FARGO — With only a few construction touches remaining, Amazon’s more than 1.2 million-square-foot Fulfillment Center, now the largest building in North Dakota, is on track to commence operations Sunday, Sept. 19.
Less than a year after local officials formally announced the business development, goods such as pet food and Instant Pots will begin circulating through the facility Sunday, general manager John Sabo said.
Spanning one-quarter mile east to west, the facility is equal to the size of 22 football fields and is considerably larger than the roughly 900,000-square-foot West Acres Shopping Center.
Construction crews were seen on the new facility's premises on Thursday, Sept. 16, putting the finishing touches on the building in advance of Sunday’s start. Amazon aims to meet an initial target of 1,000 employees to staff the facility.
Notably absent Thursday were the actual products that will move through the facility when operations begin next week. Countless shelves towering multiple stories high remain empty, but that will change Sunday when the center becomes a hive of activity, Sabo said.
Speeding up shipments
Sabo said that the Fulfillment Center working in tandem with West Fargo’s last-mile delivery station might help shorten delivery times in the region.
“These facilities and hopefully additional ones in the near future will allow for greater service to the North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota markets,” he said.
The Fulfillment Center, he said, is where customers' orders are located, packaged and sent out. The West Fargo facility handles last-mile and local deliveries, meaning packages will not be sent from the Fulfillment Center directly to residences.
Because of the size of packages handled at the facility, Amazon does not expect to offer drone delivery in the area. That said, same-day delivery of certain items is on the table.
“Hopefully, we’ll be looking at reduced shipping times,” Sabo said. “One of the things we’re trying to get to is one-day and some same-day promises; this will help us do that in this market.”
More hiring on the horizon
The facility’s Human Resources Manager, Ashley Moran, declined to give an exact number of employees or job openings but said Amazon is on track to meet its hiring goal.
Many firms in the Fargo-Moorhead area have faced a staffing crunch, but Moran said that Amazon has fared well in the tight labor market.
“I think it is fantastic that Fargo has such a low unemployment rate,” she said. "I think we’ve faced a little bit of a challenge, but overall we’re still meeting our goal.”
Most employees at the facility are from the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, said Moran, who added that non-locals have mainly filled leadership positions such as hers.
An on-site recruiting office is scheduled to open Sunday and will remain open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. When fully staffed, Amazon expects the facility to employ 1,400.
“We definitely are tracking to be where we want to be,” Moran said.
The center, Sabo said, is the top of the line when it comes to Amazon facilities and technology. Numerous design and technological innovations are packed into what Amazon calls a “traditional non-sortable” facility, he added.
A significant highlight is a new conveyance system called the "parcel identification" system, which is only seen in Amazon facilities constructed in either 2020 or 2021.
The system eliminates some of the heavy-lifting for employees by bringing products into the facilities along conveyor lines at waist height, eliminating floor-level lifts that carry a higher risk of injury.
All 251 of the facility's trucks are powered by hydrogen fuel cells instead of traditional lithium-ion batteries. The hydrogen models are a relatively new innovation for Amazon, Sabo said. They’ve proven to be equally efficient and more environmentally friendly than their battery-powered counterparts — so much so that older Amazon facilities are attempting to transition their fleets to hydrogen power, he said.
In total, the facility has 7.3 million cubic feet of storage, including a mezzanine level which took previously unused second level space and added 2.1 million cubic feet of storage.
In simple terms, the Fulfillment Center is divided into two sections devoted to inbound and outbound items.
The inbound side receives products through some of the facility’s 130 dock doors, utilizing a parcel identification system to bring in products.
The outbound side processes orders, deploying a primarily automated system for taping and applying labels to boxes with human oversight. Fargo’s center has a dozen different box sizes for its medium-sized consumer items, though there is also a “box on-demand” machine that can fabricate a custom-size box.
Scattered throughout the facility are what Amazon calls “door desks,” which Sabo said make for a piece of company lore. When former CEO Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, he found desks too expensive, so he fashioned some more cheaply using a door and two saw-horses. Sabo said a later evolution of those desks is still in use, and the desktop sports a whiteboard-like material for note-taking.
Near the entry to the main floor is an employee wellness center, which Sabo said uses a sports medicine-type approach for keeping employees healthy. The center focuses on stretching, ergonomics and more and houses the facility’s eight on-site EMTs.
In non-pandemic times, shifts begin with a stand-up huddle, which would include static stretches and provide educational material for employees.
Near the huddle area are computers where employees can submit anonymous feedback about the facility to site managers. There is also a board titled the “Voice of the Associate” where employees can write down ideas with or without identifying themselves. Management has 12 hours to respond to ideas written on the board.
A newer feature, Sabo said, is the center’s “multi-faith lobby.” The area includes two ablution rooms and is a space for employees of all religious backgrounds to pray and reflect. Employees can arrange with managers to use the room, which does not follow a set schedule.
The multi-faith lobby and a dedicated mother's room are designed to foster an inclusive environment, Sabo said. The goal is to "make everyone feel welcome from day one," he remarked.
What can employees expect?
Employees generally work four 10-hour shifts per week, Moran said. Those shifts include two 30-minute breaks, one paid and one unpaid, Sabo said.
Intermittent breaks throughout the day to use the bathroom or for other purposes are not monitored and employees are free to take them whenever, she noted. Some Amazon critics have said the online retail giant's break policy limited warehouse worker bathroom breaks.
Amazon offers a tuition payment program for employees who have been with the company for more than 90 days which covers up to $5,250 in annual school expenses.
“It essentially is a program designed to support employees in whatever their career endeavors might be,” Moran explained. “Whether it’s to work at Amazon or if we’re just a temporary step to your actual passion.”
The Career Choice program, which has its own designated classroom at Fargo’s Fulfillment Center, does not have a maximum limit either, Moran added.
“Associates can literally use it for their entire schooling duration, whether it be two years or beyond.”
Additionally, Amazon offers a program called Campus Next, which allows tier-one associates to leap to a leadership position with the company after earning a bachelor’s degree.
“I think it’s a fantastic program,” Moran said. “Five of our area managers that are launching this building today were tier-ones two months ago because they went through that program and got their bachelor’s degree.”
Benefits for employees, Moran said, include full medical, dental and vision insurance, a 50% 401k match, and an employee assistance program for counseling. The facility is also currently offering a $3,000 sign-on bonus. Starting wages at the facility are $15.50 per hour and the benefits package is valued at $3.50 per hour, Moran said.
Amazon offers four weeks of full pay prepartum and ten weeks of full pay postpartum for parents. Employees also have the option to use a ramp-up period to get back to work gradually.