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Amazon fulfillment center in Lakeland has grand opening

A 6-ton robotic arm, called Robo-Stow, puts pallets onto a conveyor belt Wednesday at the Amazon fulfillment center on County Line Road in Lakeland.
A 6-ton robotic arm, called Robo-Stow, puts pallets onto a conveyor belt Wednesday at the Amazon fulfillment center on County Line Road in Lakeland.
Published Oct. 30, 2015

LAKELAND

"Work hard. Have fun. Make history."

That's the phrase that's etched in black and gold letters over the entrance to the Amazon fulfillment center in Lakeland, a warehouse that ships online orders for the Seattle-based online retailer.

Next to it is a flashing red light that reads "no cell phone zone." Security personnel screen each of the facility's 800 workers with security wands and metal detectors, 24 hours a day.

On Wednesday, as Gov. Rick Scott, local officials and journalists from around the state were invited to see the inside of an Amazon facility in Florida for the first time.

Guests at the center had to have an Amazon escort anywhere they went, including the bathroom.

Scott thanked the company for bringing 4,000 jobs to Florida in the center's break room, where phrases like "Customer obsession" and "Have a backbone" are plastered on the walls. In Lakeland, the center opened in August 2014 with 500 employees. It has added 300 so far and plans to add a few hundred more for the holiday season. Besides its fulfillment centers, Amazon operates two "sortation" centers in Davenport and Miami.

Amazon announced in August that it plans to hire 2,000 people in Central Florida to work inside its expanding fulfillment centers in Ruskin and Lakeland. That doesn't include the thousands more it will hire for work during the holiday season.

The tour brought Scott face-to-face with Amazon robotics, which have changed the way retail orders are filled and shipped. Among the many automated carts and constantly churning conveyor belts was Robo-Stow, a 6-ton robotic arm that picks up and stacks pallets of merchandise. Amazon officials say it's the largest robot in the world. It's about the size of an adult African elephant.

"It's changed how fast we can process orders," said Chris Monnot, general manager of the Lakeland warehouse. "What used to require workers to walk around and put together in three to four hours now takes minutes because our technology allows the items to come to them at their station."

Florida's two centers are the most technologically advanced in the Amazon fleet of 11, Monnot said. They're each about the size of the square footage of 28 football fields.

Amazon workers, who officials say make more money than in the typical retail job, work full time in fulfillment centers. Shifts are 10 hours, four days a week.

"The benefits are just wonderful here. It really makes a difference," said Diane Ortiz, who helps train new employees at the Lakeland center. Ortiz, a mother of four who has worked for Amazon since last year, is pursuing a degree in finance with the help of her employer. She was the only employee the company would let reporters talk to.

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All employees are eligible for benefits, like health insurance, a 401(k) program with a 50 percent company match, bonuses and stock rewards the day they start working. Amazon also will prepay 95 percent of tuition for courses related to in-demand career fields, regardless of if the field is relevant to jobs at Amazon. The jobs in the Amazon warehouses include picking, packing and shipping orders.

Job fairs for open Amazon positions in Hillsborough County have drawn thousands since the Ruskin facility opened last year. Millions of packages have been sent from both centers as Amazon has expanded, including launching a same-day shipping service in the Tampa Bay area in May.

In Ruskin, Amazon ships smaller items like toys and books. In Lakeland, Amazon ships larger orders like televisions and kayaks.

In 2013, workers filed suit against Amazon because the company didn't pay them for the time it takes to clock out and walk through the security checkpoint. Some employees said it took up to 25 minutes to get through. In 2011, Amazon came under fire for not air conditioning its warehouses in facilities in the Northeast, despite heat index temperatures reaching over 100 degrees in the summer. That changed in 2012.

Though the security measures are still in place, both Florida fulfillment centers are air conditioned.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Follow @sunbizgriffin.