The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday | The Nation


The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday

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Amazon warehouse

A worker gathers items for delivery from the warehouse floor at Amazon's distribution center in Phoenix, Arizona (Reuters/Ralph D. Freso)

With a day off before work begins, I use the time to tour the area. The warehouse sits in the middle of the Inland Empire, a sprawling and fast-growing region that includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Of late, the area is best known for having taken the Great Recession square on the nose. The housing bust left the region short more than 70,000 construction jobs and with some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Signs of recovery are hard to spot. Today, nearly one in five Inland Empire residents lives in poverty—highest among the nation’s twenty-five largest metropolitan areas—with unemployment at 10.4 percent. 

It is against this bleak backdrop that a fantastic warehouse boom is under way. No area in the country is experiencing faster industrial growth, with warehouses occupying more than 400 million square feet, about the size of 7,000 football fields. The primary reason for the boom: Los Angeles is crowded, but the Inland Empire, in the words of John Husing—an economist with the Inland Empire Economic Partnership—has plenty of “dirt.” Land is cheap and plentiful, allowing for structures large enough to handle the flow of goods arriving from overseas. More than 40 percent of US imports pass through the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, and three-quarters of those products enter Inland Empire warehouses, where they are unloaded, reloaded and shipped out again. If you own stuff made in China—the phone in your pocket, the shoes on your feet—chances are good that some of it passed through an Inland Empire warehouse. 

The newest surge of growth is being driven by fulfillment centers catering to online shoppers. In 2012, the US e-commerce market accounted for $365 billion in sales, growing at a rate seven times faster than US retail spending. Just last year, Amazon moved into its first Inland Empire facility and recently announced a second. Despite the sluggish overall economy, demand is so high that most of the new construction is speculative. As one broker told the Los Angeles Times, “The Inland Empire is to industrial real estate what downtown Manhattan is to office real estate.”  

On the ground, the results of all this activity aren’t especially pretty. Warehouses have about as much character as giant curbs—some are half a mile long—and have been plopped down along dusty roads in the desert. On my driving tour, I repeatedly get lost in the swirl of industrial parks, my only traffic companions the endless stream of big rigs going to and fro. But these parks are more than just aesthetic hazards. Air quality here is among the very worst in the nation—thanks in part to the diesel exhaust—leading stunted lung growth among local children. 

For some, after the loss of so many good-paying construction jobs and decades of manufacturing decline, the logistics industry represents the region’s best shot at prosperity. Economist John Husing has studied the region for decades. During an interview, he notes that the majority of the jobs are available to people with high school diplomas or less, and that—unlike fast food work, for example—they can put folks on the path to the middle class. State data find that the average wage for logistics workers in the Inland Empire is nearly $45,000. 

But Juan De Lara, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, contends that such a rosy conclusion comes from conflating the white-collar jobs in the industry—managers and logisticians, for example—with most other warehouse employees: the folks who snag your online orders from shelves, load boxes onto pallets or drive those goods away on forklifts. Isolating for these positions, De Lara arrived at a median annual income of just $22,000. And it’s worse for temporary employees, who make up a significant portion of the workforce, especially during the holiday rush. For warehouse temps—like the crew of thirty folks I’ve joined at Ingram Micro—annual median wages come to a mere $10,067. Even a typical farmworker makes more. 

The growth of temp work isn’t limited to warehouses, of course. Over the last several decades, cost-cutting companies have transformed many stable blue-collar jobs into temp positions, complete with sporadic hours, low pay and no benefits. Manufacturing has been hit especially hard: only one in forty-three manufacturing positions was temporary in 1989; by 2006, the figure had risen to one in eleven. And alongside the hollowing out of blue-collar jobs has been an explosion of low-wage jobs generally. According to the National Employment Law Project, such low-wage positions are responsible for three-fifths of all new jobs created since the recession.

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