Pictured: An Amazon fulfillment center in Newark, CA.
by Kimberly Rivers
Amazon is coming.
In the next year, the mega e-commerce corporation will be constructing a new fulfillment center on 430 acres of flat land along the 101 freeway in Oxnard. The project will reportedly bring over 1,000 jobs to the area, something local officials say is desperately needed. Depending on who you talk to, however, the promise of jobs may fall short and the economic activity may not have the local effects that officials anticipate.
What is Project Bruin?
Oxnard was vocal about its efforts in 2017 to woo Amazon into opening a facility in Oxnard. That year the city joined a troupe of locations across the country trying to entice the company to expand in their jurisdictions. That effort was not fruitful.
Over the course of 2018-19, Oxnard officials continued their efforts to convince Amazon to come to town, but those also faltered in 2019.
Then on July 28, 2020, Jeffrey Lambert, community development director, approved “a resolution…approving planning and zoning permit” for “Project Bruin” at the empty Sakioka Farms site along Highway 101 between Rice Road and Del Norte. The property has been zoned industrial for many years.
The project approved by Lambert describes “a multistory e-commerce storage and distribution center,” and related structures, with parking for “1,796 vehicles, 40 motorcycles and 232 truck trailers,” along with landscaping and other related infrastructure improvements. Amazon was not mentioned once in the 48-page document. (1)
Lambert abruptly left his post with Oxnard just two days later, on July 30, 2020. He’d been with the city since January 2019. In September he began a new role as chief operating officer of the Ventura County Community Foundation.
Environmental impact reports (EIRs) for Project Bruin and other assessments of the project were conducted, all without the Amazon name attached. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that the public be given an opportunity to review and comment on EIR documents and that accurate project descriptions are provided so the public is fully informed. Over several hundreds of pages of EIR documents, the project is referred to only as Project Bruin. (2)
Amazon deal announced Oct. 8
Amazon’s involvement was not made public until Oct. 8, weeks before the election, when Tim Flynn, Oxnard mayor and a candidate for Ventura County Supervisor, announced that Amazon was coming to town.
“We have successfully landed Amazon,” said Flynn in a video. He expressed his excitement at the 1,500 jobs it would bring. He pointed out the positivity of the news against the backdrop of the pandemic. He said the city “staff worked tirelessly over the past 12 months to bring this project to fruition in record time.”
At the Oct. 20 Oxnard City Council meeting, City Manager Alexander Nguyen gave a report about the project and thanked staff, the Oxnard Planning Commission and Councilmember Brian MacDonald for assistance in getting the project through. He acknowledged concerns raised by some, but emphasized that Amazon fulfillment center jobs serve a critical need for those “working class” residents who live in the city who do not have the education needed to get other types of employment. Nguyen noted that of the 132,000 working adults in the city (over 25 years old), about 20 percent, or 27,000, have less than a 9th grade education while 8,300 have more than a 9th grade education but do not have a high school diploma or equivalent. Of those working adults, 30 percent have a high school degree or GED. Fourteen percent have a bachelor’s degree and only 5.4 percent of working adults in Oxnard have a graduate degree or higher.
Nguyen went on to describe the partnership between the city, Oxnard Chamber of Commerce and Oxnard College, creating an “employee pipeline” for the Amazon center. While the company is “private” and the city can’t tell it who to hire, he did get an agreement that city residents will have an advance on the hiring process. Nguyen said next spring the city will be working to ensure Oxnard residents are the first in line to get the new jobs, which he called “building blocks” for economic growth — not just for the city but for the families of those the Amazon center will employ.
Concerns over transparency, impacts
Because the project was approved at the level of development director, it was not voted on by the city council, nor was the public ever made aware that the project with Amazon was moving forward until it was announced on Oct. 8.
The July approval documents called the proposal Project Bruin in an apparent effort to hide the fact that Amazon was behind the project. The proposal was submitted by Scott Irwin, vice president of the Southern California region for Seefried Industrial Properties, an Atlanta-based company with offices in Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas and El Segundo, California.
Irwin declined to comment citing a confidentiality agreement Seefried Properties had signed with Amazon.
Eileen Hards, public relations specialist with Amazon operations declined to answer questions about how many people would be hired at the base $15 an hour rate, and how many people would be in higher paid positions, but she did list other positions they would be filling such as finance, safety and human resources, saying they generally begin hiring about two to three months prior to opening.
She emphasized that full time employees do receive “comprehensive benefits, including full health, dental, and vision insurance, starting on the first day of employment.” Hards also touted Amazon’s extensive “Career Choice” program, in which the company spends millions of dollars training employees in many fields, including many that don’t apply to any Amazon jobs. This program effectively moves employees through Amazon, something that could be contributing to the high turnover rates in the lower level warehouse positions seen at Amazon facilities in other areas.
