Four days a week, Mahamed Elabe wakes up in the early afternoon and packs a lunch he’ll eat at midnight. Then he drives half an hour to his job on the night shift at an e-commerce warehouse east of Columbus, Ohio, where he picks, packs, and ships orders for people shopping at Lane Bryant’s and Ann Taylor’s online stores.
Eight years ago, Elabe, 54, was living in a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing violence in his native Somalia. Now Elabe, an observant Muslim who wears an ankle-length kameez tunic and an embroidered skullcap, says he, his wife, and their two teenage children live a life in America he describes as “easy.”
“Food’s easy, housing’s easy,” he said. “If you need a job, you get it,”
Warehouses, he says, are to thank.
In recent years, warehouse construction skyrocketed nationwide, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Columbus is one place that has played out: Seventy-five million square feet of warehouse space has been built there since 2012, on top of more than 233 million square feet already there. Another 12 million is being built, per the real-estate investment firm CBRE — the equivalent of 210 football fields. Thirty percent of new warehouses are leased before they’re completed.
For some, the boom has brought opportunity, allowing refugees like Elabe to climb the economic ladder. He earns $18.25 an hour, nearly twice Ohio’s minimum wage. Elabe’s wife also works in a warehouse, fulfilling orders from the Macy’s website. His family owns a car and rents a home north of Columbus. They send money to relatives.
But other residents say it has brought an industry to their doorstep that is doing more harm than good and costs more than it brings into the city.
In Columbus, as in other cities around the US, warehouse detractors point to the strain the industry places on public services and question the tax breaks that politicians gave developers. In places like California’s Inland Empire region and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, critics focus on traffic collisions, air pollution, and the nature of warehouse work itself.
The growing friction in Columbus offers a preview of what might play out in dozens of other cities where warehousing is on the rise — cities such as Savannah, Georgia; El Paso, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Richmond, Virginia; Indianapolis; Phoenix; and more.
This is what it looks like when warehouses come to town.
On a sticky July 4 afternoon, Clarissa Manirakiza looked sleek in a black satin shirt and jeans as she greeted people gathered in the shade of an aging apartment complex in northern Columbus.
With hip-length hair and understated makeup, Manirakiza, 25, has thought about modeling. For now, she works for the warehouses of Columbus.
Twice a day, a van shows up to ferry workers to a warehouse 10 miles south, where the landscape shifts from gleaming office towers and 150-year-old brick houses to flat farmland. The workers boarding the van are Somali, Rwandan, and Congolese. What binds them, despite different nationalities, immigration stories, and languages, are warehouse jobs.
Population growth is a point of pride for Columbus. It’s one of the relatively few cities in the Midwest that have grown over the past decade, and a steady influx of immigrants — an estimated 17% of them refugees in 2017, according to the New American Foundation — is one of the biggest drivers.
In Franklin County, which contains Columbus and the suburbs where warehouses are flourishing, 11% of the population was born outside the US, according to the US Census Bureau — higher than anywhere else in the state.
Somalis are the largest single nationality within Columbus’ refugee population, and they have become a core workforce for the warehouses — especially in the past two years as word about the work spread.
“In any one of those warehouses there are probably 30 languages being spoken,” said Jonathan Briggs, a logistics-industry veteran with 25 years of experience at UPS, FedEx, DHL, and now the warehouse-robotics company Nimble Robotics.
This influx of new citizens to Columbus also brought its own tensions.
A 2016 attack at Ohio State University by Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a Somali immigrant who was majoring in logistics management, brought attention to Columbus’ Somali community, including from an incendiary tweet by then-President-elect Donald Trump that Artan “should not have been in our country.”
In 2017, a white couple beat a Somali woman during a brawl at a Columbus apartment complex, with the Council On American-Islamic Relations asking that the attack be classified as a hate crime.
In the warehouses, these tensions play out in smaller, more frequent ways. Five years ago, it was much more common for refugees to be fired for what Ahmed Abukar, the director of workforce development at Jewish Family Services, and a Somali refugee himself, called “culture shocks.” Simple situations like taking five minutes to pray led to mass firings in the early days of the refugees’ warehouse influx — 18 workers said they were fired for this reason at a DHL-owned facility in 2013.
But while the first big wave of Somali immigrants arrived in Columbus decades ago, in 1998, the Somali community is now starting to become a political force. Two Somali-born candidates running for Ohio’s state house prevailed in the Democratic primaries. If they win in November, they would become the first Somali American members of the state legislature — and, by some accounts, the first to serve in any publicly elected position in Ohio.
