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Amazon may bring 3,000 jobs, tough work conditions to Florida

Staff at an Amazon warehouse in Wales process orders. Workers in some warehouses have to wait in security checkpoints for 25 minutes before they can leave, time for which they’re not paid.
Published Jun. 18, 2013

Amazon has a saying it teaches all its new employees: Work hard. Have fun. Make history.

But working hard at one of the retail giant's "fulfillment centers'' isn't always all that fun, according to news reports. It can be physically grueling and mentally stressful. Some warehouses don't have air-conditioning. Several reports have described them as sweatshops.

State and local officials are pondering a deal with Amazon that would create 3,000 jobs in Florida, including 1,000 in Hillsborough County. The news has again raised questions about Amazon's record on working conditions and whether the jobs are worth paying millions of dollars in state and local incentives and tax breaks.

Gov. Rick Scott cheered, announcing last week that Amazon plans to build one or more distribution centers where workers would pick, pack and ship products purchased through Amazon.com. One of the centers could be in Ruskin in southeast Hillsborough County, where Amazon would build a 1-million-square-foot warehouse, about the same size of the Tyrone Square Mall.

County officials have said the facility would provide a much-needed economic boost to Ruskin, a rural area known for its tomato farms. Amazon's warehouse jobs typically attract long lines of people looking for work

But it is that same type of Amazon distribution center that has come under intense scrutiny in other parts of the country.

The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., wrote several stories in 2011 about an Amazon's warehouse in Lehigh Valley. It quoted employees who said they were forced to work in 100-degree heat and faced reprimands — or firing — if they didn't meet productivity numbers. At one point, Amazon parked ambulances outside in case workers suffered from heat-related injuries. Amazon responded by installing air-conditioning in the warehouse as part of a $52 million investment in cooling its warehouses around the country.

"I never felt like passing out in a warehouse, and I never felt treated like a piece of c--- in any other warehouse but this one,'' said Elmer Goris, a former employee who was quoted in the Morning Call's investigation, Inside Amazon's Warehouse.

The Seattle Times reported last year that former workers at a warehouse in Campbellsville, Ky., said there was pressure to manage injuries so they wouldn't have to be reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A former warehouse safety official said in-house medical staff were asked to treat wounds with bandages rather than refer workers to a doctor for stitches that could trigger federal reports. One woman earning $12.50 an hour said she had to walk 10 miles a day retrieving merchandise from the shelves to keep up. She was later fired for low productivity.

Complaints also focus on company policies. The Huffington Post reported in 2011 that employees were upset that they had to wait in warehouse security checkpoints for up to 25 minutes after every shift, all unpaid. The purpose was to prevent workers from stealing electronics or other goods.

Although Amazon has worked to resolve issues, problems seem to persist. Union members at Amazon's German operations began a two-day strike on Monday to ratchet up pressure on the company over pay demands.

Amazon has said safety is a top priority. It cited numbers showing its "recordable incidence rates'' are lower than for auto manufacturers, the warehousing industry and even department stores. Company officials did not respond to an email from the Tampa Bay Times asking about what safety measures might be employed at the Ruskin facility.

Founded in 1994, Amazon employs more than 88,000 full-time and part-time people worldwide. The publicly traded company has facilities in 18 states — the nearest one in South Carolina. Its fulfillment center jobs pay about 30 percent more than traditional retail jobs, which often start at minimum wage. Full-time employees receive stock benefits and health care.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been hailed as a global innovator in retail but also a curse to brick-and-mortar stores that have higher overhead costs and can't compete on price. In January, he received the National Retail Federation's Gold Medal Award.

Bezos is known for leading a casual but acutely customer-centric workforce. Headquarters employees often wear shorts and sandals and bring their dogs to work.

"Our culture is friendly and intense. But if push comes to shove, we'll settle for intense,'' he said in a Forbes cover story last year on America's Best Leaders.

Hillsborough County commissioners are expected to decide Wednesday whether to grant a portion of a $6.6 million incentive package — mostly property tax breaks — to bring Amazon to Florida. The retailer has said 375 of the 1,000 local jobs would be higher-wage jobs with an average annual pay of $47,581.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

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