First Time at Amazon Day 22 – Day 24

Disclaimer:  We  are not spokespersons or officially affiliated with Amazon in any way. This account is of our personal experience as seasonal employees in the Cambellsville, KY distribution center in 2017.  I in no way speak for the company or my co-workers, and am only recounting my personal experiences.  Also, any details I get wrong in this or any other post are due to a misunderstanding on my part and are not intentional.

Day 22 – Cyber Monday

Our morning started off pretty much like any other day, but they did have something new and interesting about an hour after we started.  We got a message on our picker that said a “power hour” was scheduled between 1pm -2pm and since I had never heard of that before I found someone who had been around for a while and asked them what it was.  For one hour they monitor the picks and folks who have the highest number of them when a prize. This was the first time I had seen any prizes based on productivity, but since I like any sort of competition (and it was early in my shift) I thought it would be fun to try.

There is certainly an amount of luck involved in winning this, along with hard work, because certain types of routes just are easier and have higher volume.  Still, it seemed fun and I was interested in how many items I could pick in an hour if I was super focused, but 20 minutes into it my scanner got a “fatal error” and booted me out to the main screen.  That was really a bummer, because I not only lost my count up until that moment, but it also sent me to another floor and there was a delay in getting the screen back and starting again, so needless to say I didn’t win.

I was talking to my friend Bill about it and he just looked at me and quietly said we were working too hard.  This is Bill’s second year as a picker and he really seems to have found his stride.  He picks at a speed that always puts him right around 100% productivity, but also doesn’t stress his body too much.  He’s never taken an Advil, and never had any kind of a major pain issue, so that’s definitely working for him.  And since no one I have talked to has ever heard of a Camperforce person being let go (I am sure it has happened, but I am equally certain the offenses to merit it were major), so his approach makes a ton of sense.  Plus, it’s not like there is anything extra in it for us seasonal folks to have higher rates, and I know that because Lee was once again over 140% productivity with 100% quality this week, and all that earned him was $1 in Cambellsville cash.

The Cambellsville cash program is an account where supervisors can put money in your account and you can buy Amazon branded items.  I am sure the money adds up over time (I have $5 for example, and Lee has $7), but you aren’t always sure why you got the money.  It’s a nice idea, and a great way for someone to see you did something positive and give you a little something for it, but there isn’t always a note explaining why. They really should put a note every single time, to reinforce the behavior.  Anyway, as much as they focus on quality, the fact that Lee has been mistake free for four weeks running seems to merit something more than $1.  He does show up on a report every week for the high quality numbers, and gets a visit from our supervisor to thank him, but it seems a bit perfunctory, which takes me back to Bill’s original point, and it’s an important one:  You don’t have to work this hard to meet expectations here during peak, especially if you are Camperforce.  Our required rates are 80% of the regular employees and there is nothing wrong with just meeting those expectations and nothing more.

The afternoon was much more interesting than the morning as they had tons of staff to handle Cyber Monday orders.  Despite the fact that we were getting over 12K orders an hour, nothing felt rushed or hurried.  We had plenty of carts and plenty of totes and our routes were actually a little on the long side.  This was my first day ever only picking clothing and although I appreciated the fact that I was in the nice and pretty E mods all day, I did miss spending time picking non-clothing items for the variety.  No one is sure why, but you seem to be in a particular area for a few days in a row and then suddenly you are moved to a new area.  It’s hard to tell exactly how complex this routing algorithm is, but man would I love to get a look at the code.  It would be cool to find out how many things we do every day are intentional versus accidental.  Overall it was another very nice day and an excellent job by the managers.  Curious what will happen now that the peak is over, but they handled the 4 peak days beautifully. Quick note: It was the busiest Cyber Monday in Amazon history. 

Tracy:  26,535 (11.1 miles)
Items Picked: 781

Lee:     25,152 ( 11.11 miles)
Items Picked:   1,019 His second highest picking day

Interesting Item Picked: I only had clothes to pick from today, but really stopped and admired a Satin Lined Smoking Jacket.  I know several men who would rock this look (Stevie M I am talking about you!) and had a smile picturing the guys wearing these.  Perfect gift for the guy that has absolutely everything lol.

