fast and in or­der as pos­si­ble,” said Brown, not­ing the day’s pack­age goals are of­ten split into quar­ters, with the goal of about 150 to 200 units per quar­ter.

De­spite miss­ing out on time with loved ones dur­ing much of the hol­i­day sea­son, Smith and Brown say the friendly en­vi­ron­ment and fast pace keep them fo­cused dur­ing their 55-plus-hour weeks dur­ing Ama­zon’s peak sea­son.

“It’s five weeks, and we got to work ... but it pays off be­cause the money is good,” Brown said.

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Mar­i­lyn Rochelle packs or­ders for ship­ping Mon­day at the Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter on Broen­ing High­way. “It’s not dif­fi­cult,” says Rochelle, who packs about 100 boxes an hour dur­ing her 11-hour shift. “It’s team­work.”

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Work­ers pre­pare or­ders on Cy­ber Mon­day at the Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter on Broen­ing High­way in South­east Bal­ti­more. The 24-hour cen­ter, which spans 1 mil­lion square feet, was hum­ming with al­most 14 miles of con­veyor belts, glid­ing ro­bots and work­ers.

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