The Last Mile 

When the Internet grocer Webvan opened a distribution center in East Oakland, it seemed that some of the area's e-commerce riches were beginning to trickle down to street level. Now, employees wonder if the salad days are over.

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But after the first year of operations, the optimism began to evaporate. "These guys reel you in real good," agrees former deli worker Sawyer. "They give you a lot of false promises, and they matched the pay I was making and assured me there was so much opportunity there for African Americans, and it was a growing company. My benefits started the day I was hired, they gave me 600 shares of stock, the breakrooms were catered with breakfast and lunch. I didn't need to bring anything but a few quarters for soda or water. Then they slowly but surely began to take it all away from us."

Valentine, Sawyer, and a host of other former Oakland DC employees--most of them laid off early this year when Webvan engineered a cost-cutting switch from freshly cut to prepackaged meats--tell of a slow decline in working conditions. Some of the more common complaints include being required to work through lunch and without breaks, frequent changes in procedures and scheduling, stressful overtime shifts especially around holidays, the lack of a redress system for grievances, the company's switch to a new medical plan with higher premiums, concerns about top-heavy management, and the fact that their stock options were now nearly worthless. While some of these are gripes you would expect to hear from any recently laid-off employees, in the case of Webvan a few startling claims rise to the top.

Many say, for example, that the state-of-the-art DC was designed for the needs of groceries, not people--the shop is kept cold to minimize bacteria, but some felt it was too cold for workers. "In the deli it was sometimes twenty, thirty degrees and sometimes your hands and feet get numb--it's like pins sticking you in the hands," says former deli worker Anthony Stripling. "But a lot of us needed the money so we just sucked it up." The work could also be physically demanding; Valentine developed both tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome after working long overtime shifts during the last Christmas season--one day at work his hands swelled up so dramatically that his wife had to come in and cut his wedding band off his finger. He has since had surgery on both hands.

Because many employees worked odd hours and the DC was so far from restaurants, Webvan had initially fed its workers at mealtime. "They had food galore in the beginning; that was a total perk," says former customer-service representative Terry Machado, who was terminated when Webvan closed its Oakland call center in April. "They had catered lunches from the DC, any junk food, Rice Krispies treats, cookies, soda, coffee, and you could eat all day long. It was hard to go to lunch anyplace else and it was good that people could keep drinking caffeine. They cut out the food a couple of months before they closed the call center, so we knew they were cutting things."

The cessation of free meals went over like a ton of bricks with employees. Worse, some of them say that the cost-cutting extended to the products that were being sent out to customers. Sawyer says that once Webvan started using prepackaged meats instead of cutting meat themselves, the quality went down. "People would open [prepackaged seafood] up and it smelled like all hell, like someone had died in the place," he says. "They were sending out bad product--blue, green meat, dark meat with blood in the trays." And, he adds, "When they ran out of product, they were substituting stuff people didn't want. If you wanted hot dogs, they would give you New York sausage, and they were doing this with other meats just to make the sale. Everything to keep from shorting the product." That included substituting chemically processed meats for organic, he says.

If you ask these former employees why Webvan is in its current dire straits, they're unanimous on one point: too much waste. One of Webvan's most frequent customer complaints revolves around missed delivery times, and because of that, many totes returned to the warehouse every day untouched. Then the food seemed to simply disappear. "Even though it stayed under refrigeration, the stuff that went out and came back, we never saw it again in my department. We never used anything twice," muses Sawyer. "Other grocery stores do that--if you put a steak out and it doesn't sell, you rewrap it and sell it the next day, but these guys never did that. Where did all those thousands of dollars go? We just kept opening new boxes."

Valentine, who was in charge of tracking the out-of-code products that went either to food banks or the trash, says he felt that Webvan was overordering then throwing out or giving away perfectly good food that they couldn't sell. "It almost seemed as if Webvan was purposely self-destructing," he says. "If they're ordering a hundred bananas and we're only selling fifty, if we're not selling game hens but they continue to order them, and we're throwing away half a ton [of merchandise] every week, and they continue those type of actions, we felt as a group of individuals that the powers that be were deliberately creating their own demise."


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