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Rent and maybe a steak: How Amazon workers will spend that $15 an hour

“What’s not to like?” said Debbie Newby, 60, as she waited in a bus shelter in the Amazon parking lot for her husband to pick her up.
Image: FILE: Amazon Raises It's Minimum Wage To $15/hour
A worker moves merchandise at the Amazon fulfillment center May 3, 2018 in Aurora, Colorado.Rick T. Wilking / Getty Images file

SAN MARCOS, Texas — Workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center here arrived at work Tuesday to a different company — one that had just bumped its the minimum hourly wage to $15 per hour.

“What’s not to like?” said Debbie Newby, 60, as she waited in a bus shelter in the Amazon parking lot for her husband to pick her up.

Newby is part of Amazon’s global workforce of more than 575,000 employees, many of whom work in the company’s warehouses. In recent years, those workers had become the focus of labor activists and politicians who claimed Amazon underpaid them. A class action lawsuit in California equated the conditions at the company’s warehouses to a “modern day sweat shop.”

Newby, who started with Amazon in October 2016, said she is a “Tier 3” worker, so she was already making more than the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. But she also considers herself “one of the lucky ones” because she has Amazon stock. New employees received three shares, but that will end with the $15 an hour minimum wage they will now be offered.

“More people wanted money now,” Newby said. “With the stock, you have to be with them two years to reap that reward.”

She said her pay will go up to $16.50 an hour because there were wage increases across the board.

Amazon’s announcement on Tuesday came after the company faced growing criticism over how much it paid low-level employees. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had been among the most vocal, introducing the Stop BEZOS Act, which was named for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and sought to force large companies like Amazon to pay for social services used by their workers.

Amazon’s move Tuesday drew strong praise from Sanders and other advocates for raising the national minimum wage.

“Amazon is such a huge presence,” said Paul Sonn, state policy director at the National Employment Law Project, a labor advocacy group. “It puts pressure on other low-wage chains, especially Walmart, to join them.”

“It’s also significant for Amazon to say they’ll push for long-overdue actions on the federal minimum wage,” Sonn said.

The move drew similar approval from other Amazon workers at the San Marcos facility.

Kerry Dobbs, 69, said it was a “good, good raise,” bringing him to $13.65 an hour doing inventory control.

Another worker, Calvin Howell, 53, said the $15 minimum wage “will make a big impact on our lives” in the short term, which could in turn improve the community of San Marcos, a city of around 61,000 between Austin and San Antonio.

The Amazon fulfillment center sits just off Interstate Highway 35, set back from the highway with a giant, unshaded parking lot. San Marcos is home to Texas State University, some outlet malls and a number of hotels, fast-food restaurants, gasoline stations and other retail businesses that line the highway.

Howell sat on Tuesday at a yellow plastic table with a matching umbrella just outside the front doors of the fulfillment center, having a quick lunch. The tables offered just about the only shade in the front of the building and parking lot.

“We’ll have more spendable income every week rather than waiting for our stock to mature, especially with the holidays coming up,” Howell said. “With the amount of employees they have, it will sure help the economy.”

Howell earns $13.65 as an outbound picker, picking orders that are to be filled. He said he loves his job.

He said his salary goes up 25 cents an hour every six months, so Tuesday’s move accelerated his raises. The tradeoff is the company will no longer award stock, which employees would get for different occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries, he said.

He said the raise will give him some flexibility in his finances and the chance for the occasional treat.

“This will give me a little bit more cushion,” he said. “I’d rather go to Texas Roadhouse than McDonald’s.”

Friends want to share in the good fortune, too. Howell said he started receiving Facebook messages asking him jokingly for a loan before he even learned about Amazon’s wage hike.

He said the increase was explained in an all-hands meeting and the reaction among most workers was largely positive — including from people who don’t work at Amazon.

“That’s what my friends are telling me on Facebook, ‘I want to come back to Amazon now,’” he said.

Jeremy Tobías, 32, lives in San Marcos and is studying to become a registered nurse while working at the fulfillment center and doing odd jobs

He said that the increase in pay will bump up his current hourly wage of $13.65, but that would not stop him from supplementing his income.

“San Marcos is a college town, so it is very expensive for a one-bedroom apartment,” he said.

Tobías noted that some employees were frustrated that newly hired workers would not have to put in the months of work to get raises as they did, but he said he was not among them.

Asked what he thought about Bezos, who Forbes lists as the world’s richest person, Tobías said with a smile: “What can you say? He makes so much money.”