Manirakiza trains workers from Somalia, Congo, Bhutan, and Rwanda to arrive on time, complete their work safely, and take direction from an iPhone-size device they wear on their wrist. Flashing lights, fast-moving machinery, and time pressure can sometimes be stressful for recent refugees.
Manirakiza spent three years in the massive Tongogara Refugee Camp in Zimbabwe with about 15,000 refugees from a dozen African countries. At 15, she made it to the US, and 10 years later she has found a similar jumble of cultures in northern Columbus.
She speaks six languages, and she moved to Columbus to start a job assisting refugee warehouse workers. Before she began working with refugees, she wanted to better understand warehouses, so she worked for two weeks at a Target warehouse in Columbus. Then a recent college graduate, a rarity in her community, Manirakiza recalls challenging time pressure during those two weeks.
Columbus has a much higher share of e-commerce-only warehouses than the national average, and jobs at warehouses dedicated to fulfilling orders for online retailers come with strict productivity goals. Some companies use a countdown clock on a screen that starts over whenever it’s time to pack a new order. In the Target warehouse packing e-commerce orders, Manirakiza had a quota measured by the minute.
Manirakiza now trains more than 200 warehouse workers for the healthcare distributor AmerisourceBergen, which ships prescription drugs and medical supplies to hospitals and doctor’s offices all over the US from the farmland of Lockbourne, Ohio, southeast of Columbus.
But even while Manirakiza has warehouses to thank for her job, and enjoys working with younger Congolese and Rwandan refugees, she still hopes helping them be successful will let them think outside the warehouse.
“That’s all they see around them is marriage, warehouse, marriage, warehouses,” she said. “Life is not only that.”
Inside the worker locker room at AmerisourceBergen, management put up a bright blue map of the world covered in stickers representing the workers’ birthplaces — one of the many recent gestures designed to welcome refugees.
After losing workers to a 50-cent raise down the street, the AmerisourceBergen director of operations Frank DiCenso, 54, became desperate for warehouse workers who would stick around.
With the help of the nonprofit Jewish Family Services, he realized the time and money to adjust the training, schedules, and workplace culture to the needs of refugees would save him effort in the long run. A dozen flags in the hallways and prayer rooms in the office bullpen followed.
“If you provide them a welcoming culture and opportunity to be successful, they will stay with us forever,” he said.
Competition among warehouses for workers changed the possibilities for the refugees.
Ten years ago, recently arrived refugees might be paid minimum wage cleaning hotels. In the past year, JFS Columbus placed 385 refugees in jobs at an average wage of $16.80 an hour. AmerisourceBergen starts at $18 with incentives up to $20.79. The average wage for nonsupervisory warehouse work in Columbus, according to CBRE, is $15.26, which is 2.3% higher than the national average.
At a minimum wage of $9.30 an hour, refugees worked two or three jobs to get by. Now households with two incomes in the range of $20 an hour are on a different trajectory, with many warehouse employers offering healthcare and retirement packages.
“That’s a gross income of $80,000 to $90,000 a year,” Abukar, the JFS director of workforce development, said. “And that will definitely help them achieve their economic self-sufficiency.”
Warehouse wages mean refugees have started to move out of apartment complexes and into small single-family homes. Some refugees, like Manirakiza, have moved into leadership positions. Others save up enough to buy a truck and start driving long hauls or open their own businesses.
What can be a life-changing opportunity for new Columbus residents is more complicated for longtime ones. Warehouses are now weaved into many aspects of their lives.
On the Fourth of July, crowds gathered in warehouse parking to watch fireworks erupt over a block of warehouses nestled behind the historic downtown of Groveport, Ohio. The smell of diesel exhaust hangs in the air as container trucks rumble down two-lane country roads with no shoulder. Construction on new warehouses kicks up so much dust that it can be hard to sit outside, some residents say.
Janet Anderson, 69, has lived in southern Columbus for close to two decades, where she rents a modest ranch house in a subdivision that formerly housed Air Force officers.
The neighborhood has changed markedly in the 18 years she’s lived there, Anderson said. Once she was surrounded by farmland. Now she’s in the middle of a warehouse district.
For the past year, she’s watched from her bedroom window as a cold-storage warehouse went up roughly 12 yards from her home. The construction noise kept her daughter, who works night shifts at the nearby Kroger warehouse, awake all day, Anderson said.
It’s so common for semitrucks to take wrong turns into the neighborhood that landlords installed signs at the entrance to the subdivision warning trucks to stay out.
