On one afternoon shift, Michael Howard logged some 15,000 steps pushing a cart around the aisles of an Amazon Prime Now warehouse, gathering groceries, electronics and countless other items for one- and two-hour delivery to customers.
“It’s fast-paced,” the 28-year-old Seattle resident said. “You walk around. You get a lot of exercise.”
Howard is one of scores of Washington workers with a disability who is employed directly by Amazon through a partnership with Northwest Center, a Seattle-based disability-services nonprofit. The partnership helped Amazon begin a much broader hiring initiative that over the last two years has resulted in several hundred people with a disability hired across at least nine states.
“I’m grateful to actually have gotten a job,” Howard said during a work break. “It’s just part time, but even still, it’s a good job. … I’m making above minimum wage.”
The national unemployment rate for people with a disability — more than 30 million people 16 and older — is about double the rate of the broader working population.
Leaders at Northwest Center, which has worked with Amazon quietly since 2002, think they have hit on a new model with the company that will demonstrate to other businesses the potential in this historically overlooked group of people.
“If we can say, ‘Hey, we solved Amazon’s business problem,’ every other employer is going to pay attention,” said Northwest Center CEO Gene Boes.
Over a 17-year relationship, Northwest Center has evolved to meet the business needs of Amazon.
“The focus is on ability. It’s not on disability. All of these people have talent and ability,” said Boes. “We’re the matchmakers between ability and need. I think that’s what’s helped us thrive at Amazon.”
In 2015, 22 people with disabilities were hired for part-time jobs in Amazon’s Kent sortation center as part of the pilot program. Their performance was tracked against the general employee population on retention, safety, productivity, quality and attendance.
Amazon is “really forward with metrics,” Boes said, adding that employees provided by Northwest Center were held to the same expectations as other employees.
“For me, that’s really important,” Boes said. “I don’t want there to be a break or a concession because I don’t think that’s what moves inclusion forward.”
Likewise, Northwest Center employees and those it places with Amazon are paid at least minimum wage.
The pilot program employees met or exceeded all of Amazon’s expectations and the program expanded, placing more workers in the sortation centers and in other operations facilities, such as Howard in Prime Now. Later this year, Northwest Center will begin placing people in full-time jobs inside Amazon’s vast fulfillment centers, where goods are packed into boxes for shipment.
In 2017, according to the nonprofit’s annual report, employees placed at Amazon by Northwest Center chalked up a productivity rate that was 98 percent of the average while achieving 37 percent better quality work than the general population, and with a perfect safety record, compared with a 1.1 percent warehouse incident rate. They also had better attendance.