The hulking industrial complex that looms over Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento used to churn out cans of Campbell tomato soup. This holiday season the old plant is busy again – as Macy’s workers assemble, package and ship items ordered online by customers.
Macy’s began interviewing people in October for seasonal jobs in the Sacramento distribution facility, which moved into the shuttered space in 2015, two years after Campbell pulled out. The facility started out with about 175 employees but expects to build up to 500 by the peak of the holiday season.
For years, landing a holiday shopping season job was likely to put you behind the counter of a retail department store like Macy’s, which is celebrating its 159th year in business. Today’s seasonal job applicant is just as likely to spend November and December in a retailer’s warehouse, processing online orders and shipping them to far-flung locales.
Amazon may have led the way, but the online shopping space is becoming increasingly crowded as traditional retailers rush to compete. They are snatching up warehouse space and boosting staff for the holiday rush, holding out the possibility that those working might ultimately shift into full-time, year-round jobs.
In a bit of powerful symbolism, these engines of the new economy have sometimes located in former factories like the Campbell plant. Online retailer Zulily now occupies a former steel mill in Bethlehem, Pa. In June, Amazon announced that it would open an 855,000-square-foot center in North Haven, Conn., at a long-vacant property formerly used by manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
The expansion of online shopping has boosted job growth in the storage and warehouse sector of the U.S. economy. Preliminary data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said 960,400 people nationwide were working in this sector in October, a 54 percent increase from early 2010, when the nation was just emerging from recession. Not all warehouse/storage jobs are in retail operations, but they make up a growing piece of the pie.
“In terms of the number of jobs, the internet is the reason,” said economist Sung Won Sohn, a professor at California State University, Channel Islands.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that typical starting pay at such “fulfillment centers” is slightly above minimum wage, generally in the range of $11 to $15 an hour. Wage-wise, these jobs more closely resemble traditional retail positions than the jobs lost at some of the former factories they now occupy. Many of Campbell’s unionized workers made more than $20 an hour plus benefits.
“The old seasonal jobs previously in retail stores, like Macy’s or Nordstrom, were generally minimum wage or slightly above, and ended after a discreet period; the new seasonal jobs in distribution centers are also generally minimum wage or slightly above, and end after a discreet period,” said Michael Bernick, a labor lawyer in San Francisco and a former director of California’s Employment Development Department.
“In both cases, the jobs are more to be praised than criticized as they do provide additional opportunities beyond the on-going job opportunities, and at times can lead to more ongoing employment.”
During a tour of the Macy’s facility on Wednesday morning, long rows of individually marked products were stacked 30 feet high.
Workers of all ages arriving for the 9 a.m. packing shift met in a group before heading to workstations, which included exotic-looking machines resembling the elevated carriers used on an auto-assembly line. Enormous rolls of packing material surrounded the workstations, where packers hand-wrapped boxes in a speedy blur. Other workers buzzed around on forklifts and pushed along metal racks loaded with merchandise.
Online retailers are known for being tight-lipped with reporters, and during a supervised tour of its Sacramento operation, Macy’s did not allow interviews with workers. It did not release any information about wages, though a spokesman said in 2015 that some hourly workers could earn as much as $20 an hour.
In a phone interview, a recently hired Macy’s employee offered some insight into working at the sprawling South Sacramento facility.
“I’m picking out items that people order and sending them to packaging,” said the worker, who asked not to be identified. “I just wanted a job to have some money in my pocket. It’s a friendly environment, fast-paced.”
It’s a first job for the worker, who is making $10.50 an hour – the minimum wage in California. Hours are variable, and workers have been told to expect things to get busier as Christmas Day approaches.
Macy’s and retail giants Amazon and Walmart have made tens of thousands of hires nationwide in advance of this holiday shopping season alone.
Amazon.com, based in Seattle, formally launched its new Sacramento fulfillment center Oct. 25, shipping the first package from its 855,000-square-foot distribution site at Metro Air Park near Sacramento International Airport. The site is designed to sort, pack and ship comparatively small customer items such as books, electronics and toys. It’s gearing up for the holiday rush and expected to employ about 1,500 at full capacity.
Amazon also plans to fill more than 500 seasonal positions for its regional “sortation center” in Vacaville. Nationwide, Amazon expects to fill more than 120,000 positions this holiday season at its U.S. network of distribution and customer service centers.
The nation’s supply of storage and warehouse jobs is expected to top 1 million for the first time in 2018. Retail analysts and economists said that is a byproduct of seasonal jobs turning into permanent positions.
Amazon, for example, says 90 percent of its workers across its network of 75 fulfillment centers are regular, full-time employees. Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of Global Customer Fulfillment, said many of the company’s seasonal hires “will continue on with regular, full-time roles with the company after the holidays.”