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Building warehouses comes with the promise of jobs. Here’s what those positions look like

By Lizzy McLellan Ravitch, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: June 2, 2024, 6:00am

As the warehousing industry in Philadelphia expanded and development boomed, so, too, did warehouse employment.

The most plentiful jobs, at the entry level, are often physically demanding. “It’s a wear and tear on your body. It’s a job that’s on your feet, all day, moving,” said H. Patrick Clancy, president and CEO of Philadelphia Works, a workforce development board.

But they can lead to stable, more lucrative careers in an industry whose need for workers remains robust.

Warehouse jobs can be a strong starting point for workers with limited English, Clancy said, or a workforce-reentry opportunity for formerly incarcerated people.

It’s often shift work outside the typical 9-to-5, which may appeal to those with daytime parenting and caregiving duties, said Anne Strauss-Wieder, professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and director of freight planning for the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority.

Typical entry-level jobs start at $15 to $20 an hour, but pay jumps for those who ascend into supervisory roles. Warehousing and storage managers make an average salary of $104,000, according to 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“There is at least a career ladder opportunity,” Clancy said.

A hiring boom

E-commerce, already growing in popularity pre-COVID-19, surged in 2020. While the pandemic has eased, consumers’ online buying habits are expected to stick long-term.

All of those online purchases are processed at fulfillment centers. Unlike storage warehouses, which hold materials for extended periods, fulfillment centers move a high volume of goods daily and require many employees. They often have one worker per 1,000 feet — roughly three times what a storage warehouse would employ — and as many as three per 1,000 square feet during peak seasons such as the holidays and back-to-school time, Strauss-Wieder said.

Demand for those workers has plateaued, returning “to a more normalized level,” Strauss-Wieder said. But the number of people employed at industrial facilities in the area is still far higher than in pre-pandemic times.

“We’ve certainly grown our network over the past few years as we brought on clients,” said Sabrina Wnorowski, chief human resources officer at Radial, a third-party logistics company with 25 fulfillment centers, including two in New Jersey and three in Pennsylvania. “We’ve been steadily hiring.”

Increased demand, increased pressures

When consumers think about e-commerce and warehousing, they probably think of Amazon, though it’s just one of many employers in the industry. The company doubled its warehouse space in the Philadelphia region during the pandemic and last year opened its largest area warehouse in Southwest Philadelphia, which now employs 200 people.

Shoppers are drawn to Amazon’s speed and convenience, creating pressure for employees to work faster. Critics have blamed worker productivity tracking for the volume of injuries at the company’s fulfillment centers, which in a 2021 Washington Post investigation were found to be nearly double what’s typical at non-Amazon warehouses.

“Nothing is more important than our employees’ health and safety and we’ve made meaningful and measurable progress over the last four years,” Amazon spokesperson Sharyn Ghacham said. “Since 2019, our recordable incident and lost time rates have improved by 24% and 77%, respectively, in the United States.”

Worker advocates are skeptical, the Seattle Times reported in March. Employees around the globe have organized protests around productivity metrics, safety concerns, and pay.

West Deptford, New Jersey, Amazon workers walked off the job last year on Cyber Monday — one of many such demonstrations by Amazon workers on a busy online-shopping day. Their demands included a $25-an-hour starting wage, a $2-an-hour bonus during peak times, and safety improvements.

Amazon didn’t grant those wishes after the walkout — the company noted that it had announced increases in hourly pay not long before that, bringing West Deptford’s starting wage to $19.50.

But union members said they hadn’t expected instant movement from their employer. “We wanted to get a group together to show that we could do this without getting fired, and that’s what we did,” said Eli Lotz, a West Deptford employee who helped organize the action.

Under any employer, entry-level warehouse work can be “grueling, mentally and physically,” said Richard Hooker Jr., secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 623. “The employer, they want faster, they want more, but you physically cannot do more.”

Hooker was a UPS package handler for 20 years before taking on union leadership in 2020. Organizing workers in the most demanding industrial facilities is a challenge, Hooker said, because turnover is high and big employers have ample resources to “shut it down.”

But the push by unionized workers for better working conditions is raising the bar across the industry, he said. When UPS Teamsters threatened to strike last year and won higher wages for members, Teamsters general president Sean M. O’Brien said it set “a new standard in the labor movement.”

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“Once the UPS contract was ratified, a lot of the Amazon workers took note,” Hooker said.

Any highly physical job will cause some injuries, Strauss-Wieder said, but safety problems and poor work conditions are certainly a larger issue at some industrial facilities. She recalled one area employer that saw 300% turnover.

“If you do not treat your workforce well, they’re not going to stay,” she said.

What makes workers stay

“You can tell pretty soon after you walk into a building how you’re going to be treated by a company,” Strauss-Wieder said. Employers that provide skills training, English language training to those who need it, cafeterias, and other benefits have better retention.

But foremost, she said, is access to transportation. Warehouses are often distant from regular mass transit service, so some employers bridge the gap with shuttles — a sort of “last mile” delivery system for workers.

In Mercer County, New Jersey, for instance, the ZLine runs free buses and vans from a big NJ Transit bus station in Hamilton to a Robbinsville warehouse development near New Jersey Turnpike Exit 7A that includes two Amazon facilities.

ZLine operates every day but Christmas and is run by the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association, a nonprofit funded by employers and government.

At Radial, Wnorowski said, “we want employees to be full time.” Associates start on a temporary basis at $15.75 an hour, and most nonseasonal hires make it to permanent status and full benefits within three months, she said. More than 60% of the company’s current leads started as temps.

Management roles in transportation and warehousing have become more numerous, with 52% growth in Southeastern Pennsylvania since 2018, according to Philadelphia Works.

Yet managers account for only 3.4% of industry employment, while more than 70% of jobs involve moving materials. But technology may eventually displace some workers at the lower ranks.

Automation pros and cons

The most common jobs in warehousing could be transformed in the coming years with increased automation, said Clancy, especially stockers and order fillers.

Picture robots traversing warehouse aisles to grab items, rather than humans walking and searching.

That may reduce the number of workers in the building, Strauss-Wieder said, and it could make human jobs less physically taxing by reducing injury caused by repetitive motions.

Radial sees robotics as a way to enhance employee performance, Wnorowski said. She said the tech might mean workers are walking the floor less, but she doesn’t expect a robot-takeover.

“We do add tools and resources to enable being efficient going forward,” she said, “but we haven’t pulled back on hours or on staff.”