EDITORIAL: Amazon warehouse would be no boon to Maine

·3 min read

Aug. 5—Amazon is thinking about coming to Maine.

Our reporting on the prospect of a new warehouse, in Scarborough off I-295, was peppered with optimistic notes from local leaders. "Having an Amazon in Scarborough would be great," said a town councilor living near the site in question, as though a fulfillment center were a bakery.

"We try not to get too excited," said the executive director of a quasi-municipal development body in the area.

Hammered by supply chain headaches and increased costs for labor — both being shouldered by every other business in operation in the U.S. right now — Amazon, owned by one of the richest men in the world, has recently put the brakes on the construction of new warehouses nationwide, from Salinas, California, to Coral Springs, Florida.

A formal application for its Maine base may not come to pass. Should it, here's what we know about the typical Amazon warehouse.

The company offers what it calls its "front-line" workers average starting pay of $18 per hour, plus benefits. Those workers are subject to punishing production quotas under computerized surveillance (an internal system calculates "time off task" and issues warnings accordingly). The relentless and repetitive work takes a toll: According to an April report, the rate of serious injuries at Amazon warehouses in 2021 was more than double that of non-Amazon warehouses.

Amazon is quick to hire warehousing staff and quick to dispose of them — at breathtaking scale. The company added hundreds of thousands of workers in the past two years and, now that pandemic-driven sales have slowed, is in the process of undoing that recruitment. The caprice is driving Amazon workers to unionize, starting at a facility in Staten Island, New York, earlier this year.

Challenging working conditions drive an extremely high rate of worker turnover: 150 percent annually, almost double the industry standard. This means that more people quit Amazon warehouse jobs in a year than the total number of people employed at those warehouses.

According to an investigation by The New York Times last year, this trend is by design. An internal memo leaked in June acknowledged a weakness in the strategy: that Amazon could run out of people to hire at its warehouses as soon as 2024.

It's no surprise that the company is also automating its warehousing at breakneck speed.

A Scarborough foothold would allow Amazon access to a hard-to-access group of customers, helping the company with "last-mile" ambitions in northern New England.

Amazon wants to be ever more self-reliant, cutting out third-party costs and only doing business with people it absolutely has to. Analysts expect that it aims to eventually stop working with UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. In its quest for dominance, the company has a habit of putting other businesses out of business. The Amazon tradition of "customer obsession" — which has made it a household name and curried favor with those customers — often comes at an unacceptably high price.

Politicians across the country tripped over themselves to thank Amazon for considering their (ultimately unsuccessful) states for new headquarters in 2018, often after offering it juicy financial incentives. The cycle of low wage, high churn, low income, high reliance on online shopping is by now notorious. Maybe it's not notorious enough.

If you can't find any enthusiasm for this specific development, you're not anti-business. If you don't see any lasting local value in such an operation in southern Maine, that doesn't make you guilty of NIMBYism.

Amazon can be excited. We don't have to be.