Lehigh Valley Distribution Centers

Land of Distribution Centers

Distribution Centers are replacing factory, farm & coal mining jobs. Friends put in long hours at mind-numbing jobs, commuting an hour to do it. It’s all part of the “global supply system” (Logistics Industry) that found itself a sweet spot in Pennsylvania.

Everything you buy from a store, everything you order off the internet— it all has to come from somewhere. If it was made it China, it had to be transported here, and sorted to get to you. If you don’t know any warehouse workers, you’d probably never know this massive industry is here.

Wal-Mart Distribution Center

Wal-Mart Distribution Center (DC) in Schuylkill County is one of the biggest warehouses on the East Coast. A massive white, windowless building, it’s one million square feet, and well known for it’s long shifts and high pay.

I haven’t worked there, but most young people around me have at some point. Kasey Yeager and Calvin Hardy both did, so I asked them what it was like.

“I started when the place opened up, and worked there for a little over 3 years,” Calvin told me. “As a supervisor, I was pulling in prolly $50k in one year. As a boss, [the job] is  ‘cases-per-man-hour’. You see how many cases you can ship or receive with the least amount of man power. I was good at my job. “

It drove me insane. Doing the same thing over and over. Calling off nonsense numbers all day to verify I’m in the right spot.

“Working for them was alright in the beginning. When I got promoted, it was probably the worst thing I ever did. You’re better off becoming a drone and keeping your mouth shut, or else get fired. Like I did.”

The DC employs over 1,000 people.

Kasey worked there as a trainer. “I wasn’t a manager. I never tried to become one. I showed new employees the building and the job and would train them on equipment. I started in 2006 at $16.85. When I got fired in 2012, I was at $19.85″

After years, “I was fed up with the job. I mentally just couldn’t take it anymore. It drove me insane. Doing the same thing over and over. Calling off nonsense numbers all day to verify I’m in the right spot. I had every grocery order memorized. I knew everything before I had to do it. After years of that, it just wears on ya.”

Just about every warehouse tracks their worker’s movements. In some, you wear computers on your arm. At Wal-Mart, you wear headphones and call out the “nonsense numbers” to a computer constantly through the day. Kasey gave an example:

Arm Computer

This is an armband computer I wore at a warehouse. It tracks all your actions.

“So the headset would tell you to go to aisle C slot 111. You’d get there and there would be 5 numbers. Say the numbers were 62478. You’d get a pattern in the beginning of the day. So if the pattern was 1-3-5. You’d read the first. Third. And fifth number. So of 62478 was the number.. You’d call off 6-4-8 and the headset would tell you how many cases to pick. After you pick them. You say the number of cases you picked back to the headset and it would send you to the next slot. And you read the new numbers off and do that literally 1,000′s of times a day.”

Why is Pennsylvania so special?

The Wal-Mart DC is about half way between Scranton and Harrisburg. There are other big DC’s there— Kellogs, Hillshire Farms, Sara Lee, Wegmans, Lowes. There’s more all up and down I-81, in Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Carlise. They’re out I-80 and in the Lehigh Valley, too. Amazon.com runs 10 different PA warehouses, all on this side of the state.

Say what you want about the area… but there’s a lot of workers who’ll bust their ass.

According to Calvin, “Wal-Mart strategically built the place there. They did a lot of research on where to put it. They picked Skook. It’s right off of 81 and you can get anywhere. Say what you want about the area… but there’s a lot of workers who’ll bust their ass. Neanderthal order fillers who’ll pick boxes all day.”
I got curious about logistics when I was working at a warehouse a few years ago. I started to research the industry. Turns out, our area is pretty special.

Highway map
Packed with highways, we’re located near the major US cities. Image from Schuylkill Economic Development Corporation (SEDCO).

From DC to Boston, the I-95 corridor is one of the biggest consumer markets in the world. We’ve got the highways, rail lines and airports to quickly import goods and ship ‘em right back out again. But the same goes for Jersey or Maryland, so what makes PA different?

Three things.

Cheap Land

Outside of commuting distance of Philly or NYC, land prices go way down. The economy still hasn’t really recovered from the collapse of coal, steel and textiles.

Desperate Politicians

In a nutshell, many big companies don’t pay taxes. The government has a lot of “tax abatement” programs, meant to make it even cheaper to set up shop here. They call it “smokestack chasing” or “the race to the bottom,” setting our standards as low as possible to compete with other places who are playing the same game.

This is part of why schools, counties and our state are having a budget crisis, because the biggest players aren’t paying taxes. Ask your local school board about “Keystone Opportunity Zones” and they’ll tell ya all about it.

Cheap Labor

Industrial Parks actually advertise how close they are to places with high unemployment rates. They basically say, “Hey, move your company here! We’re right down the road from 7,000 desperate workers!”

People without college degrees that work there have a hard time leaving because they know they’ll never make $20 an hour anywhere else.

With some exceptions, the DC’s pay pretty well. Kasey says about Wal-Mart, “it’s the only way to justify doing that kind of labor day in and day out. People without college degrees that work there have a hard time leaving because they know they’ll never make $20 an hour anywhere else.”

It doesn’t mean all workers are being treated well, though.

  • Amazon’s Hazleton warehouse has a temp agency right inside it’s own building. In Luzerne County (Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre), Temp Agencies are some of the top employers.
  • FlexForce” is common. It’s a cool name that means no steady hours (anywhere from 10 – 50 per week), the time of day you work changes, and you may or may not be laid off at any time. A lot of products fluctuate throughout the year…. nobody’s buying bicycles in the winter. Distrobution Centers want a workforce just as flexible, whether their workers can pay rent or not.
  • Workers compete on metrics. Because computers track your every move, they can generate stats on you, just like baseball. I once worked at a warehouse where they posted rankings on the wall every week, and would fire people at the bottom… usually older people, or those who didn’t drink enough Redbull.

Some companies take it a step further, trying to get around the minimum wage. They can recruit undocumented workers. Hershey got creative and exploited a foreign-exchange program. International students signed up for a work & travel program, but instead ended up repackaging candy, for as low as $40 per week.  This went on for 10 years, and we only know about it because the students went on strike.

All in All

Lehigh Valley Distribution Centers
Sprawling distribution centers in the Lehigh Valley.
Aerial Image courtesy of www.FlyinPhilsPhotos.com

I can’t imagine how much worse off we’d be in this area without all these places to work. It’s a big part of our economy. We need them, but the reasons they need us aren’t all sunshine and roses.

[Names used in this story have been changed]

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