You may have seen or read reports that portray a fulfillment center as a terrible place to work. John Oliver’s recent episode, Last Week Tonight, focused on the dangers of working in logistics centers.
It’s the latest in a string of negative stories stretching back years. This story by Mother Jones about an Amazon fulfillment center worker who passed out from heat exhaustion was published in 2011.
As Oliver’s article pointed out, fulfillment centers often operate on tight margins. That can mean low wages and demanding quotas for warehouse workers while employers scramble to turn a profit. Amazon has disputed Oliver’s story. The e-commerce giant raised its base hourly rate for fulfillment center workers to $15 an hour in 2018 (although changes to Amazon benefits could at least partially negate that increase).
We cannot deny that the working conditions in some fulfillment centers are far from optimal, to say the least. However, not all fulfillment companies are the same.
From the start, Red Stag Fulfillment has been built on a culture of excellence. For us, this not only means that we strive to ensure that the order pickers and packers work flawlessly in the storage area (we do). It also means that we work hard to be the best place to work our people have ever worked.
So let’s get to the bottom of the truth about working in a logistics center. Along the way, we’ll explain why this is important for your ecommerce business.
Fulfillment center horror stories
Amazon operates 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 appalling conditions at various fulfillment warehouses. The original coverage of these labor issues came from the New York Times and other media outlets.
A New York Times article detailed how pregnant workers struggled with warehouse work. Some had miscarried after requests for shorter shifts and lighter duty were denied. Most shockingly, the article also reported an incident at a warehouse in Tennessee in which 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 the incident from workers.)
A history of hard working conditions
Stories about inhumane conditions in logistics 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 leave enough time to go to the bathroom.
It was just part of a grueling work schedule. Algorithms now give workers the shortest routes through the warehouse. However, Oliver’s report found that many warehouse workers still walk 15 miles or more every day. Also, camps can get brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
And storage conditions could deteriorate in the future. Amazon is driving the fulfillment industry towards one-day and same-day delivery. The rest of the industry will struggle to keep up with this faster delivery schedule. The pressure on fulfillment center workers to do more, better and faster will increase. As a result, we’ve been able to hear more horror stories about fulfillment centers.
So now I’ve painted a depressing picture of what it’s like to work in a logistics center. But there’s more than one type of fulfillment company. Some of us strive to create a different kind of work environment. It’s an important part of being a different breed of ecommerce fulfillment company.
That’s what it’s like to work for a logistics center that knows its people are its most valuable asset.
What it’s like to work for Red Stag Fulfillment
Red Stag Fulfillment opened in early 2013 with just a few employees. They have done everything from running the operations to building shelves and packing boxes. One of those early employees was Sam Hughett, now warehouse manager for our Knoxville facility. “We started against the tide of traditional warehousing,” recalls Hughett. “We wanted to create a great work environment.”
Red Stag was founded by e-commerce entrepreneurs. This original entrepreneurial spirit is shared by every employee, from the President to the newest employee. Our warehouses are littered with problem boards where our employees report problems and make suggestions. Our managers respond to every suggestion.
Eric McCollom, President of Red Stag, was one of the first employees to join in 2013. He knew that the shabby little logistics center could only be successful if the management listened to everyone’s ideas. “At the end of the day, it’s about a culture where we’re going to be the best at anything we do,” he says. “That means creating the best work environment to attract and retain qualified employees.
We believe that listening to all perspectives and treating our employees with respect is one of the reasons we were ranked as the best fulfillment service [for heavy and fragile items] four years in a row.”
Here are just a few examples of how Red Stag has created a great work environment in its two order fulfillment centers.
I won’t deny that Knoxville, Tennessee, gets hot in the summer—it does. But our warehouse there never experiences the muggy conditions that some other fulfillment centers have.
We can’t run air conditioning in a storage room with high ceilings and frequently opened loading dock doors. However, we use a fan system that keeps our bearings 10-20° cooler than the outside temperature on hot days. And our staff break room has air conditioning for an even cooler break.
Red Stag Fulfillment offers our customers a commitment to accuracy. Perfection is impossible, but we strive to get as close as possible. We know that we cannot achieve this by treating our employees like robots.
Instead, we offer a bonus structure that aligns with the performance guarantees we promise our customers. After the employees have picked or packed a certain number of orders without errors, they receive a bonus. It is not based on speed or meeting a specific quota per hour worked. Accuracy is the main reason for our incentives.
As the number of error-free packages increases, so does the amount of bonus they receive each time. We have learned that long-serving employees refuse promotions to managerial positions because they have earned more on the floor through our bonus structure!
Break room for employees
Our management staff work in the funky offices that came with the warehouse (a former boat building facility). However, our order pickers and packers have a newly designed break room. We gave them all the bells and whistles we could stuff in there. That’s because we knew that when you’re working hard in the warehouse, you need a clean and comfortable place to take breaks.
promotion from within
Most of the people who work in management at Red Stag started out working in the warehouse. We promote employees who show talent, drive and initiative. If, like us, you know that your people are your greatest asset, you want to keep the best people on your team. That means support from within.
Red Stag Fulfillment offers our employees fully paid health care benefits with the option to buy in for family members. We offer stable, predictable full-time employment with all the benefits.
Long-term employees are the key to Red Stag’s strategy for success
Red Stag’s business model differs from many logistics centers. We don’t anticipate shipping a high volume of orders at razor thin margins to make a profit. Granted, we’re not the cheapest fulfillment company in our ecommerce niche – just the best.
But because we don’t compete on cost, instead focusing on being the best fulfillment service for business shipping larger, heavier packages, we’re able to pay our employees a living wage.
Red Stag will try to keep up with the fulfillment expectations set by Amazon. But we will never follow Amazon’s lead and replace workers with robots. Our customer’s products are too heavy for robots to handle. We need human workers to handle the items we ship with care, accuracy and speed, so continued investment in our people and culture will remain a core competency of our business model.
A different kind of fulfillment center
Red Stag Fulfillment isn’t for everyone. We are not the best fulfillment service if your ecommerce store sells light and small products. However, if you are selling heavy, fragile or bulky items, we would like to speak to you. We believe our attitude towards our people is one of the reasons why you should choose us as your fulfillment center.
Red Stag was founded by eCommerce entrepreneurs who couldn’t find a good fulfillment company to ship their products. The 3PL fulfillment company they chose had a junk-strewn warehouse, a filthy employee break room, and, unsurprisingly, demoralized employees. This company didn’t treat their customers 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 people are at the heart of the best fulfillment companies.
Better fulfillment center jobs
Working in a logistics center is undoubtedly hard work. Jobs in the warehouse or in shipping and receiving require physical strength and endurance. As we worked to finalize this post, there was more news about labor unrest in the fulfillment industry. Workers at an Amazon department store plan to go on Prime Day strike to draw attention to poor working conditions.
However, in a logistics center that values its employees, warehouse work can be satisfying and rewarding. Red Stag Fulfillment recognizes the importance of creating good jobs. That’s why we work hard to foster a positive work culture. We believe that every employee should be treated with respect.
So don’t give up on the fulfillment center jobs. You might find that a fulfillment warehouse is the best place you’ve ever worked. Red Stag isn’t perfect, but we work hard to get as close to perfection as possible, for our employees and our customers.