After months of protest, Amazon set to open in West Humboldt Park


In January, 37th Ward residents and a coalition of community groups gathered in the cold to protest outside a planned Amazon warehouse at Division Street and Kostner Avenue in West Humboldt Park.

Demonstrators held signs demanding equality in hiring. They expressed frustration about being excluded from meetings on the project, and called for transparency from the local alderman and the e-commerce giant.

But they weren’t trying to keep Amazon from moving into the neighborhood. They wanted the warehouse to open sooner.

“A job beats no job,” said one ward resident.

After months of delays, Amazon will begin operating the delivery facility in early October and plans to hire for 350 full- and part-time jobs.

Community groups have attempted to wrangle commitments from Amazon related to local hiring and wages for around two years, but they have mostly stopped short of trying to keep the warehouse from opening.

In a neighborhood that has suffered from decades of disinvestment, many residents see the warehouse, shiny in blue and white paint, as a step forward.

At the same time, Amazon is facing significant federal scrutiny over working conditions and injury rates within its warehouses. Experts who study the warehousing industry questioned the long-term impact the facility, and its associated jobs, could have on the community.

“We typically count the number of jobs that are coming in,” said Nik Theodore, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We have to pay a lot more attention to the question of job quality.”

Anthony Stewart, left, and Edie Jacobs, right, rally during a protest for action on jobs and pollution outside a new Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park on Aug. 16, 2023.

“Is a job better than no job? Perhaps,” said Beth Gutelius, research director for the Center for Urban Economic Development at UIC. “But I think we underestimate, at our own peril, the long-term physical and mental health impacts of working at Amazon.”

When workers there begin moving packages in October, the West Humboldt Park warehouse will be what Amazon calls a sub-same day facility. That means it will house inventory of popular items customers may want delivered on the same day — dog food, baby formula or diapers, for instance — that Amazon Flex drivers, who are not Amazon employees, will deliver out of passenger cars.

Hiring for the facility is underway. Amazon has thus far declined to commit to specific geographic hiring targets — some community organizations have called for the company to hire 60% of its staff from the West Side — but says it is working with community organizations to hire locally. Amazon said the “vast majority” of hires are from the city and that “many” live “in and around” West Humboldt Park.

On a sweltering day in late August, Terrance Whitehead gestured toward a nearby apartment building from the porch of his home just east of the new warehouse. Whitehead, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, was glad it was opening.

“In this apartment building right here, I know at least 10 people” who need jobs, he said.

Terrance Whitehead on his porch in West Humboldt Park on Aug. 22, 2023. “In this apartment building right here, I know at least 10 people” who need jobs, he said.

Whitehead would have wanted to work there himself, but suffered an injury doing maintenance work earlier this year. A ceiling fell in on him, causing him to break his hip. Now, he said, he can’t work at all.

Finding employment continues to be a struggle for many on the West Side, especially in the decades since Chicago lost the manufacturing jobs that helped form the backbone of the city’s economy, said Theodore, the UIC professor.

When companies moved manufacturing jobs overseas, a process that accelerated in the 1980s, Chicago workers lost their jobs and people stopped spending in neighborhoods such as West Humboldt Park, Theodore said.

Restaurants and department stores shuttered. Young people who might have gotten their first job working as a grocery clerk could no longer find work at their neighborhood supermarket, because they had closed too.

“The bottom rungs of the ladder were missing for young people in neighborhoods like West Humboldt Park,” Theodore said. “There’s hope that with new development and new investment in the neighborhood, some of those rungs, the missing rungs on the ladder will be replaced,” he said.

“But it’s been a problem that was decades in the making. And I think it’s not an exaggeration to say a generation or two of young people have grown up in the neighborhood without those opportunities,” Theodore said.

In the warehouse’s ZIP code, which spans parts of Humboldt Park and Austin, the unemployment rate over the five-year period from 2017 to 2021 was above 10%, compared with a city average of 8.4%, according to census data.

A pedestrian walks past Pete and Jack’s Food & Liquors at the corner of West Division Street and North Keeler Avenue in West Humboldt Park on Aug. 22, 2023.

Young people in particular have struggled to find work. Close to 1 in 5 residents between the ages of 20 and 24 were unemployed over the five-year timespan. The median household income was $44,549.

The manufacturing jobs of the past were highly unionized, which led to upward pressure on wages and working conditions throughout the entire manufacturing sector, Gutelius said. Union density in the warehousing industry that has taken its place is much lower, she said.

Pay at the new Amazon warehouse will start at $19.50 an hour, above the city minimum wage of $15.80 but well below the floor of $28.50 that some community organizers have called for. Employees who work 30 hours or more a week will receive benefits including health, vision and dental insurance, parental leave, and a 401(k) match. About half of the jobs will be part time.

