When President Obama delivered a major economic address over the summer, he did so from an Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, Tenn. Explaining the choice of location, deputy White House press secretary Amy Brundage called the warehouse "a perfect example of the company that is investing in American workers and creating good, high-wage jobs."
That investment has continued, blessed with the presidential stamp of approval. Last week, the company announced the opening of a 1 million square foot facility in Baltimore, Md. The company says the new "fulfillment center" will employ over than 1,000 workers full-time, with benefits and generous salaries.
But the sales pitch doesn't quite match up with Amazon's track record. For years, the company has been troubled by charges of unsafe warehouse conditions and poor pay.
Amazon has repeatedly said that its fulfillment center jobs pay 30% more than retail jobs, on average. But that figure doesn't include the wages of temporary and seasonal workers employed by third-party contractors, according to University of Southern California professor Juan D. De Lara. Using Census data on temporary workers, De Lara argued that the average blue-collar warehouse job pays closer to $22,000 annually, just a little below the official poverty line for a family of four. As for Amazon specifically, other surveys have found that the average warehouse worker earns about $12 per hour—or $24,960 per year for someone who workers 40 hours every week without any time off.
In exchange for those levels of pay, Amazon employees in other parts of the country have often had to deal with difficult, or even dangerous, working conditions. Air conditioners were only installed at the company's Lehigh Valley, Penn., facility after the news media started covering the extreme temperatures within. Before the air conditioning was installed, the company dealt with heat stroke and exhaustion by arranging to have ambulances parked outside the warehouse during the summer months.
In Germany, Amazon's opposition to labor unions has fueled labor struggles around the company's warehouse. While recent warehouse strikes are at least partially about wages, Amazon vice president Dave Clark was upfront with the New York Times about the company's distaste for German organized labor's influence on "what our relationship is with our people.”
Baltimore—with its unemployment rate of 10.3%, a full 3% above the national average—has welcomed Amazon with open arms. In fact, the company is set to receive over $43 million in tax credits for setting up its new warehouse.