Day 23

Once again Lee and I were in E mods, and the volume of orders still seemed pretty high.  Lots of people were working and the night shift was once again on a twelve hour shift.  Our mid shift wasn’t required to work any extra hours (not even the full time employees), but nights have been working some pretty long days.  As Camperforce we wouldn’t have been required to work longer than ten hours anyway, but if we wanted to work longer we probably could have.  I did talk to one Camperforce person who have been working Amazon for 5 years and she said that she was working the 12 hours.  I was pretty amazed by this, because I couldn’t imagine having an extra two hours in me, but she explained that she stopped eating all sugar this year and has found she has a ton more energy than in previous years.   It was one of those interesting “mini-conversations” I have in the aisles throughout the day and I thought I would mention it because the physical experience of this job seems to vary widely from person to person, with returning campers doing much better than us newbies.

Today for the first time though tempers did seem to be getting a little frayed.  Carts were missing in some places and folks were a little testy about it on the radios where you ask for help, plus I was surprised to see everyone out working on the floor.  I passed our HR person pushing a pick cart and heard that the Camperforce coordinator was working in packing.  It’s kind of cool that everyone pitches in when things are busy, but from our perspective things seemed just the same. And that sameness can be a little boring.  Lee would be perfectly content to stay in E mod day after day, because of the good lighting and nice floors, but I like a little more variety.  So I was excited when they did another power hour pick, because I wanted to see how much I could do.

This time I didn’t have any sort of computer issue and better yet had a nice path, with lots of picks close together.  I really focused and ended up picking 157 item in that hour.  Later, I went and talked to the day shift supervisor to get a feel for how close I was and he said that the winner (with an identical type of pick route) had picked over 200 items.  WOW!  I wasn’t even in the ball park.  I understand that there is a certain amount of luck in the path you get, and that the full time employees are much better at this than we are, but not that they were that much better.  It makes sense because they can pluck an item out of a full bin much quicker than we can, which is a skill that only comes from years of practice.  Unfortunately, with that level of disparity I have no intention of participating in the power hours in the future, unless I am in one of the non-apparel mods. It’s a lot of extra work, and if I don’t have even a chance of winning, why play?

Plus it slowed me down for the rest of the day, and I felt extra tired.  Actually both Lee and I have been tired all week, which may be because our days off weren’t back to back. Despite the additional volume our pick routes have been on the long side, and both of us have been doing more walking this week.  The bins are also stuffed very full and my upper body was getting quite the work out leaving me stiff and sore all over.  I wasn’t alone in that, one of the long term employees I am friendly with was feeling the same thing, and the repetitive movement of pulling out heavy bins and pulling them down impacts the shoulders.  That’s one of the nice things about moving to different mods.  Some of those bins are totally open and don’t require pulling anything out.  It’s hard to explain so here’s a pic. The bins are actually cardboard drawers with a partially open front, but they’re stacked up into something like a chest of drawers. The first pic is exactly what the drawers look like and the second is the closest pic we could find on the internet of what they look like as an assembly, the difference being that instead of 6, as shown in the pic, there are 13 that go from the ground up to about 6’5″.



The apparel bins look sort of like this except there are rows and rows of them and there are smaller ones that are on the higher rows.  Many of them are over my head, so I need to pull them out, then lower them down to set them on the cart.  Most of them are light, but the overstuffed ones can be quite heavy, and in any event the repetitive motion can be tiring.  We have a step stool, but taking it out every single time would really slow the process down, so you just reach up, pull out the bin, bring it down, find your item, put everything back, lift it up, and put it back in.  Over and over again. If you find this description boring, try doing it for ten hours a day lol.

Lee’s Addition, bit not in italics, to make it easier to read:  I’m going to jump in and explain in a little more detail what this place is like physically, for anyone who wants a better mental picture, and for people who are stats/data junkies, it might be interesting. Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want to know.

Everyone carries a handheld wireless scanner all day (some of us bought a holster so we don’t have to carry it, and also, it’s cool to have a holster.)

