It’s the latest in a string of negative stories that stretches back years. This Mother Jones story about an Amazon fulfillment center workers fainting from heat exhaustion was published in 2011.
As Oliver’s piece pointed out, fulfillment centers often operate on slim margins. That can mean low wages and demanding quotas for warehouse workers, as employers scramble to turn a profit. Amazon has disputed Oliver’s story. The eCommerce giant raised its base hourly rate for fulfillment center employees to $15 per hour in 2018 (though changes in Amazon benefits may negate at least part of that increase).
We can’t dispute the fact that working conditions in some fulfillment centers are less than optimal, to say the least. However, not all fulfillment companies are alike.
Red Stag Fulfillment was built on a culture of excellence from the beginning. To us, that doesn’t just mean that we strive for error-free work from the pickers and packers on the warehouse floor (we do). It also means that we work hard to be the best place our employees have ever worked.
So let’s drill down into the truth about working at a fulfillment center. Along the way, we’ll explain why that matters to your eCommerce business.
Fulfillment Center Horror Stories
Amazon runs one of the largest fulfillment operations in North America. However, there are hundreds of other fulfillment center operators in the US. Last Week Tonight reported horrific conditions at various fulfillment warehouses. The original reporting on these labor issues came from the New York Times and other outlets.
A New York Times article detailed how pregnant workers struggled with warehouse work. Some had miscarried after being denied requests for shorter shifts and lighter duty. Most shockingly, the article also recounted an incident in a Tennessee warehouse where a worker died. After her death, employees were ordered to continue work while her body remained on the warehouse floor. (The warehouse operator has denied reports of this incident by workers.)
A history of harsh working conditions
Tales of inhumane conditions at fulfillment centers are not new. In 2012, Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland went undercover at a fulfillment warehouse in Ohio. Her harrowing account describes rushed breaks that barely allowed enough time to use the bathroom.
That was just part of a grueling work schedule. Algorithms now give workers the shortest routes through the warehouse. However, Oliver’s report noted that many warehouse workers still walk 15 miles or more every day. In addition, warehouses can be brutally hot in the summer and cold in winter.
And warehouse conditions could get worse in the future. Amazon is pushing the fulfillment industry toward one-day and same-day delivery. The rest of the industry will scramble to keep up with this faster delivery schedule. The pressure on fulfillment center workers to do more, better, faster will increase. As a result, we could hear more fulfillment centre horror stories.
So, now I’ve painted a depressing picture of what it’s like to work in a fulfillment center. But there is more than one kind of fulfillment company. Some of us strive to create a different kind of working environment. It’s an important part of being a different kind of eCommerce fulfillment company.
Here’s what it’s like to work for a fulfillment centre that knows its employees are its most valuable asset.
What It’s Like to Work for Red Stag Fulfillment
Red Stag Fulfillment opened for business in early 2013 with just a few employees. They did everything, from managing operations to building shelving and packing boxes. One of those first employees was Sam Hughett, now the Warehouse Manager for our Knoxville Facility. “We started out against the grain from traditional warehousing,” Hughett recalls. “We wanted to make a great work environment.”
Red Stag was founded by eCommerce entrepreneurs. That original entrepreneurial spirit is shared by every employee, from the president to the newest hire. Our warehouse floors are dotted with Problem Boards, where our employees report issues and make suggestions. Our managers respond to every suggestion.
Eric McCollom, president of Red Stag, was one of the first employees who came on in 2013. He knew the scrappy little fulfillment centre could only succeed if management listened to everyone’s ideas. “At the end of the day, it’s about a culture that we’re going to be the best at everything we do,” he says. “That means creating the best working environment to attract and retain quality employees.
We believe that listening to all perspectives and treating our employees with respect is one of the reasons we’ve been rated the top fulfillment service [for heavy and fragile items] four years in a row.”
Here are just a few of the ways that Red Stag has created a great work environment in its two order fulfillment centres.
