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Originally published Monday, July 23, 2012 at 6:06 PM

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Amazon offers tuition benefit aimed at lowest-paid employees

Amid criticism of its warehouse working conditions, the Seattle-based company says it will cover tuition costs for full-time, hourly employees with at least three years at Amazon.

Seattle Times business reporter

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As Amazon.com builds new distribution centers throughout the U.S., the Internet retailer wants its warehouse workers and even its customers to think of it as a generous employer.

In a message on Amazon's homepage Monday, Chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos said the company has created a program to send some of its lowest-paid workers back to school to learn new skills.

The announcement comes amid a rapid expansion of Amazon's global distribution network, which is to add at least 13 warehouses this year, bringing its total to more than 80. And Amazon soon will staff up for the holiday sales season, temporarily doubling its workforce needs.

What's more, the employee perk comes after newspapers including the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call and The Seattle Times detailed harsh conditions at Amazon's U.S. warehouses, leading labor activists to target the company with public protests.

Bezos said Amazon will prepay 95 percent of the cost of tuition, up to $2,000 annually, in fast-growing areas for full-time, hourly employees with at least three years' tenure. Eligible fields of study include aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine-tool technologies and nursing.

"The program is unusual," Bezos wrote. "Unlike traditional tuition-reimbursement programs, we exclusively fund education only in areas that are well-paying and in high demand according to sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and we fund those areas regardless of whether those skills are relevant to a career at Amazon."

Bezos acknowledged that while some warehouse employees hope to build their careers at Amazon, others see the jobs as a steppingstone toward something else. "We want to make it easier for employees to make that choice and pursue their aspirations," he added.

Bezos ended his letter with a reference to the sluggish economy, saying he hopes other companies copy the new tuition program.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement released by Amazon, praised the program as an innovative initiative that "offers a new and exciting way for corporate support of employee education."

Amazon, which will release quarterly financial results Thursday, reported 65,600 employees worldwide at the end of March, up from 37,900 a year earlier.

The company has been expanding its global distribution network to keep up with rapid growth in its business. But while Amazon often is hailed as a rare economic bright spot, it also has come under public scrutiny for working conditions in its warehouses.

An exposé in the Allentown Morning Call last September described summertime temperatures above 100 degrees at one local Amazon warehouse.

And this past spring The Seattle Times published a critical look at the company's handling of warehouse injuries and other issues as part of a four-day, front-page series on Amazon.

Bezos responded in May by announcing that the company would spend $52 million retrofitting its warehouses with air conditioning.

That sentiment carried over to Monday's letter, in which Bezos said that by focusing on productivity, Amazon was able to pay its distribution workers 30 percent more than what employees at traditional stores make.

Also, Amazon's attention to safety, he said, "has been so effective that it's statistically safer to work in an Amazon fulfillment center than in a traditional department store."

Analyst Scott Tilghman of Caris & Co. said Amazon mostly has "closed the loop" on the negative publicity it received over its warehouse conditions.

He sees the new tuition program less a reaction to what he calls bad public relations than an effort to ease concerns over its recent purchase of robotics company Kiva Systems, which provides warehouse-automation technology.

"As Amazon works to build out its distribution network, it clearly could be a concern to workers if they think they're going to be replaced by a robot," Tilghman said. "I think this is a way to help avoid those fears as they go through the hiring process."

In an email, Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako said only, "A long-term, engaged, positive workforce is critical to delivering the high level of customer service that people expect from us."

Working Washington, a worker-advocacy group critical of Amazon, said Monday's announcement marks another step in the right direction, along with the installation of air-conditioning at its warehouses.

"Amazon certainly hasn't solved every problem at their warehouses, but these are good steps — and yet another example of how peaceful persistent public pressure can make a difference for workers," the group said in a statement.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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