In recent years, Amazon has faced significant scrutiny regarding working conditions and injury rates within its warehouses, sparking labor organizing among workers and drawing the attention of federal regulators.

In the summer of 2022, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened investigations into working conditions at six Amazon warehouses across the country, including one in north suburban Waukegan. The probe arose after referrals from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which said it was investigating possible fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA.

OSHA investigators found Amazon exposed workers to a high risk of musculoskeletal injuries — such as low back injuries, spinal disc damage and injuries to the hips, shoulder and hands — linked to the frequency with which they were required to lift heavy items, including packages.

In Waukegan, the investigations led to Amazon being cited twice for alleged violations: Once for exposing workers to injuries and once for failing to properly record work-related injuries, with total penalties in Illinois tallying up to less than $25,000.

“While Amazon has developed impressive systems to make sure its customers’ orders are shipped efficiently and quickly, the company has failed to show the same level of commitment to protecting the safety and well-being of its workers,” Doug Parker, assistant secretary for OSHA, said in a statement at the time.

An Amazon warehouse is under construction on West Division Street in West Humboldt Park on Jan. 19, 2023.

When OSHA cited Amazon for alleged record keeping violations, the agency alleged the company had improperly classified injuries as not having required a worker to take time off work, or take on a job transfer or restriction, when in fact they did so. In one case in Waukegan, the agency alleged, a worker’s head injury was misclassified as a muscle strain.

Amazon has vigorously objected to the government citations and is appealing them.

“The government’s allegations don’t reflect the reality of safety at our sites, and our publicly available data show we’ve improved injury rates in the U.S. by 23% between 2019 and 2022,” said Amazon spokesperson Steve Kelly.

The company also said it had reduced its rate of injuries requiring employees to take time away from work by 69% since 2019. It claimed its rate of such injuries was below the industry average.

This spring, an analysis of OSHA data released by the union coalition Strategic Organizing Center found that though the company’s rate of injuries that required workers to be put on light duty, transfer duties or take time away from work dipped slightly in 2022 from 2021, its rate of those types of injuries were more than double the rate found in non-Amazon warehouses.

Amazon was responsible for 53% of all light duty or lost time injuries in the warehouse industry in 2022 despite employing 36% of American warehouse workers, the report found.

The company also disputes the methodology used in the SOC report, saying it is based on incomplete data.

“Many large companies with similar operational footprints that should be included in such a calculation report almost all of their injuries under different reporting codes than we do,” Kelly said. “As a result, ‘industry average’ actually represents only a small subset of the companies that have businesses similar to ours, and many are much smaller.”

The company, which posted $514 billion in net sales last year, said it had invested $1 billion in safety initiatives from 2019 to 2022 and said it was investing an additional $550 million this year.

“The vast majority of our employees tell us they feel our workplace is safe. We know there will always be ways for us to improve even further, and we will — we’ll never stop working to be safer for our employees,” Kelly said.

Amazon is a retailer that acts with a tech company’s “move fast and break things,” ethos, Gutelius said. The company brings new technologies, such as tracking software, online to increase productivity and efficiency in its warehouses, she said.

“But it’s kind of colliding with the limits,” she said, “of workers’ actual bodies and how fast they can work, and when they need breaks.”

Neighborhood resident Maura Madden, left, and Anthony Stewart, of Black Workers Matter, tape a petition to the door during a demonstration outside a new Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park on Sept. 12, 2023.

Katrina Washington, who lives in Austin, said she worked for Amazon for a couple of months a handful of years ago at a facility in Kenosha. The pay and benefits were good, she said, but she found the job exhausting and hard on her body.

The movements required were robotic — “you’re twisting, turning, bending, squatting,” she said — and employees were required to work fast.

“If you don’t have bad legs,” she said, “you’ll eventually get them.”

Her longest break during her shift was 30 minutes, she said. When she would get home at the end of the day, Washington said, she could barely eat. “I was too exhausted. I was aching and everything.”

Washington, 53, had an existing work-related back injury from her time as a certified nurse assistant in a nursing home, and left Amazon on a doctor’s orders related to that injury. She works part time for Get to Work, a community group that has been involved in organizing around Amazon in West Humboldt Park.

Washington’s son, James Shelby, has also worked for Amazon. He worked at a facility in Monee in 2021 and 2022.

Shelby, 33, said he’d injured and then reinjured his knee working at Amazon. “It was the worst pain I ever felt in my knee,” he said. “I could barely walk.”

Still, he’s considering applying to work for Amazon in West Humboldt Park.

This summer, Washington joined a protest in which residents called on Amazon to hire locally and pay workers’ higher wages. She’s concerned about the impact the warehouse could have on pollution in the neighborhood, but thinks it will ultimately be a good thing for the West Side.

