Workers pack and ship customer orders at the 750,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center on August 1, 2017 in Romeoville, Illinois. (Getty/Scott Olson)

"Nickel and Dimed" for the Amazon age: Inside the hellish new reality of low-wage work

Salon talks to the author of a new book about the low-paying jobs technology has ruined — for the workers, that is


Erin Keane
July 16, 2019 9:00PM (UTC)

In 2001, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's investigative book "Nickel and Dimed" revealed to those who weren't on low-wage payrolls how expensive it is to be a member of the working poor in America. Some things haven't changed since Ehrenreich's experiences working as a Walmart clerk, a restaurant server and a maid, among other jobs. Housing can still be prohibitively expensive on low hourly wages, and high turnover remains a constant. Workers still risk their health — mental, physical and emotional — every precarious day.

But a lot has also changed, as journalist Emily Guendelsberger found when she went quasi-undercover in three so-called unskilled labor positions — as a temp warehouse "picker" in a Southern Indiana Amazon "fulfillment center," a register clerk at a downtown San Francisco McDonald's, and a call center rep fielding customer complaints for a third-party employer in rural North Carolina — for her new book, "On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane." There she found that the technologies that have made companies so good at selling Americans stuff have also made the job of fulfilling those orders and responding to consumer complaints incredibly difficult on the people with the least amount of power in the entire equation, taking a toll that even higher minimum wages can't offset. 

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Algorithms keep workers isolated from one another and workplaces staffed on a razor-thin margin of erratic individual schedules, which create pressurized conditions that allow no wiggle room for human response. Across the jobs Guendelsberger worked, often the only true decision workers are allowed to make is how much faster they can push themselves to execute the next task that beeps up on their screen. Strict security protocols over what employees can bring inside the building (antibiotic wipes provided by the call center company, with its no-paper rule, turn out to be a necessity after one woman reveals she contracted MRSA at work) and Orwellian time tracking, with an attendant obsession with "time theft," cast employees as would-be criminals in the eyes of the corporation instead of valued associates. By the time Guendelsberger, a Philadelphia resident when she's not embedded, invokes the Panopticon design of the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, it's a metaphor well-earned. 

Journalism may be a precarious industry at the moment — Guendelsberger began her project after her newspaper in Philadelphia closed down — but most working conditions are still luxurious compared to the super-strict, surveillance-forward practices governing places like Amazon warehouses, where workers are tracked and timed closely, including bathroom breaks, and vending machines are stocked with over the counter pain relief that the company knows its workers need to get through a shift. Throughout the book, Guendelsberger reminds herself of her luck — she knows her time on each of these jobs is limited by the parameters she sets for herself, and unlike most of her co-workers, she doesn't have kids to take care of when she's not at work. "I get to leave" becomes a mantra of sorts to get her through the day. 

UPDATE: A spokesperson from Amazon sent Salon the following statement: "For someone who only worked at Amazon for approximately 11 days, Emily Guendelsberger’s statements are not an accurate portrayal of working in our buildings. We are proud of our safe workplaces and her allegations are demeaning to our passionate employees, whose pride and commitment are what make the Amazon customer experience great. We encourage anyone to come see for themselves what it’s like to work at the Amazon fulfillment center she worked at by taking a free, public tour of the site. Learn more at amazon.com/fctours.” 

I spoke with Guendelsberger on the phone recently about her experiences at these workplaces, why corporations are more like sharks than people, and a new rubric for who is elite in America.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

The clear antecedent to your book is Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed." Can you talk a little bit about what has changed about low-wage work since that book came out?

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"Nickel and Dimed" came out [in] 2001. It was the year that I had my first job, I was working at an ice cream [chain] called Friendly's.

That summer I was clocking in with a paper timecard. The manager would sit in the back booths and draw out the schedule by hand, that sort of thing. The cash register wasn't hooked up to anything, it was just a cash register.

When you think about that, and you think about what sort of technology was available in 2000, 2001 — I don't think I even had a cell phone yet. I think some other high schoolers might have, but I didn't. The cell phone that I eventually got was a little Nokia brick, you know what I'm talking about?

So, when you think about the jump in technology between [then] and what we have today — iPhones and Tinder, that sort of thing — the jump in the amount of control that employers are able to exert over their employees using monitoring technologies [since then] is similar in scope.

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And so yeah, a lot of these jobs today, the ones that I described particularly — an Amazon warehouse, and a big call center, and a McDonald's — it's just that there's so much less slack. There's kind of no down time, ever, because employees have really lost control of pretty much everything about work. The pace that it goes is generally not up to them, because in all of these [jobs], the instant you finish one task, another task will jump onto your radar.

At Amazon, you were scanning things with a scanner, and when you finished one, the next task would pop onto your screen — and a countdown, second by second it would start taking down the number of seconds that you had left to do that task. It did that in a chain, all day long, for an eleven-and-a-half-hour shift.

