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Cyber Monday at Amazon: Pick, pack and ship

Amazon associates as Santa's helpers? Employees at fulfillment center help make the holidays happen.

It's Cyber Monday morning at the Amazon fulfillment center in Southeast Baltimore, and the clock is ticking.

In the packing department, Marilyn Rochelle stuffs a Donald Trump Chia Pet into a cardboard box filled with bubble wrap, closes it with Amazon logo tape, slaps on a label and places it on a conveyor belt. Off goes the boxed orange pottery planter resembling a stoic president-elect: winding through the warehouse, to be scanned and sent down a slide, loaded onto a truck and shipped to the customer.

Rochelle does this about 100 times an hour, on an 11-hour shift, on the busiest day of the year for the nation's largest online retailer — and on what was forecast to be its biggest Cyber Monday yet.

"It's not difficult," Rochelle says. "It's teamwork."

Pick, pack and ship is the motto at the fulfillment center, where more than 3,400 regular employees and thousands of seasonal helpers are pitching in to help make the holidays happen. Full-time employees who typically work 10-hour shifts at least four days a week now work 11-hour shifts five days a week. One can argue that these Amazon associates are the closest thing to Santa's helpers in modern-day business.

The 24-hour fulfillment center, which spans 1 million square feet — the size of 28 football fields — was humming with roughly 14 miles of conveyor belts, gliding robots and humans picking, packing and shipping thousands of products every hour Monday morning.

"It all comes together like a symphony," said Eric Powell, 34, an assistant general manager at the Baltimore fulfillment center. Thousands of units would be packaged by the hour there, he estimated. The result: "a super-busy, super-exciting day."

The National Retail Federation first coined the term Cyber Monday in 2005, in light of the trend of consumers shopping online after Thanksgiving weekend — and retailers hosting deals in response.

The period of peak online shopping now extends well beyond Cyber Monday — Amazon workers refer to the span of days between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday as the "Turkey Five."

And this year was primed for growth: Adobe Digital Insights calculated late Monday that the day was the most successful online shopping date in history, generating $3.39 billion in sales with 10.2 percent growth over last year. Amazon officials said this past weekend broke sales records, and they expected to mark their busiest Cyber Monday to date, though they did not provide predicted sales figure for the single day.

"Last year on Cyber Monday, for reference, Amazon customers ordered 54 million units worldwide. That is 692 items per second, so that is a staggering number, and it's going to be an even bigger number this year," said Amazon spokeswoman Julie Law. She said Amazon predicted 17 percent to 27 percent growth in fourth-quarter sales compared to the same time last year, generating between $42 billion and $45.5 billion in 2016.

In the Baltimore fulfillment center — one of more than 70 around the nation — workers were already feeling the effects of "peak season."

Nicholas Rote, who has been working there since its inception in March 2015, describes Cyber Monday in one word: "Crazy."

Last year was the first holiday season at the fulfillment center, and Rote said it was "organized chaos."

The 28-year-old Armistead Gardens resident, who helps transfer large or heavy products to other facilities in the area for shipment, said this year's peak season is going better than last year despite the expected increase. Still, "there's a lot more going on inside the building."

One parking lot, which normally sees only a couple of rows of cars, is nearly filled because of the additional help this season, Rote said.

"We've taken a nice, drastic step to ensure that we get everything in, processed and out to where they need to be," said Rote, who helps train Amazon's new employees. "It's pretty crazy working inside Amazon's walls, but the best thing that keeps ... your drive alive is the camaraderie with other Amazon people because it's really diverse in there."

"We all get along and work together. It's cool to see a lot of people having jobs," said Justin Brown, 27, of Northeast Baltimore, who packs items. On this particular Cyber Monday, he and colleagues packed the likes of Christmas decorations, mixed nuts, DVDs, educational toys, toilet paper, the hot Hasbro Pie Face Showdown game and Amazon devices such as the Echo Dot.

"People don't want to go to the store. That's what they do; they just order them," said Chris Smith, 31, of West Baltimore, who works in the same department as Brown.

Before it was an Amazon fulfillment center, the site had been a General Motors assembly plant, which closed in 2005, taking more than 1,000 local jobs with it.

Now, full-time Amazon associates in Baltimore average over $15 an hour and have benefits such as health insurance and a 401(K), according to an Amazon spokesperson.

In recent years, media outlets have reported critically on working conditions in Amazon. The New York Times described a punishing, all-consuming culture at the corporate level, and the Allentown Morning Call documented heat-related safety issues at a distribution center. The company denied the allegations in The Times report and installed air-conditioning at its Allentown facility (it now has climate control at all its distribution centers, including Baltimore).

"At Amazon, safety is our top priority," spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said in a statement Monday to The Sun. "We have more than 800 dedicated health and safety professionals working in our U.S. fulfillment centers and all employees start by completing a dedicated safety school."

Workers on Monday spoke favorably about their experiences.

Every day, Brown said, presents a new challenge, with numbers to meet — especially during peak season — but also the opportunity to build skills for a career.

"It's fast-paced. They tell us the numbers we need … to get for the customers and stuff, so we just push everything out and try to work as fast and in order as possible," said Brown, noting the day's package goals are often split into quarters, with the goal of about 150 to 200 units per quarter.

And despite missing out on time with loved ones during much of the holiday season, Smith and Brown say the friendly environment and fast pace keep them focused during their 55-plus-hour weeks during Amazon's peak season.

"It's five weeks, and we got to work ... but it pays off because the money is good," Brown said. "That's the best bet. And if we're here enough, we'll get a bonus, too, so that really helps us out."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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