When we log into our scanner, it tells us where to go, and once we get there, and grab a cart and a couple of totes, and scan the tote, it starts giving us “addresses” of items to pick, one at a time. The address consists of a level number, a mod letter, an aisle, and a bin. Every address starts with a P, but nobody can tell me why, and you know damn well I have asked more than one person. Here’s a cart, and a tote (ours are yellow, and there are many thousands of them in the building) and each cart has a little step stool on it. Some of the carts have wheels that  squeak, and those are awful.

The building is broken into three sections, and are called A, B, and C building, even though they’re all under one roof. There are areas for unloading trucks, and sorting and packing and shipping, but I’m only going to talk about the picking areas, which are called “mods”. Each mod is a little different, and has it’s own personality. Some are brand new, some are really old, and you can see from one mod to another what they have changed to improve the process. Some have better lighting than others, and some have better airflow than others, and some have better layouts than others. There are 14 of these mods, and I am going to talk about “E mod” in detail, because it’s the easiest to explain, and it’s also the nicest, and the newest.

Think of each mod as a “neighborhood”, and some mods have multiple floors, so the first part of the address is the floor number, and then the mod letter. So, we go to “P-1-E“, the 1 being first floor of E Mod. Inside the mod there are parallel aisles (streets), and “E” has 57 of them, each numbered, in this case . Each aisle is wide enough for two cars to fit side by side, and just wide enough to spin a cart around to change direction if you need to.

Each of the 57 aisles consists of 276 rows of stacked heavy duty cardboard chests of drawers, stacked up in towers, like buildings, with floors. Each tower consists of a stack of drawers, and in E mod each tower is 13 drawers high, labelled from the ground up from A to M, and as you go down the aisle, they are numbered from 1 to 276. So there’s an A-1 through A-276, etc. Each aisle is broken up into sections of about 20 or so rows, so there are “cross streets” that allow you to take shortcuts to get from aisle to aisle, just like a city street grid. And in the main middle cross street is the conveyor belt, so once your tote is full, you have to go to the conveyor from wherever you are to drop it off. In the case of E mod there is a conveyor that comes in from another mod on the ground floor, goes about 1/3 of the way across the mod, then goes up to the second floor, then comes back down, then back up again, so there’s a little piece of it twice on the ground floor and the second floor. Another belt does the same thing on floor 3 and 4, and there’s a great story I’ll tell you about that, another day.

So, once you get to the mod, your first item might be P-1-E-3-A14. So you push the cart to the 3rd aisle, row 14, and drawer A, which is the drawer at the bottom. You open it, find the item that is described on the scanner screen, scan the bar code, and then it gives you another address. Maybe P-1-E-3-D18. So you move down 4 rows in that aisle, and up 3 drawers to D, and repeat. Doing a lot of them that are close together like that, just working your way up and down the aisle, and from one aisle to the next is called a “tight pick” and it’s pretty rare. Mostly it’s moving from that first one at P-1-E-3-A14, to P-1-E-48-D265. That’s all the way from aisle 3 to aisle 48 (about 300 feet) and up from row 14 to row 48, about 220 feet. Now, imagine you’ve done that walk, and the next item after that is P-1-E-5-B10. That’s right. All the way back to where you started, for the next item. Over, and over, and over, and over. And over. And that’s how you end up walking 12 miles and only picking 700 or 800 items. I’ve had tight picks for 30 minutes where I pick over 100 items and don’t feel tired at all, then 90 minutes of “loose” picks where I cover 5 times the distance and pick well under 100 items. It can get to you after several weeks of 10 hours of that. Sometimes I get mad, and look at the scanner and say, out loud, “NO.” and log out and go to the bathroom, whether I need to or not, just to teach it a lesson. It’s not a fast learner.

Soooo, all of this brings me to what I truly love, which is hard data. Although there are two different sizes of drawers throughout the mod, the large ones are exactly twice the size of the small ones, (width only, the depth and height of all drawers are the same) any time there is a double wide drawer, they skip a row number, so the numbers work out in the end. Going back to the numbers, there are:

57 aisles of
276 rows of
13 drawers, totaling:

204,516 drawers.

