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Amazon brings its might to Matteson, doing everything in a big way

Hiring is well underway at the fulfillment center where robots and humans interact to boost efficiency. The facility’s size matches corporate ambitions for growth.

An Amazon employee at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, 2021. Mark Capapas/Sun-Times
Employees have begun stocking the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

An impressive and imposing symbol of American commerce has planted itself in south suburban Matteson. Amazon is its name, and it speaks loudly of how we shop and work today under the dominion of technology.

At Vollmer Road and Harlem Avenue, Amazon has opened a fulfillment center. In the retailer’s hierarchy of real estate, fulfillment centers are big deals. This one will employ 3,200 people once it reaches full operations, and it can receive and ship things anywhere, with a focus on the Midwest. Most items will go to other transfer points, but the facility can ship directly to customers.

It’s a five-story building but with nearly the interior space of Willis Tower. This supine giant’s vascular system consists of 17 miles of conveyor belts. Inside, people are busy organizing items into bins — totes, the company calls them — which are stacked and moved via robots that read sensors in the floor to know where to go and if anything is in the way.

The noise from the machinery is constant. Earplugs are among the protective gear provided to employees.

Arya Cohn, senior human resources manager, and General Manager Lamonte Hayward at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson.
Arya Cohn, senior human resources manager, and General Manager Lamonte Heyward at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

The place is just getting started and, for now, is about half in use. It opened Oct. 10 and is taking and sorting only inbound items to build inventory. General Manager Lamonte Heyward said Nov. 3 is the target date for 100% activity, including outbound shipments.

Heyward walks the floors with a sharp eye and a mix of joy and awe. He’s been with Amazon for six years and said this is the third facility he has opened for the company.

Principal challenges, he said, include building a large team and unifying it around a culture that values worker feedback and personal growth. As Amazon has cast a larger shadow, becoming the second-largest private employer in the U.S., it has drawn intense criticism over its labor practices and its record of on-the-job injuries. Heyward points to an employee wellness center staffed by health care professionals to address any issues.

A stack of totes moves on its own to a programmed destination, an example of new technology Amazon employs at its fulfillment center in Matteson.
A stack of totes moves on its own to a programmed destination, an example of new technology Amazon employs at its fulfillment center in Matteson.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

He said workers are cross-trained to avoid monotony from doing the same thing throughout 10- or 12-hour shifts. “We want to make sure we are rotating our associates just from an ergonomic and safety standpoint, and there are opportunities to transfer departments to learn more and actually grow your career,” Heyward said.

Robots, he said, limit the steps workers must take while making the movement of goods more efficient.

“Over 25 managers in this building were hourly associates in their careers. So that’s a great point. … We want to say, ‘Hey, this could become a career.’”

Building up an inventory that can max out at 58 million units is a priority now, but so is hiring. A few hundred people are on staff, and on Wednesday, the day the Sun-Times visited, 100 were arriving for their orientation, said Arya Cohn, senior human resources manager.

She said the average starting pay is $18 an hour, an amount Amazon has nudged upward as demand for labor has grown. While many companies struggle to find workers, Cohn said Amazon is drawing substantial interest. The jobs in Matteson are permanent, not seasonal.

Welcoming the recruits are supervisors such as operations manager Britney McKnight and process assistant Amy Erickson. McKnight once considered a nursing career but said she’s found a home at Amazon and an outlet to develop skills. “I’m just doing everything I can to just continue going up the ladder,” she said.

For Erickson, whose work in inventory control assures people get the red sweater they ordered, not the blue one, she found “so much opportunity to develop quickly and learn a lot.” Some workers join an “away team” and travel to other Amazon sites to break in new hires.

The entrance to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson. The company calls it ORD5 because it is in the O’Hare Airport market.
The entrance to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Matteson. The company calls it ORD5 because it is in the O’Hare Airport market.
Mark Capapas/Sun-Times

It’s a different view from those of outside critics and labor activists, for whom everything about Amazon exudes economic inequality. It is wealth built on long days on your feet or on the road. Labor unions, including the Teamsters, have targeted Amazon for organizing drives, arguing the company’s pay and benefit levels are low compared with what’s common in transportation and shipping. But no organizing drive has yet succeeded at Amazon.

Tax incentives offered to Amazon have been assailed as unjustified for one of the world’s most highly valued companies.

In the case of Matteson, the tax break was limited to reducing property tax assessments to encourage business growth in areas with high unemployment. Anthony Burton, village administrator of Matteson, said the break was justified to balance Cook County’s higher property taxes on businesses.

Amazon’s Matteson site sits next to the county line. The company could have built west of Harlem and paid lower taxes while depriving Matteson of revenue for its schools, Burton said.

Heyward said complaints about incentives ignore the benefits Amazon is providing to economically struggling areas in the south suburbs. He said the company is bringing 8,000 jobs to the Interstate 57 corridor, with operations also in Markham, Monee, University Park and Country Club Hills. A company spokeswoman said the Markham building, similar to Matteson in scale, should open around the end of October.

As for labor activism, Heyward said employees don’t need representation because they have that in their managers who “are right here in front of you every day able to talk to you and address any concerns you have.”

But it’s an issue unlikely to go away. Whether it is shoppers, labor advocates, people needing jobs or municipalities needing a fiscal jolt, Amazon sits at every crossroads.