At the call center, you did not have control over when the next call was going to come in. There was no way of pushing pause. The only way to stop the calls was to log out of the phones entirely, which was super not allowed. I'm not sure exactly whether they were trying to scare us or whether this was real, but at one point, my supervisor called us into the back to yell at us about completely logging out of the phones. Which, again, is the only way that you can stop a new call from coming in — when you have to finish something, or if you're very upset because somebody just screamed at you, or you had to use the bathroom, or anything. So she told us that they would adjust our timecard to reflect that we weren't logged in, which is bizarre.

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And then at McDonald's — you've had a job where you've had customer service, direct, face-to-face, and there's a line, right? You just keep going as fast as you possibly can, and taking the next person in line because they're right there. They're looking at you, they're stepping up automatically. And if you don't, the line's going to get angry at you — the general hive mind of the line will get very angry, and will seem very unpleasant for you all day.

It's really hard sometimes to communicate how different that feels from when I did service work as a teenager and in my 20s. There was just no slack in these modern jobs, and that is incredibly exhausting.

There's so many words we have in the English language for agony: excruciating, that sort of thing. There's a lot of synonyms. But boredom is really hard. Boredom, and monotony, and the feeling of being constantly rushed, and constantly having someone or some computer looking over your shoulder with a stopwatch, it is kind of difficult to express how hard that makes life, and how stressful that is.

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At my reporting jobs I've always been able to get up and go walk around the block if I need to clear my head. I was able to go get coffee with my coworkers without having to ask somebody. And it makes such a big difference, you know, being able to go to the bathroom when you want to, and not having anyone keeping an eye on the time that you spend in the bathroom. There's this inherent dignity.

But I felt that they treat you like naughty children sometimes at these jobs. They expect that you're going to be irresponsible, and lazy, and the worst, and you're going to take advantage of every ounce of slack that you're given to waste time. It's a very stressful environment to work in, and it didn't used to be like that. I think people don't realize that.

There's a lot of energy devoted to the question of who is speaking to "the elites" and who is speaking to the "non-elites" and what does "elite" even mean. But in really stark terms, could you break it down in America these days between people whose bathroom breaks are timed and rationed out, and those who aren't?

Yeah, it's a decent dividing line. Can you go to the bathroom without asking?

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And do you stress if you need to take two extra minutes in the bathroom or not? To me, it strikes me as such a clear, bright dividing line for adult human beings, to feel like they have some measure of bodily autonomy.

The word "dignity" jumps out at me. Even a stable, well-paying job can be bereft of dignity if it's built around an algorithmic structure that ensures that the workers never get to make their own decisions.

When I was a reporter, it was as if I was a horse in a pasture with a fence around it. But I had enough room to run around, and sort of do what I wanted as long as I finished my work and did a good job. I remember my service jobs [when I was younger] as being a much, much smaller pasture — I couldn't really get a run on or anything, but I had room to walk around.

I definitely felt at [the jobs in the book], the amount of control that the employer had over every second of my day was more like somebody had put a belt around my waist, and just cinched it so tight that I could barely breathe. It's exhausting, and again, I don't think people who haven't worked one of these jobs in the past 10 years, maybe, really [gets that], and I think that probably encompasses most of the ruling class of America.

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I've been very surprised at how many people who hold forth on dignity and work, and how work is the only way to find true self respect and dignity, have never had a service job. They've never had a job where they're forced to smile, and suck up their dignity.

Can you talk a little bit about your "in the weeds" metaphor? You draw it as a central throughline in the book — how it means something different depending on what your professional background is, and then how it manifested itself through the work that you did in these projects.

When I was a kid, the first definition of "in the weeds" that I learned was from waitresses. It meant that you were constantly swamped with work — so much work that you were just barely keeping your head above water. And that you were in a constant rush with no downtime.

At my first newspaper job, somebody asked me if I could do something and I said, "No, I can't because I'm in the weeds." They were like, "What?" Because in the academic world, "in the weeds" tends to mean totally bogged down in the details of something. Like way, way, way too stuck in the details to think about the larger picture.

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So there are these two completely different definitions. And the book is, frankly, written for people with the academic definition, the people that haven't worked a service job or that definitely haven't worked one recently. It's to clue those people in that there is a very big disconnect, even to the point of the exact same phrase meaning different things.

I found that whichever definition a person knows, they aren't usually aware of the other definition, which I find very interesting. That is such a perfect metaphor for the way that not only do people with better jobs not realize exactly how bad it's gotten in the service industry and these low-wage jobs, but the people in the service industry now, a lot of them haven't ever experienced a job that isn't like that.

It's the people along with the waitress definition who think that the academics are working much harder than they are to make much more money than them, whereas the people with the academic definition tend to think that the waitresses are not working very hard, they're just flipping burgers, or doing something easy.

My purpose in this book was to try to bridge the gap both ways, but mainly for the people with the academic definition. Because the people in power in this country, the people who are actually able to affect these things, affect the conditions of low-wage workers, usually are pretty clueless about what the actual experience is.

