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Amazon packages zoom through the warehouse. Photo: Erica Pandey/Axios

Recently, I spent an afternoon at a 1 million square foot Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore, where more than 2,500 workers assemble, package and ship orders every day.

Why it matters: These jobs are among the most stressful, low-paying and physically taxing in the country — and many of them face ongoing threats from automation. The Baltimore employees make up just 2% of the 125,000 Amazon associates across North America who ensure your Prime packages arrive the next day.

How it works: The orders make it through the Baltimore facility with lightning speed. Within four hours after your purchase, your laundry detergent or bag of chips is on its way.

  • Each part of the process is hyper-efficient — and automated where it can be. At the packing station, for example, a line of associates stand for 10-hour shifts, boxing the barrage of orders.
  • A human touch is still necessary to pack the boxes — for now. This week, Amazon made significant headway with new robots that can box up items, reports Reuters. Though they are not nimble enough to handle individual products, these machines are beginning to make Amazon more efficient.
  • The company says the addition of the bots will not eliminate swaths of jobs.

My thought bubble: I tried packing two boxes on my visit. Each took me a couple of minutes, but Cliff Knight, a packaging associate with Amazon for more than 2 years, told me he does a box every 5 to 15 seconds.

  • Cliff handed me a container of Tide Pods. I scanned it, and Amazon’s system told me exactly which size box to use and spit out exactly the length of the iconic black and blue Amazon Prime tape I’d need to seal it.
  • The machine then printed a barcode shipping label with customer information. On my first try, I nervously put the completed package onto the final conveyor belt without a label — rendering it pretty much useless. Cliff had to run along the belt to chase it down.
  • I was no doubt the worst packer on the floor during my 2-package stint.

The big picture: The stakes are high. 300 workers have been fired over 13 months at the Baltimore warehouse for a lack of productivity, the Verge reported.

  • While this turnover rate is not unusual for the retail and logistics industry, Amazon is vigilant — and always watching its workers on the line.
  • The company has an automated system to track productivity. When a worker is not in the top 25% of performers, conversations with a manager begin and can quickly lead to termination.

The bottom line: The stress and speed don't matter. Amazon is getting new applications to work at its warehouses much faster than it can burn through existing employees.

  • After the company raised its fulfillment center minimum wage to $15 an hour, it received 850,000 applications for the seasonal warehouse position, a spokesperson said.

Go deeper: Amazon is building a shipping juggernaut

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Biden adviser Cedric Richmond sees first-term progress on reparations

Illustration: "Axios on HBO"

White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond told "Axios on HBO" that it's "doable" for President Biden to make first-term progress on breaking down barriers for people of color, while Congress studies reparations for slavery.

Why it matters: Biden said on the campaign trail that he supports creation of a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations — direct payments for African-Americans.

Cyber CEO: Next war will hit regular Americans online

Any future real-world conflict between the United States and an adversary like China or Russia will have direct impacts on regular Americans because of the risk of cyber attack, Kevin Mandia, CEO of cybersecurity company FireEye, tells "Axios on HBO."

What they're saying: "The next conflict where the gloves come off in cyber, the American citizen will be dragged into it, whether they want to be or not. Period."

Cedric Richmond: We won't wait on GOP for "insufficient" stimulus

Top Biden adviser Cedric Richmond told "Axios on HBO" the White House believes it has bipartisan support for a stimulus bill outside the Beltway.

  • "If our choice is to wait and go bipartisan with an insufficient package, we are not going to do that."

The big picture: The bill will likely undergo an overhaul in the Senate after House Democrats narrowly passed a stimulus bill this weekend, reports Axios' Kadia Goba.