In the description for Project Bruin, the facility is slated to be a two-story structure using “a complex proprietary inventory management system” with products stored on the ground floor and part of the second floor, which is where the “Robotic Storage Platform” will be housed. “Low profile robots” will be used to retrieve ordered products from storage “pods” and “a proprietary material handling system” will be used by employees to “organize, package and ship” items ordered. The footprint of the center will be 857,173 gross square feet, with total building space filling up 2,315,252 gross square feet. Parking includes spaces for 230 trailer trucks and 62 dock doors.
Since the community learned of the final project in October, many residents are asking about impacts and what other communities have experienced when Amazon comes to town.
“The recent announcement of the new Amazon fulfillment center in Oxnard left the community with questions about the impacts it will have on our environmental health, working conditions and city finances,” said Lucia Marquez, policy advocate with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a nonprofit organization building a grassroots base to bring social, economic and environmental justice to immigrant and working-class communities in the area.
CAUSE hosted an online panel discussion on Nov. 18 that examined local concerns and aimed to shed light on how the community can ensure Amazon’s arrival brings the benefits officials are promising. The panel included workforce advocates from the Inland Empire who described how the communities surrounding similar facilities were impacted by Amazon facilities.
People are “initially excited about the company coming to town and look to try and get those jobs,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, executive director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center (WWRC), a nonprofit organization based in Ontario, Calif., that advocates for warehouse employees. “What is typical is that the [jobs with] lower wages are hired locally” but the more skilled, higher-paying positions tend to be filled by people from outside the community. “They don’t promote people from within…so it does add to the churn at the bottom of the workforce. People kind of bounce in and out.” Kaoosji added that a large stable company being in a town “doesn’t create the kind of stability you would think would come from a company at this scale.”
Kaoosji addressed the idea of Amazon attracting other similar businesses, something touted as a good thing by those who want to see more economic activity, saying that this type of business model includes more congestion on local roadways and increased diesel exhaust. He said if the city is planning to allow this type of “cluster” along the 101, there “needs to be accountability” within the community.
“You have to work there to understand what they are like”
“You have to work there to understand what they are like,” said Yesenia Barrera, organizer with WWRC. She described the focus on productivity with an automated system that tracks the employees all day, monitoring “time on task.” She said it can impact whether or not an employee will take a drink of water or go to the restroom for fear that it will impact their productivity and result in a reprimand from a supervisor.
Kaoosji pointed to practices WWRC sees at Amazon facilities that aim to “turn people over.” He said people with perfect employment records, who had been with the company for three years, have been offered a buyout. “They don’t want to hang on to folks too long.” He referred to statistics showing that employees in highly automated repetitive work tasks tend to get injured after a certain length of time. WWRC and other organizations are trying to “push against the model” of this type of workforce management.
Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Round Table, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit whose mission is to create knowledge for the public good, discussed a study the organization conducted that looked at impacts of Amazon in the Inland Empire. He acknowledged the strong draw for city councils and the “rationale” of needing jobs for areas is especially common “in communities with green field space, or undeveloped open space…cities hungry for economic activity.” But he said “the reality is that Amazon locates warehouses where land is cheap” and where there are “energized reliable workers” who will work for “comparatively low wages.” Those workers will move “goods, purchased by affluent communities,” much of which comes through local ports. Flaming said that Economic Round Table is seeing 21,500 diesel truckloads of merchandise coming in and going out. “There is an enormous amount, 15.5 billion tons, being moved through low income communities,” causing “damage to infrastructure,” such as wearing out freeways and bridges, and producing “diesel particulate matter that is carcinogenic…[and] causes global warming.” The study found about $642 million “a year in uncompensated damages to the public by movement of trucks, GHG emissions.” In addition, the study determined that for every $1 Amazon paid to warehouse workers, $0.24 was passed on to the public in costs associated with health care and food stamps.
“This panel helped to shine a light on Amazon’s track record of dangerous working conditions, diesel truck pollution, and bad financial deals with cities,” said Marquez. CAUSE and its partners will be working to “get big corporations like Amazon to transition to zero-emissions trucks and to protect warehouse workers from unfair quotas and other poor working conditions.”
At the Oct. 20 city council meeting Nguyen mentioned the inevitable electrification of large trucks. He said it’s going to happen quicker than people expect, but stopped short of saying the city would compel Amazon or otherwise incentivize a switch to an all-electric fleet.
Looking forward, the panelists said the public must insist on transparency and public hearings and that elected officials must press the company to reduce the social costs of this type of business model on local communities.
Nov. 18 CAUSE panel discussion on Amazon’s impacts on communities:
Oct. 8 announcement by Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn:
Video of Oct. 20 Oxnard City Council meeting, Amazon item at 2 hours 37 mins into meeting.
- Oxnard’s approval of “Project Bruin” or the Amazon fulfillment project dated July 28, 2020. Click: Oxnard Amazon project BRUIN conditions of approval
- Link to Project Bruin documents at City of Oxnard Planning Department: www.oxnard.org/environmental-document-archives/