Of Wages And Warehouses : The Indicator from Planet Money Warehouse jobs are growing even faster than the rest of the booming labor market. Are they good jobs?

Of Wages And Warehouses

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SOPHIA PALIZA-CARRE, BYLINE: As you come in off the highway, you will see, like, stretches of buildings, like, right off the highway on land that used to be orchards and is now these, like, long, low, flat buildings that just, like, go on forever. And those are all the warehouses, and they're all kind of, like, clustered all together by the highway. All have been built in the last 12 years.


That is Sophia Paliza-Carre. She's an editor with our fellow NPR podcast, Latino USA, and she's describing the warehouses that she saw in the town of Patterson, Calif., where she was reporting a story about the jobs done inside those warehouses. And we wanted to talk to Sophia because warehouses are actually adding jobs at an even faster pace than jobs are being created in the rest of the booming economy. And the reason is simple - e-commerce. Every year, a bigger and bigger share of the stuff that we buy is online. And so these warehouses that are used to store and distribute that stuff need more workers. But how good are these jobs? How well do they pay? And are they a pathway to the middle class, or are they a dead end?

I'm Cardiff Garcia, and this is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money. After the break, Sophia is going to take us inside an Amazon warehouse in Patterson to describe the kinds of jobs that are done there. And then she'll reveal to us what she's learned about the quality of warehouse jobs overall.


PALIZA-CARRE: You just want me to introduce myself.


PALIZA-CARRE: OK. My name is Sophia Palize-Carre, and I'm an editor at Latino USA.

GARCIA: Our cousin podcast.

PALIZA-CARRE: Yes. We are friends. We could be friends.

GARCIA: Yes. We could be and should be friends. OK, Sophia, for a recent episode of Latino USA, you went inside an Amazon warehouse to look at the jobs done inside. And among those jobs were loading and unloading trucks, stowing an item on the shelf and cataloguing it so that if somebody orders that item, you know it's there, picking the item off the shelf when somebody does order it, you know, with the use of machines and conveyor belts and other things and, of course, packing it and sending it off. And you've got this great clip from your recent episode where you observe people doing a couple of these jobs. Let's listen.


PALIZA-CARRE: So this is how it works. Say somebody really wants to order a back massager. They click it online. Once they do that, that's when the item gets picked.

DANI TAFOYA: You're going to notice on the screen the associate is provided a picture of the item, a description of the item and then a quantity of how many they need to pick.

PALIZA-CARRE: To pick the back massager, a second worker calls the orange robots over, retrieves the massager from a shelf and then puts it on a yellow tray - kind of like those airport security trays, which go on a conveyor belt.

TAFOYA: So the next step in the process is pack. So the next place that we're going to go is to a pack station.

PALIZA-CARRE: So at the pack station, it's what it sounds like. Basically, the back massager comes in on a yellow tray and a worker packs it into a box - no robots here. This is the place where someone gets to see all the secrets of what we order online. And today, that someone is a very peppy Ashley Vasconcellos (ph). I ask her, how many items does she have to pack a day?

ASHLEY VASCONCELLOS: Well, I know an hour, they want us to do about a 63. So that's how many we do an hour here. And so you could do that. We work 10 hours a day.

PALIZA-CARRE: Workers normally do four shifts a week, so if you do the math, Ashley packs around 2,520 items a week. So the very last thing that happens to your back massager is that it gets a shipping label. All of the labor at this point is done by a magical puff of air.

TAFOYA: A shipping label is created and gently placed with a puff of air on top of the box. That sound that you hear is a puff of air that is placing it onto the shipping box.

PALIZA-CARRE: This part, I have to admit, is literally my favorite.


GARCIA: Yeah, and I love that clip, but, Sophia, I did come away from your piece with a kind of ambivalence about whether these warehouse jobs are good jobs. So let's kind of go through what you found out in your reporting. Let's start with what's good about these jobs.

PALIZA-CARRE: Yeah, absolutely. Warehousing or distribution center jobs pay up to, like, $16 an hour. Some of them pay, like, $11, so if they're, like, a temp job. And it's a field that is growing so quickly that there's a really high demand for labor. And so this industry, according to, like, the U.S. Labor Bureau of Statistics, is just one of the fastest growing ones, too, in our economy. And so, you know, as manufacturing is going down, as agriculture is declining, the question is, like, maybe this is the future, and this is where the opportunities are going to be and where anybody can get a job if they need one.

