This tenuous labor arrangement is partly the result of an honest fluctuation in the demand for these jobs: The biggest influx of DC workers occurs just before the holiday season, when online retailers conduct a majority of their annual business. But like retail jobs, the arrangement is also an acknowledgement of the underlying economic reality: The jobs are utterly low-skill, and there exists a large supply of unemployed Americans willing to do the work.
“In a way, because low-wage jobs are so cheap, we haven’t seen as much automation as you could,” Joseph Foudy, a professor of economics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, told me.
In addition to low pay, these workers are often subjected to unreasonably grueling labor conditions, precisely because they are temporary, cheap, and easily replaceable. Journalist Mac McClelland described her experience working at an amalgamated warehouse in rural Mississippi where she made rote physical movements thousands of times a day for only “60 dollars-a-day after taxes,” alongside people coping with labor-induced ailments (such as arthritis and tendonitis) while lacking any health care coverage, and being told that “taking 800mg of Advil a day” is just a fact of life.
Facility conditions at DCs are also often neglected or managed on an obsessively low-cost basis. It took an investigation by The Morning Call into one of Amazon’s Pennsylvania warehouses—which found dangerously hot summertime conditions and dizzying work paces—for the company to finally fork over $52 million to install proper ventilation. Reporting on an Amazon “fulfillment center” in the small English town of Rugeley (a former coal town), Financial Times writer Sarah O’ Connor found a disillusioned community jaded with the promise of new jobs, but had complaints about a work environment that resembled “being in a slave camp.”
Despite the controversial nature of these jobs, many politicians—still fighting back from recessionary employment levels—have touted their arrival. In July 2013, President Obama gave a speech from the floor of an Amazon “fulfillment center” in Tennessee where he praised the company for “investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs.” Politicians in California have welcomed the surge of investment into new DCs across Moreno Valley and Inland Empire, in an effort to transform the region into “the nation’s largest hub of distribution warehouses.”
“We know we face challenges, and [DCs] bring in jobs and pump up the economy right away,” Moreno Valley’s director of economic development told The New York Times. A local economist quoted in the story also noted that it's “the only industry adding thousands of jobs.”
But are DC workers really getting what politicians are calling "high-wage jobs"? The workers Obama referenced in his speech—Amazon’s “fulfillment center associates”—receive on average $11-13 an hour, or around $25,000 a year. A UC Riverside Policy Matters report found that 41 percent of blue-collar DC workers across the Inland Empire region are paid less than $10.50 per hour. The fact these new jobs pay so little, and are often staffed through "temporary" arrangements, means that any supposed economic “gains” brought about by their arrival are precarious.