Transit agency and Amazon team up to get workers to workplace

    In this file photo

    In this file photo

    Amazon’s fulfillment centers outside Carlisle, Pennsylvania, are probably the closest thing the region still has to the factories that once employed so much of nearby Harrisburg’s working class.

    Amazon’s fulfillment centers outside Carlisle, Pennsylvania, are probably the closest thing the region still has to the factories that once employed so much of nearby Harrisburg’s working class. These enormous warehouses employ over 1,500 people, including temps. The wages don’t match those offered by the unionized industries of old, but they are almost twice the minimum wage.

    That’s income many residents of the city of Harrisburg, about 25 miles to the northeast, desperately need. With a poverty rate of almost 34 percent, and an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, Pennsylvania’s capital is one of the many small cities in the state struggling with its legacy of segregation and deindustrialization.

    How to get those unemployed, or low wage, people to those Amazon jobs?

    Harrisburg is the only area in the reach of the Capital Area Transit (CAT) system that contains Census tracts where over 10 percent of the population commute by public transit, and one even surpasses 20 percent. But the fulfillment centers are part of a cluster of warehouses to the southwest of Carlisle, which until recently were served by only one bus stop.

    Walking from that location to the other job sites is exceedingly dangerous, because these hulking structures have been plunked down in the middle of farmland. There are no sidewalks, but some warehouse workers pick their way down the edges of the highway anyway.

    “There are a lot of jobs that pay fairly well in that Amazon distribution center, but getting there without a car is atrocious,” says Adam Porter, business co-chair of the Friends of Midtown, a community group in Harrisburg. “As I understand it they are really having a hard time hiring enough people, because getting to work is an issue. A lot of people want to apply to a $14-hour dollar job, but you still need to be earning $17 to $19 to actually truly afford a car.”

    CAT is beginning to try and address the issue. And Amazon is helping to make it happen. (The company did not respond to interview requests by time of publication.) Using data provided by the company, CAT has rerouted four bus lines to serve the largest concentrations of Amazon workers in Harrisburg and Enola, a working class suburb of the capital city directly across the Susquehanna River. The schedules have been altered to match the company’s 12 hour shifts. Amazon will also be offering a handful of free passes to its employees, for more incentive.

    Officials at CAT say that the company’s cooperation is unusual. Most of its local counterparts demand service, but haven’t put resources towards making it happen.

    “They were one of the few that was willing to put their money where their mouth is,” says William Jones, general manager of CAT. “They identified the need and are willing to move forward by buying passes. We are all about getting people to work, but too many times people go out and say we need this service, we need this service, but then aren’t willing to help pay for it.”

    Established in 1973, CAT was created to serve the mushrooming workforce of the state government (which comprises roughly 60 percent of its ridership). The agency is governed by the city of Harrisburg in concert with Cumberland and Dauphin counties. CAT’s main task is getting people to work: There aren’t as many who depend on it for, say, shopping or visiting friends as riders might in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. That fact is reflected in the size of its fleet, 81 fixed route buses and 52 paratransit vehicles, and an annual operating budget of $21 million. (By contrast, SEPTA’s operating budget is $1.36 billion.)

    Historically CAT hasn’t offered much service to the job cluster where Amazon now reigns, and which began hosting hulking warehouses in the mid-to-late 1990s. Companies from Giant Food to Ross clothing found it advantageous to operate warehouses here because Interstates 81 and 76 crisscross in Carlisle, moving north-south and east-west respectively. As an added bonus, the small city of less than 20,000 doesn’t have the congestion that Harrisburg can suffer during rush hour.

    Amazon arrived at the beginning of this decade and operated on a scale that dwarfed their competitors. The company hired hundreds of full time workers, instead of relying largely on temps (although they do that as well especially during the holiday season). Amazon’s needs were more labor intensive than those of their counterparts. They weren’t just shifting pallets in and out, but physically breaking down contents and then packaging and shipping them to customers. That demand for workers caused the company growing pains, and also offered an unprecedented opportunity for the region’s under-and-unemployed workers—if they could only get there.

    “A lot of it was just the sheer number of employees they needed,” says Shaun Donovan, economic development specialist with the Harrisburg Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Historically in Carlisle, when it was all bulk warehouses, you could have a 200,000 or 300,000 square foot warehouse employ maybe 50 people at the high end. The new model is more intensive. Their [Amazon’s] warehouse is maybe twice that size with 500,000 square feet and almost 1,000 employees.”

    There are other Amazon facilities in the region too, and with a need for workers like that, the company employed people who regularly relied on public transit to get to work. With the inadequate transit service to the Carlisle site, Donovan remembers people walking three miles down the highway from the one bus stop to get to work.

    The routes that CAT opened recently are based on information that Amazon provided about all the workers they’d hired over last year. The transit agency uploaded that data into a GIS system. They found several concentrations of Amazon workers who weren’t being served at all. CAT changed their routes accordingly, with an eye to future permanent Amazon employees and the yearly surge of temps. The assumption made by the transit agency and the company is that the neighborhoods where the current workers come from are where Amazon’s future workers will be commuting from too.

    “In the warehousing industry these may be people who are starting out in a career and may not have money for the $50 or $70 a month for that pass,” says Jones of CAT. “So where will it come from unless the employer is willing to in part or completely subsidize that? In Amazon we found a very willing partner to sit there and say we will help these people buy these passes. You can have the greatest service in the world, but if people can’t afford to get on it what good does it really do?”

    For all CAT’s enthusiasm about Amazon’s partnership in rejiggering its transit network, the actual number of passes the company has committed to is very small. Jones says the number is 50 to 55 a month, and he isn’t sure how they will be allocated among the workers. At best, and not counting temps, that’s five percent of the workforce at the main site.

    For the rest of the workforce, a monthly pass will cost $70. The regular fare between Carlisle and Harrisburg is $2.35 a ride. Either way it’s cheaper than buying a car. And for much of Harrisburg’s population, that’s the calculation that counts.

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