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Marketplace Morning Report
My Economy

My Economy: In Memphis, it all happens at night

Kai Ryssdal Dec 21, 2015
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We kicked off a series we’re calling “My Economy” last month. The idea is that while the presidential candidates are debating the financial state of things for the next year or so, we are taking to the streets see how things around the country really feel to you.

We started with a little research. We conducted our own Marketplace-Edison Research Poll to try and figure why there is such a big disparity between the continually improving economic indicators and the way Americans feel about their own financial situations.

We started in Tuscaloosa and Greenville, two neighboring towns in Alabama that are close enough to share the same statistics, but that each have vastly different economic situations when you look beyond the numbers.

Our next stop was Memphis, where seasonal employment is a big driver of the economy.

Employees arrive for work at the FedEx World Hub in Memphis. More than 10,000 workers sort packages here each night during the holiday season.

Employees arrive for work at the FedEx World Hub in Memphis. More than 10,000 workers sort packages here during the holiday season. (Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace)

 Here are two things that may surprise you:

1. The Memphis, Tennessee, airport is the busiest in the world after dark.

2. The reason the Memphis airport is the busiest after dark is because every FedEx package that is sent from or headed to someplace outside the United States goes through a sorting center there.

That sorting center is called the FedEx World Hub, and it feels more like a city than a facility, especially this time of year.

The World Hub can process up to a million packages a night during the holiday season.

The World Hub can process up to a million packages a night during the holiday season. (Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace)

  “There’s about 10,000 people that are going to be on the property tonight,” said Marcus Martinez, a managing director for FedEx Express, the subsidiary that serves as the airline for FedEx Corporation. “About 7,200 of those are package-interface front-line employees.”

That means there are more people sorting packages each night at the hub than work at all of the Urban Outfitters stores in the country.

And they need it. Martinez said that up to a million packages come through each night in the run-up to Christmas; 6,000 are sorted every two minutes.

FedEx World Hub employees work in a massive facility that processes up to 3,000 packages a minute.

FedEx World Hub employees work in a massive facility that processes up to 3,000 packages a minute. (Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace)

Most of the employees work overnight. Employees get benefits and healthcare, and there’s a tuition reimbursement incentive as well, but the jobs are predominately part time.

“It’s really fast-paced,” Camilla Johnson said. “We unload freight and we build up freight to go to the outbound, so it’s a lot of forklift driving and a lot of tug driving. It’s really fast-paced.

Camilla Johnson goes to school during the day and works over night sorting packages at the FedEx World Hub.

Camilla Johnson goes to school during the day and works over night sorting packages at the FedEx World Hub. (Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace)

Johnson is going to school to be a nurse, but overnight she works at the World Hub sorting packages. She said she has a routine down now, but it’s far from a typical one.

“I sleep for, like, two hours, get up and go to school, then I sleep another two hours and then I come to work,” she said.

Alisa Sanabria at the FedEx control tower in Memphis.

Alisa Sanabria at the FedEx control tower in Memphis.

She admitted it’s not so healthy, but she said she’s gotten used to it over time. “I get the hours I need to live, so I feel good,” she said. 

Robert Lee also works in the hub. He’s part-time as well, and this is his only job. He said it can be tough to make ends meet, and he’s basically living paycheck-to-paycheck.

“Like all Americans, it’s a struggle. But since I’ve gotten here it’s gotten better.”

Alisa Sanabria works in the FedEx Express control tower at Memphis airport. Before moving up to the tower 10 years ago, she spent another decade in the hub. Her job is full time, and she said she thinks things are on the upswing, at least for her family. She’s not sure how long she’ll work, but for the time being she must in order to keep up with the changes in her life – two kids born within two years and a bigger house with bigger house payments.

Many FedEx employees hit Bryant's Breakfast after their overnight shifts.

 Many FedEx employees hit Bryant’s Breakfast after their overnight shifts. (Bridget Bodnar/Marketplace)

FedEx Express is the world’s largest airline when it comes to freight flown and the world’s fourth-largest in fleet size. It flies to 375 destinations in nearly every country every day, and there are 12 of these hubs spread across the globe from Paris to Anchorage to Tokyo. Long story short, there’s a lot of logistics involved not just on the ground, but in the air as well.

“I want to say I love what I do, but at the same time home is calling,” Sanabria said. “They pay me enough, but more would be better,” she laughed.

A waitress at Bryant's Breakfast in Memphis.

A waitress at Bryant’s Breakfast in Memphis. 

Because of all the overnight workers nearby, the most important meal of the day is big business at Bryant’s Breakfast. The diner has been open more than 50 years, and has become a Memphis staple. Kerri Burton has been working there since she was 10 years old. Her father used to own it, and now she runs it with her brother. 

She said business is OK, but getting by is still hard.

“Everything is hard,” she said. “Making payments, everything. It’s not like it used to be when we were growing up. It’s a lot to worry about. I mean, I love it, but you go home with it every single day. It stresses me out.”

Burton said she’s found one fail-safe way to relax. “I just have a cocktail. A glass of red wine helps it every time. Probably a lot of people’s jobs do that, you know?”

The folks we spoke to in Memphis overall seemed to share two similar sentiments. They felt like they were really only getting by, but they were hopeful for the future; that if they work hard, they’re going to do all right.

Produced by Bridget Bodnar

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