“It’s been five straight years of semis coming through,” Anderson said. Once the new warehouse across the street comes online, she only expects the problem to get worse.
Others voice more nebulous concerns about warehouses — and their diverse employee populations — emerging as hotbeds for crime.
“I know you don’t want to hear that, but it does bring crime,” one resident of a wealthy Columbus suburb, Canal Winchester, told city officials at a contentious public meeting earlier this year over whether to allow additional warehouse construction. “So let’s throw some more warehouses so that people from Columbus come in and start ripping people off of their cars, breaking in, you know, doing whatever.”
As Columbus’ warehouse development begins encroaching into residential areas, a consensus is gathering here — as it has elsewhere — that warehouses make for poor neighbors.
Nationwide, issues like traffic collisions, air pollution, and flooding have galvanized residents to push back against warehouse development, which tends to take place in poorer communities and ones with disproportionately high numbers of people of color.
From Brown Grove, Virginia, to Amazon’s headquarters of Seattle, residents have protested that new warehouses will lead to more, and more severe, roadway collisions. In California’s warehouse-choked Inland Empire, activists have pointed to data showing that people living within half a mile of warehouses have higher rates of asthma.
In New Jersey, community groups notched a rare victory this year when plans were scrapped for a proposed Amazon freight air hub at Newark Liberty International Airport.
In some wealthier communities, like Redlands, California, and Bloomingdale, Georgia, pressure from residents opposed to warehouse construction has grown so sharp that local governments have placed temporary moratoriums on new warehouse development.
Opposition is particularly intense in California, said Robert Fordi, the CEO of Realterm, which specializes in logistics real estate.
He said it had become “impossible” to get a permit to build in California. “And that story is one that’s happening everywhere,” he said. “People don’t want that in their communities. The conundrum here is that they need it in their communities because they have demand for delivery.”
In Columbus, opposition to warehouse development is just beginning.
For the first time since he was elected four years ago, Rob Dorans, 36, a Democratic city-council member who is the chair of the city’s zoning committee, said residents at community meetings had begun to voice concerns about new warehouses.
While sipping a craft beer at a brewery in a vibrant central Columbus neighborhood, Dorans said he had an enthusiasm for creating jobs for immigrants that aligned with his second job as an attorney for progressive groups.
But as a lifelong Columbus resident, he also understands anxieties about the city’s changing landscape.
“You have to be in someone’s backyard for NIMBY to happen,” Dorans said. “We’re now in people’s backyards.”
In Canal Winchester, a town on Columbus’ southeastern border, residents have formed a group opposing new warehouse development, which they say is leading to “the destruction of our town.” The group’s Facebook page, “CW For SMART Growth – No More Warehouses!” has nearly 900 members.
The group’s leader, Angie Halstead, said warehouse developers “prey” on smaller towns like hers. Warehouses “aren’t the development we want,” she said, adding that the jobs were low-paying and the warehouses themselves were “eyesores.”
This spring, Halstead gathered 600 signatures to put an initiative on a November ballot asking voters to stop warehouse development on a 70-acre parcel in the town. If the development proceeds, Halstead predicted, “10 years from now, Canal Winchester is going to be a run-down town.”
For some in southern Columbus, the 5,400-person village of Obetz is a cautionary tale. Obetz, a 15-minute drive west of Canal Winchester, is brimming with warehouses.
Across the US, tax breaks are readily available for any project bringing jobs. Amid the warehouse gold rush, developers use cities’ desire for jobs to rake in tax incentives and deferments.
In the past five years, cities in the Columbus metro area have paid $22,595 for every warehouse job created, according to CBRE, citing Wavteq data.
Obetz has doled out almost $53 million in tax breaks in the past five years — almost all of them going to warehouses, county tax records show.
But while Obetz’s warehouses get breaks on local taxes, they’re using tax-funded services, paid for by residents in the form of additional property taxes, income taxes, and sales taxes.
More than a quarter of the traffic accidents investigated by the Obetz police in 2022 have involved semi and box trucks, according to a review of traffic accidents collected by the state. Fatalities on a road shuttling warehouse traffic out of Obetz are six times the metro average.
And while most large warehouses around Columbus infrequently call on emergency and law-enforcement services, county 911 logs show some have placed hundreds of service calls.
In the past 18 months, emergency responders and law enforcement have been dispatched to a single Amazon warehouse in Obetz 118 times.
First responders went to the Amazon warehouse as often as three times a week for medical emergencies. Other times, Amazon said it called law enforcement to help with “belligerent” employees or to serve as backup during firings.
