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Amazon: Grand Forks facility allowing 100-plus employees to work from home

GRAND FORKS - Online retailer Amazon says its decision to move customer service employees out of their Grand Forks office will give those workers more flexibility to work from home, but it leaves questions about the future of the facilities Amazo...

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GRAND FORKS - Online retailer Amazon says its decision to move customer service employees out of their Grand Forks office will give those workers more flexibility to work from home, but it leaves questions about the future of the facilities Amazon rents from the city.

The Seattle-based company announced Tuesday it would offer its 100-plus customer service employees in Grand Forks the option to work from home through its Virtual Contact Center. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos cited that program in a 2014 letter to shareholders as its fastest growing "site" in the U.S. The company has expanded those virtual centers to more than 14 states, Amazon spokeswoman Ashley Robinson said Wednesday.

"This flexibility is ideal for many employees who, perhaps because they have young children or for another reason, either cannot or prefer not to work outside the home," Bezos wrote in April 2014.

Robinson said employees who decide to work from home would have the same roles and pay, and reiterated that the changes won't result in job losses.

"It truly is basically the same role just with the flexibility of working from home," she said.

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The more than 200 seller support employees Amazon has in Grand Forks will remain in the South 48th Street location. That team is looking to hire more than 50 people, Robinson said.

Employees who decide against the work-from-home option may choose to work in Grand Forks seller support or relocate to another Amazon site, Robinson said.

An internal document notes the company's Career Choice program, through which Amazon is offering up to $3,000 in tuition funds if employees choose to resign and attend school full-time. That program is also available to people while they're employed at Amazon.

Robinson called VCC "a really great tool that enables us to increase the team throughout the region." Asked whether Amazon expects the North Dakota customer service team to grow, she said they "certainly hope so."

The internal fact sheet notes the company will begin recruiting across the state for customer service associates.

"We are glad for the years that we've spent in Grand Forks with a physical location but at this time it makes business sense, particularly from a recruiting perspective, for us to shift to a VCC model in North Dakota," the fact sheet states. It also emphasizes that Amazon isn't changing pay or benefits but is "simply moving these roles to virtual positions."

The company is asking local employees to make a decision by March 18, according to the internal document, and it expects a to move to the VCC model by early April. Employees will be provided computers if they choose to work from home, according to the document.

Amazon opened its Grand Forks customer service center in 1999, making it the company's first such facility outside Washington state.

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The Amazon brand has become almost synonymous with the rise of online shopping. Launched in 1994 in Bezos' garage, the company shipped five billion items in 2014, 40 percent of them coming from third-party sellers.

The retailer operates out of two facilities owned by the Grand Forks Growth Fund, but it was unclear Wednesday how the employee changes would affect the city. Robinson said Tuesday Amazon is "still considering options on the building space."

The city leases 41,100 square feet in the Noah's Ark building and 28,787 square feet alongside Cirrus Aircraft to Amazon, Grand Forks Planning and Community Development Director Brad Gengler said.

In 2013, city officials approved extending Amazon's lease in the Noah's Ark building to 2021 to coincide with its lease in the Cirrus building, according to meeting minutes. The lease was to be secured by a guaranty from Amazon.

Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., said he was aware Amazon was "reassessing things," but "nothing had been confirmed" as of Tuesday. He plans to meet with company officials in the coming days to hear about the changes.

"It's not a closure in the classic sense," Thiessen said, adding the company has moved to a virtual model in other locations. "It's not Grand Forks-centric. I don't have a sense of how that's going in other spots, and hopefully they'll share that with us too."

Related Topics: AMAZON
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