Amazon Picker diatribe

By Matthew Ebert, December 5, 2013

In a break from my regular posting of LOLcats and news links, here I offer an account from real life of my recent experiences in a new job.

I have just ended my 4th week as an Integrity associate at the Amazon warehouse in Fernley. I’m a “picker,” which means I run around for 12 hours with a cart, filling plastic totes with items selected from myriad storage bins placed around a warehouse that’s as big as 8 Costcos, then placing the totes on conveyor belts, where the items are carried away for shipment. We are on mandatory 60-hour work weeks until Christmas. My body is slowly adapting to this new regimen– up at 4:30 am and home by 7 pm, walking about 8 miles per day, crouching, grasping, stopping, starting, lifting, climbing stairs. Today is my “Saturday,” which gives me the opportunity to catch up on bills, maybe a haircut, and to make a dentist appointment. That’s a big upside– benefits started right away, so I can go to the dentist for the first time in many years.

It’s a somewhat surreal environment working in the warehouse. Some 200 plus pickers and unknown hordes of others arrive in the morning in a flood of traffic, find parking reasonably close to the entrance, and use our badge to gain access through turnstyles. Then a few minutes to stow lunch and hang up coats, don safety vests and gloves, before clocking in and grabbing a scanner. The scanner is our master and commander, telling us where to go and what items to pick. It also tells us how many units per hour we have to pick to match the goal, and even how many seconds until we’re expected to make the next pick. I’ve been as low as 54% of goal and as high as 132%, with a weekly average around 80%. The pick rate is strongly influenced by which area you are working in and for what purpose; if you are picking for “transship” to another warehouse, or picking media instead of merchandise, you are pulling several units per location, and your rate is higher than if you are rushing a good distance from bin to bin to get the stuff requested. If you consistently fall below 65% of goal, you get written up.

After getting a scanner, we all meet for “stand up,” the morning meeting, where we receive news about the demands of the day and are reminded of safety measures. Little paper slips called “Safety Saves” are available and we are encouraged to fill them out every day, recognizing good behaviors or pointing out things that need attention. We then do a stretch regimen– neck, arms, hands, thumbs, legs– it’s not exactly yoga, but it’s something. Then, everyone logs in to the scanner to get their assignment. The warehouse is separated into two main sections, Utah and Nevada. No one wants to go to Utah, where it’s mostly bins of merchandise or rows of pallet racks with items still in their large bulk boxes, and you have to vie with forklifts and other vehicles as well as other rushing pickers. Pickers mostly like assignments in Nevada, either Green, Blue, or Gray sections, which has some regular merchandise but is mostly books, DVDs, and CDs. Whatever the assignment, you then rush off to that area to get a cart before they all disappear. Sometimes I’ve gone ahead and started without a cart, carrying the tote around for a while until I find a cart stashed away, or one comes free from another picker. Bins all have an identifying string of characters and numerals– “P8-U137-B12” means the bin is in the Utah Violet section, on the second floor, row U, aisle 137, second from the bottom of the bins, twelfth one in. First you scan the bin, then select the item and scan that, then place it in the tote on the cart. Then you receive the next item, which could be nearby, behind you, or several aisles away. Every time you come around a corner, you yell the word “Corner!” and pause before entering the intersection, or entering a new aisle, in order to avoid collisions with stowers or other pickers. So far, I’ve had no collisions, but I have seen one pretty good bang up.

The whole process is quite physically demanding and a little foggy on the brain from the sheer repetitiousness of it all. Most of the pickers are seasonal temporary employees like me, and some of these are converted to regular employees at the end of the season. There’s a substantial group of RVers who come every year to work the peak Christmastime– these are generally older couples looking to fill the time and make some extra scratch. They aren’t driven to achieve goals quite the same as the temp folks. One day we had a “Power Hour” where we were encouraged to pick as fast as possible (safely, of course) with the fastest picker receiving a prize. I joked with one RVer, a former airline pilot, that it reminded me of the film “they Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” He chuckled at that. There’s a lot more detail I’d like to describe, but time is fleeting and Facebook is a time suck. Perhaps I’ll add more later.