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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

5 hours ago - World

Top general: U.S. losing time to deter China

Stanley McChrystal. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Stanley McChrystal, a top retired general and Biden adviser, tells Axios that "China's military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate," and the U.S. is running out of time to counterbalance that in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.

Why it matters: McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently briefed the president-elect as part of his cabinet of diplomatic and national security advisers. President-elect Joe Biden is considering which Trump- or Obama-era approaches to keep or discard, and what new strategies to pursue.

Progressives shift focus from Biden's Cabinet to his policy agenda

Joe Biden giving remarks in Wilmington, Del., last month. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

Some progressives tell Axios they believe the window for influencing President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet selections has closed, and they’re shifting focus to policy — hoping to shape Biden's agenda even before he’s sworn in.

Why it matters: The left wing of the party often draws attention for its protests, petitions and tweets, but this deliberate move reflects a determination to move beyond some fights they won't win to engage with Biden strategically, and over the long term.

Dave Lawler, author of World
8 hours ago - World

Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

The watchful eyes of Hugo Chávez on an election poster in Caracas. Photo: Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.