I won’t deny that it gets hot in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the summer – it does. But our warehouse there never experiences the sweltering conditions that some other fulfillment centers do.
We can’t run air conditioning in a warehouse-sized space with high ceilings and frequently open loading dock doors. However, we use a fan system that keeps our warehouses 10-20° cooler than the outside temperature on hot days. And our employee break room has air conditioning, for an even cooler break.
Red Stag Fulfillment offers our clients a commitment to accuracy. Perfection is impossible, but we strive to get as close as we can. We know we can’t get there by treating our employees like robots.
Instead, we offer a bonus structure aligned with the fulfillment guarantees we promise our clients. After employees pick or pack a certain number of orders error-free, they get a bonus. It’s not based on speed or meeting a specific quota per hour worked. Accuracy is the primary driver for our incentives.
As the number of error-free packages rises, so does the amount of the bonus they get each time. We’ve had long-time employees turn down promotions to management positions because they earned more on the floor through our bonus structure!
Employee break room
Our management staff works in the funky offices that came with the warehouse (a former boat-building facility). However, our pickers and packers have a break room that’s newly remodeled. We gave them all the bells and whistles we could cram in there. That’s because we knew that, when you work hard on the warehouse floor, you need a clean and comfortable space to take breaks.
Promotion from within
Most of the people working in management at Red Stag started out working in the warehouse. We promote workers who show talent, drive, and initiative. When you know that your employees are your biggest asset, as we do, you want to keep the best people on your team. That means promoting from within.
Red Stag Fulfillment gives our employees full paid health benefits, with the option buy in for family members. We offer stable, predictable, full-time work, with full benefits.
Long-term Employees Are the Key to Red Stag’s Strategy for Success
Red Stag’s business model is different from many fulfillment centres. We don’t count on shipping a high volume of orders at razor-thin margins to make a profit. Admittedly, we aren’t the cheapest fulfillment company in our eCommerce niche – just the best.
But it’s because we don’t compete on cost, but rather keeping focused on being the best order fulfillment service for business shipping larger, heavier parcels, that allows us to pay our employees a living wage.
Red Stag will try to keep up with the fulfillment expectations that Amazon sets. But we will never follow Amazon’s example and replace workers with robots. Our client’s products are too heavy to be handled by robots. We need human workers to handle the items we ship with care, accuracy, and speed, so continuing to invest in our employees and culture will remain a core competency of our business model.
A Different Kind of Fulfillment Center
Red Stag Fulfillment is not for everyone. We aren’t the best fulfillment service if your eCommerce business sells lightweight and small products. However, if you sell heavy, fragile, or bulky items, we’d love to talk with you. We think our attitude toward our employees is one of the reasons you should choose us as your fulfillment centre.
Red Stag was founded by eCommerce entrepreneurs who couldn’t find a good fulfillment company to ship their product. The 3PL fulfillment company they chose had a trash-strewn warehouse, a filthy employee break room, and, not surprisingly, demoralized employees. That company didn’t treat its clients much better.
That’s why Red Stag strives to be a better fulfillment company. Creating a positive work environment attracts the best employees. And the best employees are the heart of the best fulfillment companies.
Better Fulfillment Center Jobs
Working in a fulfillment centre is, without doubt, hard work. Jobs on the warehouse floor or in shipping and receiving require physical strength and stamina. As we worked to complete this post, there was still more news about labor unrest in the fulfillment industry. Employees at one Amazon warehouse plan to strike on Prime Day to bring attention to poor working conditions.
At a fulfillment center that values its employees, however, warehouse work can be satisfying and rewarding. Red Stag Fulfillment recognizes importance of creating good jobs. That’s why we work hard to foster a positive work culture. We believe every employee should be treated with respect.
So, don’t give up on the fulfillment centre jobs. You just might find that a fulfillment warehouse is the best place you ever worked. Red Stag isn’t perfect, but we work hard to get as close as we can to perfection, for our employees and our clients.