Making sure more cheap plastic junk from China flows through South Dakota, poobahs like Lieutenant Governor Larry Rhoden and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken helped Amazon cut the ribbon at its new warehouse at the creeping edge of Sioux Falls last week. But the Sioux Falls facility has a ways to go to live up to its promise of over a thousand jobs
According to Scott Seroka, Amazon’s regional public relations manager in South Dakota and other parts of the Upper Midwest, the facility currently employs 350 people, with plans to quickly increase that number toward a goal of between 1,000 and 1,500 employees.
Yet South Dakota’s statewide unemployment numbers in the past year have shifted seasonally between a low of around 600 and a high of about 2,300.
To lure in help from this limited pool of workers fancied by businesses across the state, Seroka said the facility is offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus to new, full-time employees and $1,000 referral bonuses to current employees [Jason Harward, “Amazon Facility Prime Example of South Dakota’s Economic Growth, Workforce Shortages, Officials Say,” Sioux Falls Live, 2023.01.16].
Thankfully, Amazon has robots to do most of the work:
Choate says around 300 people are currently employed at the facility, but they’re well short of their goal to have around 1,500 workers on staff. That’s even with a majority of the sorting and loading done by robots.
“Where as before an associate would take a package to a truck, now we have a robot that will take that package to a truck. We would have an associate walk and find something, we have a robot bring that product to an associate.” Choate said [Cooper Seamer, “Amazon Fulfillment Center Hosts Ribbon Cutting Ceremony,” KSFY, 2023.01.15].
More robots ought to be good, since they won’t suffer the workplace injuries that plague the humans trying to keep up with Amazon’s inhuman pace. Amazon warehouses have twice the worker-injury rate of their competitors, and remarkably, robots in Amazon’s warehouses appear to make the injury rate worse:
…In each of the four years covered by this analysis, the serious injury rate at sortable Amazon fulfillment centers with robotic technology was higher than the serious injury rate at the sortable Amazon fulfillment centers without robotic technology. In 2019, the last year of in- jury data available prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s sortable facilities with robotic technology had a serious injury rate of 7.9 per 100 workers, more than 54 percent higher than the serious injury rate at non-robotic sortable facilities in the same year (5.1).
The higher rates of injury in these robotic warehouses are not a surprise given the ways in which the technology interacts with workers. For example, this technology also allows management to more closely monitor workers to make sure that they are keeping up with the robots. When a worker picks or stows an item, a timer starts counting down, tracking the seconds until the worker picks or stows the next item. If the lag between tasks is too long, the time is logged as “time off task.” Amazon’s computer systems track both the number of items workers pick each shift and their time off task, alerting managers to discipline, or even fire, workers who are not able to keep up with the robots.
The robotic system also forces workers to perform the same movements over and over again. These repetitive motions can increase the risk of injury, which becomes even more acute if workstations are not designed to properly fit individual workers or if the movements require excessive twisting, bending and awkward postures. The risk of injury related to these motions dramatically increases with the pace of work [Strategic Organizing Center, “Primed for Pain: Amazon’s Epidemic of Workplace Injuries,” May 2021, p. 7].
OSHA looked into these high injury rates at Amazon warehouses in Florida, Illinois, and New York and last week fined the company $60,269, the amount Amazon made every four seconds last year. New York Governor Kathy Hochul just signed a compromise Warehouse Worker Protection Act to ensure Amazon workers and other order-fulfillers at least get breaks to eat, pee, and rest. No worker safety legislation is currently under consideration in Pierre.