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The Huffington Post: The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp

The Huffington Post: The Life and Death of an Amazon Warehouse Temp

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

From The Huffington Post:

by David Jamieson

 Jan. 18, 2013, as the sun went down, Jeff Lockhart Jr. got ready for work. He slipped a T-shirt over his burly frame and hung his white work badge over his broad chest. His wife, Di-Key, was in the bathroom fixing her hair in micro-braids and preparing for another evening alone with her three sons. Jeff had been putting in long hours lately, and so the couple planned a breakfast date at Shoney’s for when his shift ended around dawn. “You better have your hair done by then,” he teased her.

As he headed out the door, Jeff, who was 29, said goodbye to the boys. He told Jeffrey, the most rambunctious, not to give his mom a hard time; Kelton, the oldest, handed his father his iPod for the ride. Then Jeff climbed into his Chevy Suburban, cranked the bass on the stereo system he’d customized himself, and headed for the Amazon fulfillment center in nearby Chester, Virginia, just south of Richmond.

When the warehouse opened its doors in 2012, there were about 37,000 unemployed people living within a 30-minute drive; in nearby Richmond, more than a quarter of residents were living in poverty. The warehouse only provided positions for a fraction of the local jobless: It currently has around 3,000 full-time workers. But it also enlists hundreds, possibly thousands, of temporary workers to fill orders during the holiday shopping frenzy, known in Amazon parlance as “peak.” Since full-timers and temps perform the same duties, the only way to tell them apart is their badges. Full-time workers wear blue. Temps wear white.

That meant Jeff wore white. He’d started working at the warehouse in November 2012, not long after it opened. It was the first job he’d been able to find in months, ever since he’d been laid off from his last steady gig at a building supply store. By January, peak season had come and gone, and hundreds of Jeff’s fellow temps had been let go. But he was still there, two months after he'd started, wearing his white badge. What he wanted was to earn a blue one.

At the warehouse, Jeff was a picker, fetching orders to be shipped to Amazon customers. A handheld scanner gun told him what he needed to pull and the exact aisle and shelf where he would find it. Since the Chester facility covers 1.1 million square feet, the equivalent of roughly 18 football fields, the right shelf might be just around the corner, or it might be 100 yards away. Once he pulled the item, his scanner would give him his next assignment, and off he'd go, wherever the gun took him next. He got a kick out of this peculiar window into the desires of the American consumer. Once, he stumbled on a small soccer set and made a note to buy it for Jeffrey when spring arrived. Another time, he filled an order for a mysterious item that turned out to be a butt plug kit. "I'm telling you," he later told Di-Key, laughing as he showed her the listing online, "this thing was as big as my fist."

Being a picker was a demanding job for a man of Jeff’s size. He was built like an offensive lineman—6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, with a flowing, dirty-blonde beard, wire-rimmed glasses and a head shaved almost completely bald. Since workers at the Chester facility were typically expected to pull 100 items or more per hour, a picker could expect to walk more than 12 miles over the course of a shift. The handheld scanners allowed managers to track precisely how long it takes workers to fulfill an order, and those who failed to "make rate" could lose their jobs. Jeff moved quickly up and down the aisles alongside men and women half his size, earning the nickname "Tornado.” “If I gave him a directive, he took care of it,” said Tim Taylor, a supervisor at the warehouse. “You didn’t have to explain it—he just knocked it out.”

“He liked it, and it exhausted him,” says Jeff's father, Jeff Lockhart Sr. “He’d come over here on the weekends when he could. He wouldn't sit there long and he'd fall asleep.” As a big guy, Jeff was mindful of his weight—he didn’t want to develop diabetes later in life. He’d taken up jogging and was eating better at home. After he started working at the warehouse, his family noticed that he was shedding pounds. “He dropped two, almost three pant sizes,” Di-Key says.

Sometime around 2 a.m. that January morning, Jeff took his 30-minute “lunch break.” Most days, he would clock out and go out to his Suburban in the parking lot. He would pull his lunch from his cooler and grab his phone, which, under warehouse policy, wasn't allowed on the floor. He always at least texted Di-Key, who found it hard to sleep while her husband was away at work. On this particular morning, he called her. He asked how her braids had come along, told her that he loved her and that she should get some sleep. Then he said he needed to get back to work.

Less than an hour later, a worker found Jeff on the third floor. He had collapsed and was lying unconscious in aisle A-215, beneath shelves stocked with Tupperware and heating pads.

Read the full article from The Huffington Post.

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