It has been eight months since Amazon opened its 855,000-square-foot customer fulfillment center east of the Salt Lake City International Airport, the first of its kind in Utah.
Upon its debut, Amazon and Salt Lake City officials alike boasted about the economic boost that was predicted to accompany the mega-retailer’s arrival in Utah’s capital.
However, while 2019 was a big year for expanding operations to Utah, and what the company claims was another record-breaking holiday season for sales, it was a tough year for Amazon in other ways. The company has faced a growing backlash, including worldwide Prime Day and Black Friday protests, over the way workers are treated at fulfillment centers, with concerns of low wages and hazardous working conditions.
Outgoing Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski told KUER in an interview last fall that she regretted her decision to support efforts to bring Amazon to the city. Biskupski said Amazon had made few strides to become a better community partner, including working on her priority of cleaning the city’s air, despite her being sold the idea that they would be.
[Read more: Amazon donated $30K to Volunteers of America Utah]
When the Salt Lake City fulfillment center opened in April, Amazon promised competitive wages, comprehensive benefits packages and long-term investment in the Salt Lake City area. In cooperation with the company, the state agreed to $5.6 million in tax breaks if the company hits certain negotiated benchmarks, paying above the Salt Lake County average wage for at least 130 among hundreds of anticipated jobs. Gov. Gary Herbert, a supporter of Amazon’s move to Utah, predicted the company’s investment in the city’s northwest quadrant would be a “significant driver for our economy and help diversify our business climate.”
Amazon has since announced two additional operations in Utah: A behemoth 1.3 million-square-foot fulfillment center in West Jordan that promises to bring more than 800 jobs starting at $15 per hour with a city-approved tax incentive of $1.6 million; and an expansion of Amazon Web Services Inc., a cloud computing subsidiary that is expected to create 300 new jobs over the next 10 years with wages well above the state average. State incentives of up to $2.5 million have been offered for that project.
Alex Higbee, the operations manager at Salt Lake City’s fulfillment center, said that Amazon is living up to expectations that it would be an active community benefactor in addition to being a significant employer. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Higbee said that Amazon has made local connections with the Utah Food Bank and the recently closed downtown homeless shelter, operated by The Road Home, by making in-kind and financial donations.
The company has also initiated programs such as Amazon’s Future Engineers, which provided 16 fourth, fifth and sixth grade students from Woodrow Wilson Elementary a visit to Amazon’s Salt Lake City fulfillment center for a robot-building field trip, Higbee said. Woodrow Wilson is one of 100 schools in the nation and the only one in Utah to receive a $10,000 grant for computer science education from Amazon’s Future Engineer program.
Amazon recently made a $25,000 holiday donation, along with $5,000 of in-kind donations such as sleeping bags, coats and blankets, to Volunteers of America Utah. Anne Laughlin, an Amazon public relations specialist, said in an email that these sorts of financial and in-kind donations are part of the company’s drive to support “right now needs” like ending hunger and homelessness.
“We are excited to support the great work done by nonprofits and schools across the greater Salt Lake City community,” Laughlin said.
Fulfillment staff member Alex Clift helped other Amazon employees and VOA volunteers sort and stock donated items after company officials handed a giant $25,000 ceremonial check to VOA leaders. Clift was active duty in the Air Force for 10 years, so he said a job at Amazon’s distribution center aligns well with his physical abilities and offers him the chance to be on his feet while he works.
“It’s pretty family-oriented,” Clift said when asked about the work environment at Amazon’s Salt Lake City center. “We do things like team-building activities and we all get along.”
According to Laughlin, Clift is one of more than 2,000 Amazon full-time employees who are based in Utah’s capital. Amazon says that the wages and benefits it offers employees are competitive.
According to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, the 300 high-skilled jobs coming to Salt Lake City with the future Amazon Web Services manufacturing facility are expected to have an average annual pay of $101,400. At least 130 workers of about 800 projected on the payroll at the fulfillment center in West Jordan will receive an average annual pay of $82,250.
A report recently released from the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research center based in Los Angeles, concluded that the wages Amazon pays its highly skilled workers versus warehouse workers perpetuates economic disparities that benefit those at the top but not necessarily those who do the heavy lifting. While Amazon’s starting salary of $15 an hour for manufacturing employees sits above Utah’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, full-time employees would still only make about $31,000 annually. That kind of salary is doable for a single person living in Salt Lake City, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator, but it falls far short of covering needs for a single parent with child or a family with one income.
Prime Day and Black Friday protests in July and November highlighted working conditions employees faced during those high-volume shipping periods.
In fulfillment warehouses, Amazon employees assemble and deliver orders on a rapid schedule. Amazon is known for their quick deliveries, offering one- and two-day delivery, but that speed can increase the risk of accidents and injuries. Employees who do not or cannot meet assembly quotas are let go.
Injury rates rise when there’s a high production demand and a recent report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found Amazon’s rates of serious injury are more than double the industry average. In Salt Lake City, 157 Amazon injuries were reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by mid-December, according to KUER, with information shared by Reveal. Three Amazon employees told the local NPR affiliate that their workplace injuries were caused by the production quotas and a focus on speed instead of safety.
Clift says that, in his experience as a fulfillment employee, the Salt Lake City distribution center has been safety-oriented.
“We go over safety procedures constantly and have had a lot of training,” Clift said.
With its existing facility and planned new ones, Utahns in the next few years can expect to see three operating Amazon facilities, with more than 3,100 employees, ranking it among the three dozen largest employers in the state, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
That growing presence assures it will play a significant role in the state’s economy on everything from wages to working conditions.