The Washington Post: Warehouse jobs — recently thought of as jobs of the future — are suddenly jobs few workers want

Warehouse jobs were supposed to be the future of the retail industry, offering opportunities for displaced employees and reshaping the American workforce. Amazon, Target, Walmart and other companies pledged to create hundreds of thousands of these positions at competitive wages — and increasingly with perks like free college thrown in — so they could fill the deluge of online orders that began with the coronavirus pandemic and continues unabated.

But the industry is facing an unexpected problem: Far too few people are willing to take on the often-grueling work, according to industry officials and economic data. It is the latest sign that the job market is being buffeted by unexpected trends that are leading workers to reconsider the types of positions they want — and upending industries across the economy.

“Every year we say, ‘Wow, this is really difficult’ — and every year, it gets more challenging,” said Sabrina Wnorowski, vice president of human resources at Radial, which operates fulfillment centers for brands such as Cole Haan, Aeropostale and the Children’s Place. The company, she said, is offering daily raffles with prizes like PlayStations and iPads, as well as pizza parties and on-site food trucks in a bid to attract 27,000 warehouse workers this year, up 30 percent from 2019.

“Given high unemployment, you’d expect that it would be easy to attract labor,” she said, “but it’s been the opposite.”

The warehouse industry has already cycled through millions of workers, some of whom say they’ve sworn off warehouse jobs altogether. That, labor economists say, is creating new challenges for retailers scrambling to fill crucial jobs unloading trucks, picking orders and delivering packages.

The warehouse and transportation industry had a record 490,000 openings in July, a gap that experts predict will widen in coming months.

The dearth of willing workers is hitting companies just as they’re preparing for a fraught holiday season. Supply chain hiccups, shipping delays and out-of-stock products are expected to cut into retailers’ sales and profits, and analysts say staffing shortages make the outlook even more uncertain.

The number of seasonal postings advertising “urgent” or “immediate” vacancies on the jobs site Indeed has grown tenfold from a year ago, according to company economist Ann Elizabeth Konkel. Many more employers also are advertising hiring incentives like signing bonuses and cash, she said.

Gap is touting around-the-clock telehealth appointments and 50 percent discounts on its clothing. Aldi has bumped up the average starting pay at warehouses to $19 an hour. Walmart is promising extra pay for supply chain employees who show up to all scheduled shifts. And Sleep Number is offering sign-on bonuses of as much as $1,000 at distribution centers in Ohio and California, plus free mattresses for all new hires.

The country’s largest retailers are going a step further: Walmart, Target and Amazon announced this summer that they would begin offering free college tuition and textbooks to employees.

“There is a lot more urgency this year,” Konkel said. “But on the flip side, when we look at job seeker interest, we’re really not seeing a rebound.”

In interviews with more than a dozen current and former warehouse workers across the country, nearly all described being overwhelmed amid staff shortages, with few prospects for moving up.

Many spoke of 60-hour workweeks and requests to take on even more shifts during the peak holiday season. Some longtime employees — particularly those who worked through the early days of the pandemic — say they’re resentful of newcomers who are being wooed with large signing bonuses and higher wages. But even those incentives, they say, haven’t been enough to keep workers from leaving.

“People quit every single day,” said David, who works at an Amazon fulfillment center in Washington state and asked to be identified by his first name only because he fears retribution at work.

“The job is brutal: 10 hours on your feet,” he said. “Half the people quit after their first day.”

A spokeswoman for Amazon declined to comment on the worker’s claim or on the company’s overall turnover rate. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Labor experts say the nation’s 1.5 million warehouse jobs have been reshaped by the industry’s biggest player: Amazon, which has 950,000 U.S. workers, making it the country’s second-largest private employer.

Amazon, according to experts, has had a mixed impact on local job markets. The company has created hundreds of thousands of fulfillment jobs, often at better pay than what’s offered in the local community.

At the same time, critics say, it also has dragged down working conditions and wages for the warehouse industry, where starting pay has generally been higher than in other sectors, including retail and hospitality.

In counties with an Amazon warehouse, turnover is often double the national industry rate, according to the National Employment Law Project.

“Once Amazon gets to town, turnover skyrockets and wages decline,” said Irene Tung, senior researcher and policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project. “Amazon is the standard-bearer, and it is dragging down working conditions for everybody.”

The company, which pays a starting hourly rate of $15, often requires employees to work 10-hour shifts with rigid quotas. A recent Washington Post analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration data found that rates of serious injury at Amazon are nearly double those of other U.S. warehouses. And this summer, officials in Washington state concluded that there was a “direct connection” between injuries at Amazon warehouses and its “employee monitoring and discipline systems.”

Read the full article at Washington Post

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