Let that sink in. 204,516 drawers on the first floor of E mod. And there are 4 floors of E mod, so that’s 818,064 drawers in E mod alone. There might be some slight variation, because there are small areas that don’t have drawers to make room for stairs, and there might be one more or less stack on one floor or another, but when the numbers get that big I can round down a little and the differences are statistically insignificant. I was going to go floor by floor and actually get an accurate count, but then I didn’t, because I’m crazy but I’m not insane. Anyway, just for fun I calculated the average drawer has an average of around 20 items in it. So each floor in E mod has about 4 million items in it. For more fun I measured a drawer to get volume capacity, and each drawer has a volume of 900 cubic inches, or just under one half cubic foot. Per floor, that’s 102,000 cubic feet. To give you an idea of how big that is, if you imagine an RV that’s 9 feet wide and 12 feet high, this RV would be 925 feet long. Or, 25 40′ fifth wheels all lined up in a row. That’s one floor of E mod. And remember, there are 14 mods, although not all of them are that big, and not all of them have 4 floors. But it’s a crap ton (cubed) of stuff. And here’s the kicker: Every day we pick, and every day stowers come in and put stuff back in the drawers. The turnover is astounding. And it’s at this point that I start thinking about how all of this stuff is in little plastic bags, and there’s 70 of these fulfillment centers globally, and that those bags have to go somewhere, and the scale of it starts to get a little distressing, and I have to stop, because the obvious message at the end is one we all already know, but largely ignore, and has to do with sustainability. If you don’t have a data problem, and you have 20 minutes later in the day, watch this video, it’s very well made and interesting.

And some time in the next week or so I will tell you the exciting tale of the conveyor belt, and how you maintain a level of 100% error free, even when you make a huge mistake.

racy:  25,046 ( 10.46 miles)
Items Picked: 838

Lee:  26,767   (11.82 miles)
Items Picked:   876

Interesting Item Picked: Not much of interest today, but I did get a couple of picks in hanging clothes and saw this absolutely beautiful Belle Badgley Mischka camel colored winter coat. I have absolutely no need for a winter coat, thankfully, but it was beautifully made and for a moment I just stopped and looked at it.  I never was much of a clothes person, but I do appreciate a well made item and this was really pretty in person, much better than the picture on the website.

I continue to enjoy the never ending collection of Ugly Christmas sweaters, and this one I saw for the first time today. It lights up! – Lee

Day 24

I had written down lots of notes on things I might write about this morning, but I have to start with the fact that I hurt everywhere.  It’s not just me either, Lee is very sore as well and we are both really surprised by it.  I intentionally slowed my pace yesterday, which resulted in an under 10 mile day (which is usually a good sign) and we were in E mod again with the nicer floors.  The routes were mostly fine, really everything was OK, so I am not sure why I feel so beat up.  We are guessing that it is just a cumulative effect from working so many days, but if that is the case it doesn’t bode well for finishing this out. Then again, maybe we are just hitting a plateau of some kind and will push through this and feel better on the other side, I hope so.

They even had another Power Hour yesterday, but I didn’t participate.  I just walked my normal pace and instead of the 157 items in that hour the day before I only did 100.  Which got me thinking about the program and what could be done to improve participation.  I had some thoughts I thought I might share with the day time supervisor, so I’ll share them here first.  It seems to me that if they set a target goal that most people could reasonably reach if they pushed a bit (maybe 20% above the average) and then put those people in a random drawing, the overall participation would be higher, which would drive up the number of picks overall.  Yes, you wouldn’t have the crazy high spikes from a few people, but the totals would be higher overall, because many more people would be playing.  Plus it might help morale overall, because everyone would have a chance to play.  Anyway, just some things rattling around in my head, and if the day manager seems receptive I will pass it along.  The company states frequently that they are interested in feedback, so I will test that out. (I also didn’t participate in the power hour. I think it would be a much better solution to have two separate categories, regular employees and Camperforce/Temps. There’s just no point in trying to compete when you’re so completely outclassed. I also noticed that a LOT of the regular employees were breaking rules to bump up their numbers. We’re only allowed to have two totes on the cart at one time, and I saw quite a few with 4, 5, and one even had 6. And I almost got knocked over coming around corners several times. The plan needs tweaking. – Lee) 