“If people get the jobs that they need, then it’d be less violence, and less crime in the area, because they have something to look for, they have hope,” she said. “They have something to go to every day.”

A few hundred jobs at Amazon won’t be enough to turn the tide of disinvestment in a neighborhood such as West Humboldt Park, Theodore said. But the company’s presence could serve as a positive market signal to other employers, and warehouse jobs at Amazon could help boost the resumes of young workers who are hired there, he said — if they can stick with the job.

Amazon has been scrutinized for its turnover rate, an issue plaguing the warehouse industry as a whole.

Edie Jacobs, center, and Howard Ray, right, join other neighbors and supporters during a demonstration on Sept. 12, 2023, outside a new Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park.

In 2022, an internal Amazon memo from the year prior reported by the technology website Recode showed the company was worried about running out of U.S. warehouse employees by 2024. In a 2021 story analyzing pre-pandemic data, reporters for The New York Times found the company’s annual turnover rate was about 150%, close to double that of the retail and logistics industry as a whole.

Kelly, the Amazon spokesperson, said the leaked document “was an early draft, and it wasn’t appropriately refined or vetted, let alone finalized.” He declined to share Amazon’s current turnover rate.

High turnover could compromise not just the tenure of prospective Amazon employees, but also the number of people Amazon is able to hire from the neighborhood, Theodore said.

“The geography of the labor market for warehousing is getting larger and larger because of the high turnover,” he said.

Tommy Carden, an organizer who works with Amazon warehouse workers in Will County, said when Amazon opened warehouses in Joliet, most of the people hired were from close by.

Over the past couple of years, that has become less and less true, said Carden, who works with the group Warehouse Workers for Justice. Workers at the facilities are coming from farther and farther away, Carden said.

“So many people have tried it,” Carden said, “and so many people have kind of burnt out.”

Kelly, the Amazon spokesperson, said “attrition is something all employers face, but we want to do everything we can to make Amazon an employer of choice.”

“This is accomplished through offering good pay, comprehensive benefits, a safe workplace, and robust training and educational opportunities that are effective, yet always improving,” he said.

Ald. Emma Mitts touted the jobs she said the facility would bring to her ward in written responses to questions from the Tribune. “Let’s give them an opportunity to showcase their employee working-related strategies,” she said.

She said her office would “address these issues with the appropriate workplace safety measures, legislative and regulatory agencies toward Amazon if and when they should ever become necessary.”

Farrah Walker, secretary of the West Humboldt Park Community Coalition, drops a letter about the Amazon warehouse in the mail slot at the office of Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th, on June 1, 2023.

Amazon will now be one of the only large employers in the neighborhood, said Adrienne Whitney-Boykin, executive director of the West Humboldt Park Development Council, one of the neighborhood groups that has partnered with Amazon on hiring efforts.

The lot where Amazon’s facility is has been vacant for years, she said. Whitney-Boykin hopes Amazon’s presence in the neighborhood could send a positive signal to other businesses.

Whitney-Boykin also thinks the company should address issues of workplace safety.

“We’re hoping that they’re rectifying them as they come into the neighborhood,” she said. “Because people will not let it stand; people will unionize and do everything else in order to make sure it’s fair.”

Organizing efforts at Amazon have proven difficult, in part because of the high turnover of workers there. Workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize in the spring of 2022; Amazon is contesting that election. Elections in Bessemer, Alabama, and Castleton-on-Hudson, New York, are also contested. An attempt to unionize a third New York warehouse faltered.

Elsewhere, including in the Chicago area, workers have organized independently, outside of the federal unionization process through the National Labor Relations Board, sometimes with the assistance of workers’ centers such as Warehouse Workers for Justice.

Anthony Stewart, left, of Black Workers Matter, and neighborhood resident Maura Madden speak during a protest outside a new Amazon warehouse in West Humboldt Park Sept. 12, 2023.

In May, labor board officials filed a complaint against Amazon, alleging the company had illegally discouraged organizing efforts at four suburban warehouses last year, including by allegedly calling the police on workers who were collecting signatures on petitions for higher pay. Amazon denied the allegations in the complaints, which will move to a hearing before an administrative law judge in December.

In September, weeks before the West Side facility opened, residents gathered outside Amazon in protest again. Darian Davis, 26, attended the protest where organizers called for higher wages and commitments from Amazon related to the facility’s environmental impact.

Davis, who lives on Crystal Street a couple blocks away, has been looking for work for about three months and said he planned to apply there. He’d heard the company has good benefits, such as a 401(k), and offered good pay.

”People our age, you know, we need stuff like that to better our future,” he said. “We need stuff like that in our community because we don’t get that most often.”

Marcos Ceniceros, executive director of Warehouse Workers for Justice, puts it this way: “You’re starving,” he said, “anything’s gonna look and sound pretty delicious.”


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