Amazon robots outnumber humans at new Salt Lake City facility

SALT LAKE CITY — While the human workers are isolated at various workstations throughout Amazon’s new shipping center, robot-powered bin towers and whirring conveyors dominate a sprawling operation that processes hundreds of thousands of smile-bearing packages every day.

Utah elected officials and media members got a tour Wednesday of the 855,000-square-foot facility just west of Salt Lake City International Airport. While operations began there last August, an Amazon official said the fulfillment center has now reached its full staffing of over 1,500 employees and is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Gov. Gary Herbert touted the company’s decision to come to Utah for the new job opportunities and "wealth creation."

FILE – Michael Taylor, general manager of Amazon’s new Utah fulfillment center, and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski stand before media during a tour of the new facility in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. The 855,000 square-foot facility will employ over 1,500 full-time workers, shipping smaller items to customers.

Amazon operations manager Mike Taylor said the facility utilizes "thousands" of robots in the process of finding, picking, packing and shipping a portion of the daily orders received by one of the world’s most valuable companies. How valuable? At midday on Wednesday, Amazon stock was trading around $1,866 per share, giving the company a market capitalization of nearly $920 billion. Last September, the company even briefly passed the $1 trillion mark, something only achieved by one other U.S. company, Apple, which has since also slid back under the mark.

While Amazon shareholders and executives have been made millionaires and billionaires by the Seattle-based company’s arc of success since launching in 1994, most of the employees at the new Utah facility are at the other end of the economic spectrum.

Amazon received a $5.7 million post-performance tax incentive package from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development last year, but the potential rebates are only for 130 of the positions at the new facility. Those are the only jobs that pay over the Salt Lake County average wage. Most of the rest of the positions begin at the $15-an-hour rate that became the company’s corporate minimum wage last fall. Initially, the jobs at the Salt Lake facility were advertised at $12.50-an-hour.

While Amazon’s new minimum wage equates to about $31,200 in annual earnings, the rate is still short of a figure revealed in a June 2018 report on Utah housing affordability that noted the minimum wage for a full-time worker to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City is $18.85 per hour.

FILE – Nolan Sayre, lead for robotic deployment at Amazon’s new Utah fulfillment center, shows where items will be stored, picked by workers and sent to another area of the fulfillment center for packaging during a tour of the new facility in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. The 855,000 square-foot facility will employ over 1,500 full-time workers, shipping smaller items to customers.

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Juliette Tennert, director of economic and public policy research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, told the Deseret News last fall that the wage change bodes well both for individual Utah Amazon employees and the state’s economy.

"Given that $15 per hour represents a fairly significant boost above what we were initially expecting, $12.50 an hour, we should see more money filtering through the economy for household spending and additional economic growth," Tennert said.

"It’s one thing if money is just shifting around in Utah, that’s not a net gain, but the fact that Amazon is a global company means that wage bump is truly net new money."

Tennert believes the move could also put pressure on other Utah companies that are paying less than $15 an hour to make changes to compete for employees in a state that continues to see very low unemployment rates.

"With Amazon here, expanding and ramping up to a sizable workforce and then layering on this wage increase, that will increase competition for skilled labor," Tennert said. "I think that we could anticipate upward pressure on wage prices as other companies make moves to compete."

Other notable attendees at the Wednesday tour included Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah and a number of state legislators.

This story will be updated.

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