Amazon fulfillment center in Tennessee offers look at what Hillsborough can expect

Hillsborough County officials couldn't wait to announce that Amazon sealed a deal last week to open a distribution center in Ruskin, bringing 1,000 jobs to the region.

One commissioner called it bigger than landing the Olympics. Many agreed it's just the kind of economic boost southern Hillsborough County needs.

But what will actually happen within the walls of that 1.1-million-square-foot box, and what benefits will it bring?

Some of the answers lie in communities where the online retail giant already has distribution centers, known as fulfillment centers, for shipping books, electronics and other household items bought through its website.

Amazon opened one of its newest fulfillment centers last fall in Murfreesboro, Tenn., a city of nearly 110,000 people about 35 miles from Nashville. The warehouse employs about 1,150 workers, most of whom pluck products from shelves, pack the goods and ship them.

Like Hillsborough, Murfreesboro lured the Seattle-based retailer with multimillion-dollar incentives. Murfreesboro offered a 20-year tax break on property taxes, valued at $15.8 million. Hillsborough agreed to waive half of the property's tax bill for the first seven years — about $6.4 million. It also approved giving the company $1.1 million if it creates 375 jobs that pay above the state average.

Mayor Ernest Burgess of Rutherford County, where the Murfreesboro warehouse is located, said Amazon has been a good addition to the community, and, combined with other economic development projects, it's helping to lift the area out of the recession.

"Any time we get a new business, especially as we are still in this economic recovery, it has a big impact,'' he said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "It's all about creating jobs.''

Amazon quickly filled the 1,000-plus jobs, he said, and recently announced plans to hire an additional 7,000 seasonal workers to meet the holiday demand — a number that could be challenging to fill.

Amazon requires that "fulfillment associates'' be 18 years old, have a high school diploma and be able to read and take direction in English. Employees also must be able to lift 49 pounds, stand and/or walk for 10 to 12 hours and frequently push, pull, squat, bend and reach.

Demand for the jobs in Murfreesboro was high, but not as strong as for the jobs at the Nissan auto plant and other big employers that pay more, Burgess said. The average starting pay at an Amazon fulfillment center is $10 to $12 an hour.

When Burgess toured the facility, he was impressed by the efficiency and technology.

"It's very automated, with miles of conveyor belts,'' he said. "It's new, clean and pristine. You get a good feeling about what is going on in there.''

Not even a year old, the Murfreesboro fulfillment center hasn't been without controversy. Last month, more than dozen employees filed a federal lawsuit seeking wages for unpaid time spent on security checks. To prevent theft, Amazon requires workers to go through screenings when they leave for a break, lunch or at the end of their shifts. Each screening can take several minutes.

Amazon settled the suit last week, paying the employees $252 to $5,808, depending on how long each person had worked at the facility.

Scott Tift, an attorney for Nashville law firm Barrett Johnston, said he was pleased that Amazon resolved the issue so quickly but was concerned about all of the employees nationwide who lose out on pay. His firm is representing employees in lawsuits involving fulfillment centers in Delaware, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

"We bring about the litigation in the hope that the company will pay for all time worked,'' he said. "We hope they will change their policy.''

Amazon has come under intense scrutiny for conditions at some of its fulfillment centers. The work can be physically grueling and mentally challenging, according to media reports. A center such as the one in Murfreesboro ships tens of thousands of items per day.

"The conditions are hard. It's back-breaking,'' Tift said. "You're moving boxes around for 10 hours a day.''

But for some, the hard work can pay off. As of Oct. 1, Amazon had converted more than 7,000 temporary employees into full-time, regular workers this year and expects to convert thousands more after the holiday season.

Amazon offers full-time employees health care, a 401(k) plan and company stock awards. It also prepays up to 95 percent of college tuition, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon.

Last year, Amazon donated 40 Kindle Touch devices to the Murfreesboro City Schools' special education department to help elementary students with special needs.

Construction on the Hillsborough site at Interstate 75 and State Road 674 in Ruskin is starting immediately. No opening date has been set, but it could be before the 2014 holiday shopping season.

Despite Hillsborough County commissioners' announcement about the site last week, Amazon still has not confirmed any details about the deal. Amazon officials would not comment for this story.

In Murfreesboro, Amazon held a grand opening for the distribution center about six months after it opened.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her @susan_thurston on Twitter.

Amazon fulfillment center in Tennessee offers look at what Hillsborough can expect 10/14/13 [Last modified: Monday, October 14, 2013 9:46pm]

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