The Secret Lives of Amazon’s Elves

Monday, December 28th, 2009

Joel Johnson describes the secret lives of Amazon’s elves — “workcampers” who park their RVs near Amazon’s fulfillment center in Coffeyville, Kansas:

“From what the agency people had told us, Amazon had a bad experience busing in people from Tulsa,” says Chris. “There was a lot of theft and a lot of people who weren’t really serious about the job.”

Workers from Tulsa were adding a 4-hour round-trip commute to an already grueling 10-to-12 hour shift, Cherie is quick to add. “They’d get there exhausted.”

Enter the workcampers, people making a go at living in their RVs full time — many of whom might be otherwise overqualified. “I think Amazon was skeptical at first,” says Cherie. “But after the first trial year they were very, very impressed. Workcampers came in enthusiastic about working, since most are professionals. We’ve owned businesses or been managers.” White collar workers, trying their hand at the gypsy life. Even better, the workcampers were able to stay locally.
“Every shift starts with what they call a ‘Stand Up.’ You gather in one area with your usual department — ours was called ‘Sortable Singles,’ which sounds like it should be the name of a dating site — and they’d count off how many people they needed in each department. Run through a few announcements. Give you a few safety tips. And then they lead you through five minutes of group stretches.”

Cherie was mainly a packer, putting items in the box and scanning them. Chris, on the other hand, was a “water spider.” He explains, “A water spider is responsible for keeping all the packers supplied, so ideally they’d never need to stand up and leave their station to get any other supplies like all the different sizes of boxes, plus making sure their tape machines and paper-spitter machines are operating.”

“I never quite exactly figured out why they call it a water spider. My guess is back in the history of assembly line jobs, the water spider would be the person who would bring people on the line water to drink. Nobody seemed to know!”
Inside the warehouses, machines and man alike were controlled by Amazon’s computerized assembly line.

In one part of the factory, Chris watched two giant elliptical carousels, each one the size of a football field, carry wooden trays around at 15mph. “All the items are coming in the totes on one side of this giant machine. There are people who take each individual item, scan them and put them on the trays as they go by. The trays get to a chute where their order is being assembled, tilt, and the product flies down into that space. When all the items for a particular order are assembled in one place an orange light comes on and somebody comes by.” Above, another carousel brought an endless procession of empty boxes to be filled with the orders.

It wasn’t exactly what Cherie had envisioned. “When we told people were going to do this, someone said ‘Whenever I click the order button on Amazon, I always imagine a chorus of happy, singing Oompa-Loompas riding around on Segways and shipping my stuff.’ Well… no. It’s not exactly like that.”

“The computer has to prioritize how it’s going to send out all the pickers in this giant facility. So someone could order a book and a sweater and an iPod, and those could be in completely different corners of the whole facility. But somehow they all arrive within about 30 minutes of each other.” It’s efficiency even Willy Wonka could love.

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