More than 1,500 Columbia-area Amazon workers to see raises

The message Amazon workers got on their online scheduling portal this morning.
The message Amazon workers got on their online scheduling portal this morning. Trey Atkins

When Trey Atkins logged online Tuesday morning to check his shift information at the West Columbia Amazon plant, a cheerful message popped up: “Great news!”

His hourly wage was going up to $15, a $2.25 increase from what he makes now.

Atkins started at CAE3, a book and media processing plant at the local Amazon distribution center, about a year and a half ago, making $11.25 an hour.

Tuesday’s message surprised him, after plant workers had already been told the day before that everyone would see a 75-cent pay increase. And now this.

Though it’s only a couple of dollars more an hour, 23-year-old Atkins said it makes a difference.

“It adds up quite a bit. It adds a lot more wiggle room in my budget,” he said.

Amazon employs more than 1,500 full-time workers in West Columbia, and that’s before the holiday hiring spree has begun.

The online giant announced Tuesday it will increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour for all its U.S. workers, including full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal positions. The change will take effect next month and will be partnered with a push by Amazon’s public policy team to increase the federally mandated minimum wage, which sits at $7.25 an hour and has not increased since 2009.

South Carolina is one of the few states not to have its own minimum wage law. Instead, it adopts the federal minimum wage and, as such, has one of the lowest minimum wages in the country.

The move by Amazon was partly a result of pressure from other major retailers — such as Target and Walmart — announcing they would boost their workers’ wages, Atkins said.

S.C. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ted Pitts said Amazon’s decision was not as unexpected to him as it was to the workers who got pop-up messages this morning.

The announcement is “a sign of how the economy is doing well,” Pitts said.

With an unemployment rate under 4 percent and a “tightening” job market, raising wages is the natural next step, Pitts said.

“You’re seeing employers start to compete for a strong workforce,” he said.

This, in turn, creates more money that will pour into local businesses, said Robert Hartwig, an economist who teaches in the University of South Carolina finance department.

Higher wages will “help to increase local economic activity, as workers are feeling more confident in their own economic situation,” he said.

Amazon has faced criticism from activists and political pushback for its pay practices and warehouse worker conditions. The median pay for an Amazon employee last year was $28,446 worldwide, according to government filings.

“We listened to our critics, thought hard about what we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead,” Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement announcing the decision.

The wage hike also comes at a time Amazon needs to hire holiday workers amid the tightest job market in nearly two decades, making it more difficult to lure workers who have a lot more job choices than just a year ago. Amazon said it plans to hire more than 100,000 holiday workers, who will pack and ship boxes in its more than 100 warehouses around the country.

Pitts and other experts say the decision by Amazon reflects a national trend of employers sweetening the deal in order to attract a workforce that has staying power. The unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, near an 18-year low. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Labor Department showed that in August, the pace of hiring rose again and wages grew at their fastest pace in nine years.

There are now more available jobs than unemployed people, the first time that has happened in the 18 years that data on open jobs has been tracked.

As competition among companies for qualified workers grows more intense, they are increasingly willing to pay more wages.

”The economy is making the federal minimum wage less and less relevant, and there’s more competition for the workers that are there,” Hartwig said.

Associated Press reporters Joseph Pisani and Michelle Chapman contributed to this report.