Speaking of feedback, I keep meaning to mention the surveys.  Almost every day we get a question or two on our scanner, and although our answer choices are limited, it’s interesting the types of things they poll us about.  And we know these surveys matter, because the supervisors mention them in our start up meetings on a semi-regular basis.  Those scores must be part of the way they are being judged, which gives the employees some level of power (at least as a group) in the relationship.  I like the concept, and really like how easy it is to participate, but as Lee pointed out the limited answer choices can sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions.  There definitely could be some improvement there, but again great concept. (I don’t like the polls because my answers rarely match my three choices, and there is no way to opt out. So I am forced to give an inaccurate answer. What’s the point of that? – Lee) 

On a completely different subject, it was Kelly’s birthday yesterday and I got to see her on our first break.  Her team had all signed a card for her and sang Happy Birthday to her at start-up which was really nice.  Then they offered VTO and she got to go home the second half of the day which makes for a nice birthday.  With us being on second shift and her being on first, we haven’t gotten to see as much of them as we thought we would, so I was glad to squeeze in a quick hug for her birthday.  We are all getting together Saturday to celebrate, but it was a nice bonus getting to see her on the day itself, even if it was only for a few minutes.

I know I am all over the place with this section, by the way, but I write them in the mornings while Lee is taking his shower and I am sore enough today that my mind is all over the place.  I write a small page full of notes throughout the shift and then whatever sticks in the morning is generally what makes it here.  I try not to take to much time up as we only have a few hours to shower, pack lunches, handle daily business, etc, so I end up condensing my thoughts as best I can.  Some days that works better than others.  On last thing I should definitely mention and then one cute story.  The weather here has been really great the last few days.  Sunny and in the 60’s, which is really awesome.  I’ve talked to enough locals to know this is unusually nice weather and I am grateful for it as that little bit of extra sunshine in the morning is really nice.  OK, here’s my sort of funny story.

I had about 20 minutes left in the shift and was in F mod, which has some very high bins that require a step stool for me, when I got a multiple item pick.  I generally like those, because I get multiple items in one place except this time it was six Rubie’s Flannel Santa Suits.  I was wondering why anyone would need so many Santa Suits when I pulled one from the highest bin and the entire stack rained down on me.  It didn’t hurt or anything, and it was kind of funny as it was raining Santa suits, but I was also like…”Seriously!”  I picked them all up and then it sent me to another floor and up some stairs where I picked one Mrs. Santa Suit. At this point the mental image of one Mrs. Santa with six Santa’s was a bit much (I get pretty loopy towards the end of the night) and thankfully that was the end of my shift.  Hopefully my thoughts will be in a little more coherent next time, but thanks for following along.

Tracy: 23,880  ( 9.97 miles)
Items Picked: 838  Update:  I checked my stats the next day and even with a more reasonable pace I was still at 131% productivity.  So that’s good. 

Lee:    28,220 (12.47 miles)
Items Picked:   883

Interesting Item Picked:  One thing I wanted to mention was there are some pretty strange clothing choices out there, and no I am not talking about the sexy stuff.  There are clothing items with logos and sayings that I can’t imagine ever wearing.  I think I found the worst one ever though yesterday when I picked an Ugly Christmas Sweater that had a picture of Santa and an Elf and said “When I think of you I touch my Elf.”  Seriously?  In today’s climate I can’t imagine anyone wearing one of these, but I actually picked two of them yesterday.  And one of the picks had me also picking a Creepy Bunny mask directly after. So all I could picture was someone in the creepy sweater with the scary mask on.  Yikes, what kind of Christmas parties is this guy going to???  Needless to say, neither of these was my favorite pic, but I did find a really interesting T-Shirt that had My Spirit Animal on it and then had a really cool charcoal drawing of a sloth.  It made me chuckle, so it won my pick of the day. 

(I haven’t had a lot of interesting stuff lately, either, but this one caught my eye yesterday. It would go great with the Santa Tuxedo. – Lee) 

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