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Inside Amazon's Kent fulfillment center, a proving ground for the company's coronavirus response

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Last week, Amazon made the code for the system available to anyone for free.

Making adjustments

The cavernous fulfillment center is filled with the din of miles of conveyor belts, boxes being folded and filled and taped closed, yellow totes stacked and unstacked, a corps of orange robot trolleys moving racks of merchandise from one human workstation to another.

At one of those stations on the fourth floor, Mary Peters, who lives in Tukwila, took a moment away from moving items from bins on robot-delivered racks into totes of customer orders. These workstations were already more than 6 feet apart from each other, so not much change was needed here. A well-stocked sanitation station with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes is a few steps away. That's the case throughout most of the building.

Peters, who began working for Amazon last September, described a "really hectic" few months as safety changes were implemented amid broader coronavirus fears.

"It did change to a better stage, where I know I'm safe working here," she said from behind the blue and green BFI4 buff with a Seattle skyline covering her nose and mouth.

Some employees have worried that time spent on COVID-related safety measures, such as washing hands, cleaning workstations, talking to human resources or being tested on site, would cause their closely monitored productivity rates to suffer. Flagging productivity has, in the past, led to termination. Cheeseman said any employee can take the time they need for COVID-related tasks "without impact."

Other COVID-driven changes have sapped the output of the facility as a whole. Two employees used to work side-by-side loading boxes into the backs of outbound semitrailers. "That creates a certain amount of efficiency of how many trailers you pack," Cheeseman said.

 

Now, due to distancing requirements, only one person can load the trailers at a time. Cheeseman said Amazon has eased productivity expectations.

Amazon's operations leaders continue to evaluate new measures to improve safety, restore efficiency and prepare for what is typically a rush of hiring ahead of the holiday, or "peak," season, Cheeseman said. The company hired 175,000 workers in March and April to handle the flood of pandemic orders and said 125,000 of them would be offered regular, full-time work beginning this month.

"We know we're still going to have a holiday season at Amazon and so while we feel very stabilized and very confident in the safety of our buildings and associates, we're also still meeting daily, looking at new measures, looking at what we could do further," she said.

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