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A city with Amazon at the center
Jérôme Dubois
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By Shira Ovide

What happens when Amazon becomes a fixture in America’s towns and cities?

Erika Hayasaki wrote a recent article for The New York Times Magazine about Amazon’s influence on the Inland Empire, a region east of Los Angeles where the company is the largest private employer. More than 40,000 people in the region handle or deliver Amazon orders, about double the number from two years ago.

I spoke with Hayasaki, a professor in the Literary Journalism Program at the University of California, Irvine, about what she learned researching Amazon workers in the region and what the effects are — good and bad — when Amazon comes to town.

Shira: What made you interested in writing about Amazon in the Inland Empire?

Hayasaki: My family moved to a city there called Eastvale in 2018, and Amazon’s presence was immediately apparent. Near the Costco, you see twin giant Amazon warehouses with more than 6,000 employees in total. You see Amazon semi-trucks and new homes with Amazon products like Alexas built in.

Officials at the nearby Ontario International Airport showed me runways that were under construction partly for Amazon merchandise flying in and out. We see Amazon all the time as shoppers, but it’s different here. I started to talk with workers about what it was like for them.

What did Amazon warehouse employees tell you that they like and don’t like about their jobs?

They appreciate that Amazon offers them health and retirement benefits — and that they have jobs at a time when many others have lost work.
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The biggest concern that I heard was safety. That’s not new, but when the pandemic hit it was intense to hear workers’ fears for their lives.

And some Amazon-related jobs are precarious. I rode around with an Amazon delivery driver who also worked for an app-based delivery company. His girlfriend did, too. They were stringing together multiple forms of income for themselves and their five children. It’s not an easy way to live.

Amazon is creating many new jobs with starting pay that’s more than double the minimum wage. Isn’t that good?

Most of the workers I spoke with would say that Amazon can do better given the company’s financial success. I heard workers ask why the company increased pay by $2 an hour but only temporarily. They’re working harder than ever and it’s still a pandemic.

For Eastvale, what has been the effect of having Amazon there?

City officials said that they appreciated the new jobs Amazon created, but they were fearful that automation might slowly eliminate the work. And because of the way state taxes are structured, the city is getting less tax revenue than it expected from Amazon’s presence.
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City officials also said there’s a lot of wear and tear on roads with so many Amazon vehicles. And with so many people at the Amazon site, it generates a lot of calls to police and emergency services for worker injuries or just fender benders. That’s a pull on local resources.

Your article discussed “company towns” — cities like Hershey, Pa., that were once dominated by a single employer. Is Eastvale like that?

No, unlike company towns of the past, Amazon doesn’t control housing for employees or replace functions of the government. But in the Inland Empire there are some elements that are reminiscent of company towns. One that struck me was an Amazon career program for high school students. People spoke highly about it, but others in the community raised questions about teenagers being put on a pathway to an Amazon job.

Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, told me that Amazon goes beyond the company town phenomenon. It’s a company world. Given Amazon’s presence in our lives, its size and how many people the company employs, that’s a combination unlike anything we’ve seen before.
The New York Times