GARCIA: OK. So the good is that these jobs are being created. A job is better than no job, and an important part of your story is that these are jobs that people can get without a college degree. And so as manufacturing jobs have disappeared, at least something is replacing those jobs. What about the bad? What's bad about these jobs?

PALIZA-CARRE: Right. I mean, definitely working in a warehouse, you are still working in a - you know, in terms of environment, you're still working somewhere that is not quite outside but doesn't - isn't normally temperature controlled.

GARCIA: Really?

PALIZA-CARRE: So in the past, there have been a lot of complaints of, you know, during high heat, of excessive heat and continuing to work during that heat. There's not air conditioning in these warehouses or it being extremely cold. So that is, like, one thing to keep in mind. I think the biggest thing that I realized in looking into this is that the industry is so reliant on temp workers and the use of temp work. And that really worries me because temp workers are not people who are easy to organize in terms of workers protections or in terms of unionizing. When people are filtering in and out of your warehouse - Amazon has one of the highest turnover rates in the country for a big company - they're not able to organize and get together to advocate for their rights if there are different abuses happening, you know, even on a manager level or something like that. And it's actually hard to know how many are temp workers, which is part of what's challenging about this. But we do know that, you know, hundreds of thousands of workers get hired even just for the seasonal time period.

GARCIA: Like, for the holidays or something.

PALIZA-CARRE: For the holidays.

GARCIA: Like, it's time to ship a lot of things, but once the holidays are over, sorry, we don't need you anymore.

PALIZA-CARRE: Yeah. Like, Amazon has, like, 125,000 workers nationwide full time, but then they double that for the holidays.

GARCIA: Really.

PALIZA-CARRE: And we don't know how many of those workers actually get hired full time afterwards.

GARCIA: Yeah. And you spoke with a temp warehouse worker, not one at Amazon but someone named Dwayne (ph). He's a forklift driver for another company. And he made the point that for temp workers, it's also kind of hard to know what your schedule is going to be. And that also creates problems.

PALIZA-CARRE: And one issue that Dwayne mentioned was he would get called in by his manager, and he would go in and they would say, oh, actually, we don't need you anymore, and they would let him go home. And they're supposed to pay you a certain amount of money if they call you in for how many hours even if you haven't worked those hours, but the company that he worked at routinely did not pay him that.

GARCIA: OK. So the good is that these jobs are growing in number. You can get one without a college degree, and the pay is actually a little bit better or seems to be for most people better than what you would get at other service jobs. The bad is that a lot of these jobs are temp jobs, and they don't offer protections for workers. Sophia, I have another question, which is can we consider these jobs to be middle-class jobs or above or below middle class, or are they on the glide path to middle class?

PALIZA-CARRE: So that was a question that I really had. So I looked up what a middle-class job - what an annual salary would be for a middle-class job in California, and the range is actually huge. So there is a report from the Southern California Association of Governments that estimates that warehouse workers make about $45,000 a year, which would make it basically a middle-class job. But there's been some debate over that. There is a professor at USC - think University of Southern California. His name is Juan De Lara, and he did a report, and he basically contests these numbers from this other report. Because of all the third-party suppliers and all the temp agencies that are working in the industry, the numbers are a little bit misleading is what he says.

GARCIA: OK. Sophia, where can people listen to your story?

PALIZA-CARRE: Yeah, so you can find it on the feed for NPR's Latino USA, which is our show. And you can find it on there or on our website.

GARCIA: Excellent. Sophia, thank you so much.

PALIZA-CARRE: Thank you.


GARCIA: Hey, everybody, THE INDICATOR is looking for an intern. So if you are a recent college graduate and you're looking for a job, we've got one - full time, it's paid and you get to hang out with us and do actual real-world work. It's not a coffee-fetching thing, OK? So if you're interested, please go to npr.org/money, and you'll find a link where you can apply. It's a great job. Please do apply. Thank you.


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