I Went From Cafè Management to Stacking Shelves for Amazon.
And I’m not entirely mad about it.
2020… The annus horribilis of an entire world population. The pandemic wreaked havoc on millions across the globe, robbing many of jobs, homes, health, and devastatingly, lives. People are still getting to grips with the “new normal” (does anybody else hate that phrase now?). Many will look back over the past year and find that some aspects of their lives are almost unrecognisable from how they were pre-COVID. I am one of them.
In March 2020 I was the manager of a quaint little park café. I had worked hard, yet unsuccessfully, to try and forge a career for myself since leaving school at sixteen, with two spells of maternity leave in my early-mid twenties putting the breaks on any real progress I had made. I was enjoying my job, happy to have finally made some traction, when… BAM! The world got metaphorically flipped upside down, and my flourishing career was destroyed almost overnight. Unfortunately, the ultimate fate of the cafe was out of my hands, and we were forced to close in mid-March. My job became redundant in September after a period of furlough leave, leaving me to find alternative employment in the middle of a pandemic.
Enter the hero of the hour.
In an almost non-existent job market, I found myself applying for anything and everything. I came across a job advert for seasonal work at my local Amazon warehouse, offering a decent hourly wage and full-time hours that I could fit around childcare. I clicked ‘apply’, ignoring the little devil on my shoulder, whispering how overweight and unfit I was. Within days, I found myself stood in front of a “Welcome, Amazonians” sign at Europe’s largest fulfilment centre, ready to start my first day as an Amazon Associate.
I was placed into the Inbound Stow department where workers stow away incoming stock, ready to be sold online. This isn’t any ordinary warehouse though. The four-floor, two million-square-foot building is home to Amazon’s prized robots. These robots shuttle ‘pods’ to workers around the building.
Instead of stowing items categorically as one would expect, they are placed inside the aforementioned pods. If a customer were to order a tube of hand cream, it may well have been stored next to a water pistol, a pack of batteries, or a Harry Potter book, such is the random nature of the system. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is a system that works phenomenally well.
During the first couple of weeks on the job, workers are given allowances for poor productivity and quality while they find their feet. Once this initial grace period is over, they are expected to stow at a certain (one might say ambitious) rate. There is no possibility of concealing mistakes here; the computers and cameras track the quality and productivity stats of almost everybody in the building in real time. Periods of longer than ten minutes spent idle are recorded as ‘time off task’. Too many of these occasions could land you straight in the jobcentre queue.
While that may sound a little daunting, I have only been spoken to once about my time off task; when the battery in my scanner died and I had to trek to another part of the building to get a replacement. In my experience, standing idle makes the day seem longer. Keep your head down, plough through the work and the time flies.
Each floor has a supervisor who will run competitions for things like ‘most units stowed in an hour’. While the incentive is only an extra 30 minute break, it’s still fun to challenge yourself and, again, makes the day seem that much shorter.
I limped out of the building at the end of my first shift. Having been desk-bound in 9–5 office jobs for almost all my working life, this was a whole new experience. Ten hours spent on my feet, lifting boxes, climbing up and down a ladder with only two half an hour breaks had broken me. Everything hurt. My back, neck, shoulders, arms, feet — all screaming out in unison. I also had a sore throat from wearing a mask in a stuffy warehouse all day, and a dehydration headache. I started to believe the evil little shoulder squatter who taunted me through my application was right. I couldn’t imagine how I could finish the week, never mind a three-month contract.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
A couple of weeks into the job, it started to get easier. It was still back-breaking manual labour, but my joints and muscles had become used to the extra exertion. I marvel at how adaptable and resilient our bodies are. Which is lucky because we were hurtling towards peak season. Picturing December in an Amazon warehouse during a normal year conjures up thoughts of noise and commotion. Throw a lockdown into the mix, and it becomes chaos incarnate.
At the end of my three-month contract, with a world still in the throes of the pandemic and Amazon hailed as a lockdown saviour, my contract was extended for a further month. Then another month. Then another three months. I am now eight months into the job and have recently had my contract extended by another eight months until January 2022.
I had only planned for this to be a stop-gap until I could find something more permanent. While that something continues to elude me, it is reassuring that I can earn a steady income during my continued job search.
Whatever your thoughts are on Amazon, it is impossible not to be awe-struck by the sheer speed and meticulous planning that enables a customer to click ‘buy now’ on an item and have it in their possession only hours later.
As a customer for the past decade, I am glad to have experienced working in an Amazon warehouse. I had never given a thought to how my orders were fulfilled, and it has given me a new appreciation for the work that goes on behind the scenes.
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