A wary welcome to Amazon

It's not every day that a major corporation announces that it will bring 1,000 jobs to Baltimore City, so we have reason to cheer Amazon.com's decision to open a 1 million square foot distribution center here. Baltimore's official unemployment rate stands at 10.8 percent, and if you count people who have dropped out of the workforce, it's much higher than that. We need any jobs we can get. Meanwhile, the establishment of a physical presence for the company here means that Amazon will have to start charging sales tax on Marylanders' purchases, and while we all may rue the end of that loophole in the tax collection system, it's a good thing both for Maryland-based retailers and for the state treasury.

Still, it's hard to be completely enthusiastic about the arrival of an Amazon "fulfillment center" on the property now known as Chesapeake Commerce Center -- much less the $40 million in tax credits and other incentives it took to get it there. Until eight years ago, that property on Broening Highway was a sprawling General Motors plant that produced Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans. The factory, which dated to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, once employed 7,000 people and was the largest manufacturing employer in a heavily industrial city. Even at the end, producing vans that few wanted and that had not been redesigned in 20 years, the plant employed 1,100 people, 1,000 of them hourly workers who were paid on average $27 an hour. Amazon's new employees are expected to make $11.50-$12.50 an hour.

It was, of course, unrealistic to expect that another big manufacturing plant that paid middle-class wages to thousands of low- and middle-skill workers would swoop in to take over the Broening Highway plant. Baltimore's economy, like much of the rest of the nation, has shifted away from that kind of labor-intensive, heavy industry into a high tech, service sector economy. Manufacturing isn't dead, but it has evolved into smaller, advanced facilities that require fewer but more skilled employees. The promise that anyone could graduate from high school (or not) and walk into a good paying job — albeit sometimes a dangerous, dirty and physically demanding one — was supposed to be replaced by one in which education offered a ticket to a white collar world.

But the prevalence of jobs like the ones Amazon is offering is a reminder that this new deal hasn't worked out for everyone. And it's not just that Amazon pays its warehouse workers far below middle class wages. It's also that workers have far less leverage in this new economy, and they can face deplorable employment conditions as a result.

In 2011, the Allentown Morning Call (a sister paper of The Sun) published a shocking investigation into the working conditions at an Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Based on Occupational Safety and Health Administration records and interviews with 20 Amazon employees, reporter Spencer Soper described an environment in which workers faced such intense pressure to perform that their safety was sometimes put at risk. On summer days, the heat index in parts of the warehouse topped 110 degrees, and the company refused to open loading dock doors to provide air circulation out of fear of theft. At times, Amazon hired paramedics to stand by outside to treat workers who dropped from the heat and to take them to the hospital. At one point, a doctor from a nearby emergency room called OSHA to report his concerns about the number of heat stress cases he was seeing from the Amazon facility.

Though Amazon offered little response to the investigation, the paper reported that the company took some steps to increase ventilation in the warehouse and changed some personnel procedures to prevent people from being punished for suffering from heat-related conditions. And although the company's employment practices have gotten some scrutiny in other publications none have matched the depth of the Morning Call's effort, so it's impossible to know how widespread are the conditions it describes. What is clear, though, is that warehouse workers are effectively disposable. As the Morning Call described it, Amazon relentlessly tracked the productivity of its workers and employed an elaborate system of demerits for insufficient production that could lead to termination. If a worker quit or was fired, there was always another to take his place.

City officials are understandably happy that, eight years after the GM plant closed, jobs will be returning to this patch of industrial Southeast Baltimore. We need them. But we should be under no illusion that this development marks a return to the kind of prosperity the community once enjoyed. We need our elected leaders to continue pursuing policies that protect workers and ensure that jobs like these are a steppingstone to a better future, not a dead end.

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