On a warm September morning before dawn, dozens of employees with jobs paying at least $15 an hour walked into the new Amazon fulfillment center near the Charlotte airport for their first day of work. The 855,000-square-foot facility, the first in North Carolina to incorporate robotics, will soon ship hundreds of thousands of orders a day to customers throughout the region.
A bright orange carpet greeted the new hires. Hip-hop music blared as local mascots Sir Purr and Hugo high-fived the workers. A crowd of Amazon colleagues cheered them on.
The welcome celebration – one of eight Amazon expects to hold this year as it introduces employees of the new facility in waves – comes at a time when the company is facing scrutiny nationally for workplace practices in facilities like this.
The conflict is a very modern one: As more consumers depend on having more products shipped to their door, what is the human cost of speedy delivery?
The e-commerce giant is hiring quickly in preparation for the holidays, with the goal of employing close to 1,500 people at the new center, which is located at 8000 Tuckaseegee Road.
Charlotte may not have made Amazon’s prized shortlist of possible cities for its second headquarters last year, but the Seattle-based company is growing aggressively in the region. It has roughly 3,500 full-time workers here now working at warehouses in Kannapolis, Concord, and Wilkinson Boulevard in Charlotte.
Most of those, however, aren’t the kind of six-figure tech jobs for which Amazon is known.
The jobs at the Tuckaseegee Road center will almost all involve manual labor. Entry-level pickers, sorters, stowers, packers and shippers are on their feet most of the day at a facility built to ensure faster and more efficient delivery of Amazon orders to customers in the area. Entire teams of workers have productivity goals that are closely monitored and measured.
Amazon isn’t alone in staffing up such a facility: The warehouse industry is expected to have the fastest job growth of any sector in the state, according to recent UNC-Charlotte data.
For all the smiles at the welcome celebration, recent stories in national media outlets have been critical of the tech company’s treatment of warehouse employees.
A Time magazine reporter who took a job at a fulfillment center in Indiana to investigate the warehouse experience wrote this summer that it “felt as if the company wanted us to be robots–never stopping, never letting our minds wander off task.” A recent Recode article described Amazon’s PR strategy to suppress unions and debunk rumors about its workforce, including by employing warehouse workers to defend its labor practices on Twitter.
Still, others point to the fact that entry-level jobs at the new Amazon facility, dubbed CLT4, provide skilled opportunities for workers without college education (an entry-level job at CLT4 requires a high-school degree).
Amazon also says it encourages growth from within through an “upskilling program” that pays for tuition for courses related to in-demand fields. “We’re looking for people who want to grow. I want this building to be a talent generator,” Jeremy Stewart, Amazon CLT4’s general manager, said on a recent tour of the facility.
The new Charlotte fulfillment center is about the size of 15 football fields. It’s where smaller goods such as clothing and toys arrive directly from vendors to be sorted into bins, packed into 18-inch or smaller boxes and prepared to be shipped to shoppers all over the country. CLT4 will be able to ship up to several hundred thousand packages a day.
Charlotte’s facility is one of Amazon’s few fulfillment centers reliant on robotics, which take the form of square orange Roomba-looking devices that can lift up to 1,500 pounds.
Thanks to the technology, the new center will be able to handle roughly 40 percent more volume than typical Amazon fulfillment centers. Amazon’s other closest robotics centers are in Jacksonville, Florida, and Washington, D.C., he added.
“We’re going to fill a big void that Amazon had,” Stewart said. “With a building like this locally … people in Charlotte should see the ability to get stuff faster.”
CLT4’s name comes from the fact that it is Amazon’s fourth facility in the area. The company has a non-robotics fulfillment center in Kannapolis, as well as a sortation center in Concord and a receiving center on Wilkinson Boulevard.
The growth of such facilities follows a trend statewide.
According to a recent UNC-Charlotte economic forecast, North Carolina’s transportation, warehousing and utilities sector will experience the fastest job growth of any industry next year. The sector is expected to grow 3.8 percent, compared with an expected statewide job growth of 2.2 percent.
CLT4 might be massive compared to other warehouses in the area, but it’s smaller than the fulfillment centers Amazon built even five years ago, some of which are as large as 1.2 million square feet. Amazon is trying to become more efficient with its space as it builds in denser areas, Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said.
“We’re constantly trying to get closer and closer to our customers,” she added.
All but about 100 new employees who’ll staff the facility will be entry-level roles. The other salaried support staff include roles in human resources, IT, safety, finance and engineering.
But in many ways, Amazon fulfillment center jobs are more attractive than typical retail jobs.
Comparatively, Amazon’s entry-level jobs are relatively high-paying. The company raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour last fall, amid the criticism of its warehouse working conditions.
And unlike typical retail jobs, Amazon fulfillment center employees’ schedules are predictable. Working in shifts, each hourly employee puts in four days per week and has three days off. Each 10-hour day has two 30-minute breaks, one of which is paid. Full benefits are provided to all full-time workers, too, including health insurance, a 401(k) with a 50 percent match, paid sick time and up to 20 weeks of parental paid leave.
“I see a lot of really happy and surprised people when I go to new hire events,” Stewart said.
CLT4’s opening was made possible through financial support from the city and county.
In June 2018, Charlotte city council unanimously approved about $13.4 million in road and infrastructure improvements for the facility.
A few weeks later, Mecklenburg County Commissioners agreed on something called an “interlocal agreement” with the city. This means that the county will reimburse the city over $5.7 million for the infrastructure agreement the city has with CF Hippolyta, the developer of the Amazon site, according to Peter Zeiler, the county’s economic development director. Amazon did not receive incentives from the state of North Carolina for the project, according to state commerce department officials.
Charlotte city council member James “Smuggie” Mitchell, head of the city’s economic development committee, said the Amazon project is one way the city is working to improve economic mobility. In an often-cited study on the topic, Charlotte ranked dead last among 50 American cities.
“These type of jobs are very integral if the City wants to improve its 50th out of 50th ranking,” Mitchell said.