That warehouse will receive a $1.3 million annual discount on its property taxes until 2031 — money that would fund local services like the police department.
So far, Columbus residents have found it nearly impossible to slow warehouse growth. Even local officials say they feel powerless in the face of untrammeled warehouse development.
Near Obetz, the area commissioner Bruce Miller, 53, fought a warehouse development that had generated concerns among residents about flooding and overburdened emergency services. The area commission voted the project down, but the city of Columbus chose to proceed in spite of opposition from residents and the local board. Miller said the experience left him jaded about the prospect of slowing warehouse development.
“The city is going to do what it wants,” he said.
In Canal Winchester, Halstead’s efforts to put the question of warehouse development before voters were stymied. The town council bypassed her group’s referendum by declaring a state of emergency to approve the warehouse development.
A Canal Winchester council member, Ashley Ward, quit in protest that same week. She told Insider the council’s decision to override the referendum equated to “taking democratic rights away from our residents” to allow for warehouse construction.
But the end result was practically inevitable. If Canal Winchester denied the zoning request, the parcel could be annexed into the city of Columbus, the property owner’s attorney told the town council earlier this year. The town could lose out on millions in income-tax revenue for services like schools and even more when the property-tax exemptions expire in 15 years — and the building would go up anyway, the councilmember Patrick Shea said in a March meeting.
Dorans, the councilor, has never voted against a warehouse development or declined tax breaks to developers that ask for them.
He points to the fact that in return for tax breaks, warehouses pledge to pay workers at least $15 an hour — though as a third-generation union member, he’d like to see that go up.
At the same time, he acknowledges the sense that developers are playing Columbus and its surrounding townships off one another.
“If we don’t give these tax incentives, suburbs to the south — that don’t have jobs requirements, that don’t have wage requirements — will,” Dorans said.
There aren’t clear lines between the winners and losers of Columbus’ warehouse boom.
You might expect Betty Minshell, 83, to hate the three new warehouses that are going up across the street from the three-bedroom ranch house where she’s lived for nearly two decades. But as warehousing took off, Minshell sensed opportunity.
She transformed her spare rooms into a boarding house for warehouse workers, who usually stay for one or two months and walk to work. “I like having people around to talk to,” she said. And the rent they pay helps cover Minshell’s health costs.
And while warehouses have put the American dream within reach for many refugees, it’s an industry known for churning through workers.
Statewide, about 10% of warehouse workers leave their jobs every quarter, according to Ohio’s Office of Workforce Development. In the two counties immediately bordering Columbus, where Amazon employs roughly half the warehouse workforce, turnover is double that, the state agency reported last year.
And the holiday season magnifies the issue even more. Amazon has said 60% of its seasonal hires will leave the company when the holiday season is over.
Even warehousing’s biggest boosters in Columbus say they’re frustrated by how often workers cycle in and out of the jobs, a dynamic that’s exacerbated in immigrant communities that have trouble communicating with their employers.
“There are people who have been here 20 years and haven’t been able to get a full-time job. It’s not sustainable,” said Hassan Omar, the president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio. “We need retention. We need people to keep their jobs.”
On another humid July day, about 20 refugees from Congo, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Somalia gathered at the Somali Community Association’s office in a strip mall in a largely immigrant neighborhood north of Columbus to apply for jobs at a Gap warehouse.
Many told Insider they were there to apply for their second, third, or fourth warehouse-industry job after transportation to the Columbus area’s far-flung warehouse districts had fallen through, shifts changed, or they needed more English-language support than the workplace offered.
Cultural tensions between immigrant employees and their bosses and coworkers continue to plague warehouse work, said Omar, the Somali Community Association’s president.
“I get emails from warehouses all the time: ‘We need you guys. We’re looking for employees. Can you help us?'” Omar said. “We’d like the warehouses to learn more about the immigrant communities. Some companies are starting to set out space to pray, but immigrant employees still face discrimination in injury reporting and other parts of their jobs.”
Nevertheless, the workers were back, ready and willing for another round in Columbus’ warehouses — which were ready and willing to hire them.
Mahamed Elabe, who credits warehouse work for his family’s middle-class lifestyle, said he was unable to walk for months after a forklift struck one of his ankles at a JCPenney warehouse. The company’s health insurance covered his medical treatment, but he was out of work for a year, Elabe said.
After recovering, he again sought work in warehousing.
“Where else,” he asked, “am I going to make this much money?”
Correction: October 19, 2022 — An earlier version of this story misattributed a statistic about Amazon’s seasonal churn to a JobsOhio report. That reference has been removed.
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