Amazon plant tops 2,000 full-timers in Chattanooga

Amazon plant tops 2,000 full-timers in Chattanooga

April 13th, 2014 by Mike Pare in Business Around the Region

Amazon has built five distribution centers in Tennessee in the last three years.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Former Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey recalls flying into Arizona four years ago as part of a job recruiting trip to check out three Amazon distribution facilities in the Phoenix area.

"They wanted us to see what they were doing so we all could understand," Ramsey said.

Since that time, Amazon has invested in excess of $139 million in Southeast Tennessee and hired more than 2,500 full-time workers, including more than 2,000 at its Chattanooga operation, according to the company's latest figures. Amazon also has a significant part-time workforce at its Chattanooga and Charleston, Tenn., distribution centers though it wouldn't give any firm numbers.

Amazon has built five distribution centers in Tennessee since early 2011. The company said it has added more than 5,000 full-time and seasonal jobs in the Volunteer State - likely the largest by a private company in the past decade, according to the latest figures.

Ramsey, who went on to serve as the state's deputy governor before retiring late last year, said Amazon exceeded the expectations of the economic development group when the company originally announced it would hire 1,200 full-time workers in Chattanooga.

"We knew they'd hire a lot of people and they certainly have, to say the least," he said.

The company especially ramps up around its busiest time, Christmas, when it taps into the holiday shopping season and brings on a lot of temporary employees. Last winter, the company is estimated to have had more than 5,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees in Chattanooga and Charleston.

Gary Farlow, who heads the Cleveland-Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, said Amazon has surpassed its employment projections in Charleston, even though the company's business is cyclical.

He said the Bradley distribution center has a large mezzanine level inside that Amazon is expanding in.

"We've been pretty pleased," Farlow said.

Amazon employee Ray Scoggins, area manager over the shipping department in the Chattanooga center, said he was hired even before that building went up. He recalled he went to one of the company's Phoenix facilities for training and helped open the massive Enterprise South industrial park structure.

Scoggins, 46, married with three children, said that coming in each day at Amazon means working for "a customer-driven, customer-center" business.

Lydia Flanders, who also fills a management slot at the Chattanooga plant, said the Amazon employees in the city are integral parts of serving the company's customers.

"You're getting them that dream product - a birthday or anniversary present," said Flanders, who last summer met and introduced President Barack Obama when he visited the Chattanooga site.

At the same time, some have criticized Amazon for difficult working conditions and providing relatively low-paying jobs.

For example, an emergency room doctor in 2011 called federal regulators to report an "unsafe environment" after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers in Pennsylvania for heat-related problems, according to McClatchy. The doctor's report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Also, many Amazon jobs start in the $11 to $13 an hour range, which some said makes it difficult to support a family in today's economy.

However, Scoggins said that safety at the Chattanooga facility is key. Each day, he said, workers from the various departments gather to talk about job issues including safety.

"We're always looking at better ways to do something," Scoggins said.

When it comes to employee compensation, Flanders cited the company's benefits which enabled her to afford braces for her oldest daughter.

"It's something I never could have been able to do" without the benefits the company offers, she said.

Company spokeswoman Nina Lindsey said that in addition to competitive wages and comprehensive benefits which Amazon offers "on day one," employees also can receive bonuses and stock awards.

Also, she said, positions offer benefits such as Amazon's Career Choice Program where the company pre-pays 95 percent of tuition fees so workers can pursue their goals at the company or elsewhere.

Asked about future investments, Lindsey said the Chattanooga facility is "actively hiring now and we look forward to adding more full-time employees at the site."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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