Brandon Johnson is looking for work, but for a moment Tuesday morning he was working the door at the Eastside One-Stop Career Center, waving people in from the cold, lending a hand in the crush that showed up to learn about jobs at the new Amazon warehouse opening in East Baltimore thisspring.
"Five more," he called, leaning out the glass door and holding up five fingers to a cluster of folks bundled against the cold on East Madison Street. Five people stepped in to fill seats remaining in an information session that had not been scheduled originally, but was added to accommodate the crowd.
Johnson, 33, who lives in East Baltimore, was one of 420 people who showed up from morning through the early afternoon, forming lines of a few dozen people during the morning rush. With city unemployment at 8.2 percent in December — nearly 3 percentage points higher than the Maryland rate — the mayor's office is working with the online retailer to offer information and help people fill out online applications for 1,000 mostly full-time jobs.
Baltimore has struggled to replace the high-wage, blue-collar jobs lost as its one-time manufacturing base eroded
The 1-million-square-foot Amazon distribution center — more than four times the size of a Target store — is expected to open at the end of March at the former site of the General Motors plant on Broening Highway. The GM plant closed in 2005, taking more than 1,000 jobs with it.
These jobs won't pay as well as a union car plant, but higher than minimum wage — $13 and $15.50 an hour — with benefits starting on the first day of employment including health, dental and eye care, a 401(k) plan, school tuition reimbursements, company stock and employee discounts on merchandise.
It all sounded good to Johnson, who is trying to balance working while going to the North American Trade School in Baltimore to learn how to be a diesel engine mechanic. He's been a carpenter and a truck driver, and most recently worked for three years in York, Pa., programming cell phones, but the job conflicted with his school schedule.
"I think it'll be more stable," he said of an Amazon job. "At this time, that's what it's all about."
Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic and Studies Institute, said the new Amazon warehouse is "a good thing on the scorecard of economic development," but the jobs will not have the economic impact of the sort of higher-paying manufacturing jobs that have left Baltimore in such great numbers since the 1970s.
"These are good jobs for individuals who are starting out, a step along the way," said Irani, adding that the city should not consider this sort of employment an "end game."
The four information sessions held Tuesday were the first of several scheduled by Amazon and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development. Two more sessions are fully booked with 200 people for Wednesday, and 600 are registered for a fully booked session at the War Memorial on Feb. 24, said Brice Freeman, spokesman for the agency.
He said the agency is pleased with the response.
"The large turnout indicates the value these job opportunities have for Baltimore City residents, and that job seekers know it's to their advantage to use our career center resources," he said.
The agency and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation had a crew of about 25 at the One-Stop Career Center on Tuesday to manage the crowd, which spilled over the number who had registered in advance for the two morning and afternoon information sessions. Rather than have people waiting outside in the cold, Amazon agreed to conduct two more abbreviated sessions in the morning.
Kris Cornett, an Amazon recruiter, stood in front of a projection screen before a capacity audience of about 100 people during the first session, talking about the company and the jobs on offer.
"What we're looking for is people who are positive," said Cornett, of Charlotte, N.C.
She talked about the benefits, the work week of four 10-hour shifts, the fact that the center is open 365 days a year. She said workers should expect to spend lots of time on their feet and that the company is "obsessed with safety … what we want people to do if they see something unsafe is to tell us."
Amazon has been criticized about unsafe working conditions in a few media reports.
In September 2011, the Allentown Morning Call reported that current and former workers at a warehouse in the Lehigh Valley complained about being held to production standards that they could not sustain and forced to work in un-air-conditioned warehouses that overheated during the summer. The paper reported that Amazon posted ambulance crews outside the warehouse in the summer to treat employees suffering from the effects of heat.
The following year Amazon spent $52 million to install air-conditioning in warehouses that did not have it, said Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman. She said all new distribution centers, including the one in Baltimore, will be air-conditioned.
In 2013, a BBC reporter working undercover at a warehouse in Swansea, Wales, reported that employees are expected to walk as many as 11 miles per shift and find a product for shipment every 33 seconds. The reporter's video was shown to a University of London expert on stroke and heart disease, who said it appeared to him that the company was demanding efficiency "at the cost of an individual's health and well-being."
Amazon said at that time that government safety inspectors in Wales had raised no objections, and another expert found the reporter's job did not risk physical or mental health.
Cheeseman said that safety is "the top priority" at the company warehouses, or "fulfillment centers," as Amazon calls them.
"It's safer to work in the Amazon fulfillment network than in a department store," said Cheeseman, based in Seattle. "We measure progress on safety using the 'recordable incidence rate,' which is the primary metric defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that oversees workplace safety."
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Amazon has more than 50 warehouses in the United States staffed by an army of 40,000 people. Worldwide, the company employs 150,000 people, Cheeseman said.
She said the jobs will mostly be full-time, although some employees may request part-time work to fit their schedules. Once the warehouse opens in the spring, the company plans to continue hiring for several months to reach the full complement of about 1,000 people.
Gail Brown, a mother of three, grandmother of seven, is hoping to be among them. She was sitting at one of about 50 computers at the job center, beginning the process of filling out her Amazon application, which is expected to take 45 minutes.
Now working as a meat cutter at the Dietz & Watson plant in Park Heights, she said she'd like to work closer to her home in Essex, and she'd like to make more money.
She said she likes her job, but she's making $9.75 an hour and could be making more at Amazon, especially with the overtime the company offers. Besides, she said warehouse work would be closer to a job she held before at a clothing distributor in White Marsh that went out of business in 2012.
"Amazon, it's nice, it's my cup of tea," she said. "I pray to God I get it."