We've heard a whole lot about Amazon lately, but we haven't heard from anyone who has actually worked there.

Until now.

Akron resident Arnie Caduff got an extended inside look at Amazon's huge distribution center at the former site of Randall Park Mall, just west of state Route 8 near the crossing of Interstates 271 and 480.

A 20-year Navy veteran who specialized in avionics and later worked for Lockheed-Martin, Caduff served as a senior robotic maintenance man at the facility from July 2018 (two months before it opened) through March of this year.

He was not employed directly by Amazon, but by a unit of Cushman & Wakefield, the company that buys properties for Amazon, builds to Amazon's specifications and then rents the facilities to the e-commerce behemoth and handles the maintenance.

What struck Caduff the most was the enormity of the operation. The Randall Park building is 1.8 million square feet.

That number is almost impossible to wrap your head around, but maybe this will help: The Walmart Supercenter in Stow is 149,465 square feet. Which means Amazon's Randall Park building is more than 12 times bigger.

OK, that may not help much, either. Let's try this.

“Imagine an empty Lowe's or Home Depot, only four floors of them — just for the robots alone,” he says, sitting in his home in West Akron.

“There's 1,100 robots on each floor. There's 13,000 shelves on each floor, and each shelf has all four sides and dozens of cubbyholes.” There's also 27 miles of conveyor belts.

Believe it or not, the size of that building pales in comparison to the one that will be going up on the former site of Rolling Acres Mall. Our center, which will employ 1,500 people, will be a mind-boggling 2.7 million square feet. That's bigger than 18 Walmart Supercenters.

The complexity of the operation is amazing as well.

Caduff says the robots are 3 feet wide, 3½ feet long and about 6 inches high. “They scurry underneath shelves that are 7 feet tall and 3½ by 3½ feet. The robots lift the shelf up then bring it to [the edge of the robotic area] and the person standing there either puts things into the shelves or takes things out of the shelves.”

 

Duck on the move

To further illustrate the process, he offers the hypothetical journey of a rubber duck.

“You go home, get on the computer and order a rubber duck. The computer god in the sky of Amazon sees where you're at, finds where the closest rubber duck is — let's say Randall Park — and decides, 'Oh, that's on the third floor on Shelf 3,211,' and sends a robot to get that shelf and bring it to the outer rim, where a person takes it out of the box and puts it in a big plastic tote, like a little shopping cart, and sends it down the conveyor.

“That tote will have 15 or 20 other things in it. All the rubber ducks in it get taken out and split apart, then go down more conveyors to four other sections, at least. No less than two people have to touch this thing to put it into the shelves, and six more people are going to touch it before it gets put on a truck.”

The products and totes have bar codes that are scanned during the process, enabling Amazon to pinpoint where things went awry when there's a problem.

Caduff's job was not for the faint of foot. During some of the 12-hour days he worked leading up to Christmas, the stocky, personable 60-year-old logged 10 miles, according to an app on his phone. As a supervisor, he was running up, down and around all four floors.

But he scoffs at reports that Amazon is a sweat shop where productivity requirements are so brutal that some workers have attempted suicide.

Employees in Minnesota staged a protest over working conditions last month during the company's big “Prime Day” promotion. On Sunday, a spokesman for the Free & Fair Markets Initiative wrote a guest column in my favorite newspaper that said, “The horrific conditions inside Amazon warehouses have been an open secret for years.”

Not so, says Caduff. “I've seen things on the internet about people claiming that, but I've never seen anything like that."

Sure, the work is repetitive, he says, but it should be enticing to folks who have struggled to find jobs.

“They would hire people that McDonald's wouldn't hire and pay them $15 an hour.”

In addition to a respectable wage, employees are eligible for tuition reimbursement, health care and paid parental leave.

 

Good things

Caduff points to a slew of other employee-friendly things he noticed at the Randall Park center.

• The employees who work alongside the conveyors stand on rubber mats that are 1½ inches thick, and Amazon “is very big into ergonomics.”

• Amazon promotes from within. Do your job well and you can advance from a packer to a trainer, then a manager, then a manager of managers, Caduff says.

• The company offers daily incentives that reward attendance, with raffle prizes ranging from Kindle Fires to air conditioners.

• The massive break rooms — 100 by 200 feet — are “very nice” and use an honor system for food and beverage purchases.

• At the beginning of shifts, workers do stretching exercises and meet with managers, who give pep talks that are well-received. “The managers were all big into the teamwork thing and it was really cool to see that happening. We had to interface with our counterparts at Amazon, and it was always a beautiful interface.”

Caduff enjoyed his nine-month stint with the world's 28th largest public company.

“I had issues with upper senior management of C&W Services, and that's why I left the job. But that had nothing to do with Amazon or most of C&W.”

A Geneva High School graduate who has also worked in oilfields and in an aluminum die factory, Caduff has had his share of ups and down. He lost his wife to breast cancer in 2013, when she was 55. He was in Afghanistan, doing contract work for Lockheed-Martin, as he did for seven years, but made it home before she passed.

Today he does product testing for JLG Industries, which makes heavy equipment such as forklifts and aerial work platforms.

And if he loses the key to a JLG forklift, he can quickly pick up a new one through Amazon. Literally.

Is there anything these guys don't sell?

 

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31