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One thing that you hear often, even in just the rhetorical opposition to, say, raising the minimum wage to $15 or what have you an hour, is this idea that people who work at McDonald's shouldn't be making that much money, because the work doesn't take that much skill. Leaving aside the issues of inequality and inflation and injustice, what are people who haven't worked in fast food in the last 10 years missing about the nature of that work now?

Oh, God. Okay, so McDonald's in particular is an interesting example. When they started out, McDonalds' workplace model was like a Ford factory, like an assembly line. They had three food items. They had a hamburger, they had a cheeseburger, and they had fries. One size. So, the teenagers that would be working — and at the time they were mostly teenagers — there were no special orders. Everything was the same, all you had to do was assemble the same burger over and over and over, and you would give the person the wrapped burger when they got there.

At some point in the '80s, Burger King tried to break into McDonalds' control over the fast food market with "have it your way." They would make a lot of effort to give you your special order. McDonald's, when they started losing market share, they were like, "Whoa, whoa, we got to do that too." But they never changed the idea: "Oh, yeah, this assembly-line thing is still how we're going to do it, but you also have to make exceptions constantly."

It puts people in a very impossible situation: You have to be able to hand over the food immediately, but you also have to take everybody's special orders, and take all of these requests, and the customer is always right. You can do one or the other without a horrible amount of cognitive dissonance for workers, but trying to do both at once is extremely difficult.

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One of the things that really surprised me about fast food work in particular is how people throw food at you.

In the call center chapter, at some point in the orientation, my trainer asked who in our class of 20 had worked fast food before, and almost everybody in the class put up their hand. We were talking about whether people were going to be mean to us on the phone, and how to deal with that. So she was like, "All right, who's worked fast food?" Everybody puts their hands up. "And how many people have had somebody in fast food, some customer get up in your face, screaming at you, throwing stuff at you?" Everybody kept their hand up. It was just bizarre. I was like, "Wait, people throw food at you? Are you kidding me?"

People do throw food at you [and] you are expected to put up with it. When I did work at McDonald's, when I got food thrown at me, coworkers wanted to talk to me about it afterwards, because I lost my temper and screamed at the customer. I think I made a spectacle of myself, so people would ask me about it for the next few days.

And yeah, everybody I talked to had something thrown at them, multiple things. I was definitely the weirdo for that being the first time that had ever happened to me. Sucking up that level of disrespect and humiliation constantly, it makes you paranoid about all the customers, because any customer could be a crazy person. And it also just wears on your soul, having to constantly be submissive to horrible, very awful people.

The worker experience is different even within food service. I think about friends of mine who own a restaurant, they would not let somebody treat their staff like that. But at McDonald's, where is corporate? You guys are at the mercy of policies made by people who are not necessarily there, on the front line.

They don't realize what it's like to experience that, and to have that happen multiple times, and have that be your life. I got written up by my manager for losing my temper at the woman who hit me with some honey mustard, and got it all over my shirt and my hair. Frankly, I said, "F**k you, what the f**k?" at the top of my lungs.

That was in San Francisco, and San Francisco's homeless population is very, very loud, and very active. You see people just wandering around screaming at the sky. It's not that weird in San Francisco to see someone screaming about something. People won't even really look. But as a counter person at McDonald's,  people really stared, because it was sort of as if the cash register had screamed.

When you're working at McDonald's, it's almost as if you're an object. You're not a real person, you're just sort of an interface. People kind of treat you like that, like you're not quite human.

A lot of people are obviously wonderful, and I had many wonderful customers that I liked a lot. But a lot of people won't make eye contact, won't get off their phone, won't take their headphones off. I don't know, it's pretty dehumanizing, frankly.

You worked at a McDonald's in San Francisco, and your book points this out, that you have higher hourly wages than in other places, because of local laws, and slightly better worker protections as well. But the job was still hell, kind of, right? Nobody has decided to make it a priority to attack the practice of using algorithms to schedule staffing so mega-efficiently that the staff is never out of the weeds.

Well that's the thing, companies are never going to decide that. They are never going to do that on their own.

I get into a lot of evolutionary biology in the book. All of these things that allowed us to band together in groups for survival, and not to go off on our own the first time there was a disagreement with somebody, all of our emotions are developed to help us all live together. Corporations do not have any of those things. Even though they are made of humans, they're like a shark. They have no reason to evolve feelings, or empathy, or sympathy, or loyalty, anything like that. Once [a corporation] gets beyond a certain size, and you have to prioritize the return on investment to shareholders, it becomes a creature that's much more like a shark than a human being. And of course it's not going to act against its interests, like a shark wouldn't.

They're just going to be floating along, on this mission to get bigger and devour other companies. It's not evil, but we need to recognize that that is what they are, and put some serious shark cages around humans so that we aren't subject to these things.

We do this all the time. There's a reason that we outlawed child labor, there's a reason that we have Social Security. We don't want to live in a world where poor parents have to send their kids to work instead of school, and we don't want to live in a world where old people starve on the street if they don't have family and they can't work.

Well, some of us don't.

And we are never going to get there by waiting for sharks to feel bad about being sharks. We have to take action. I found that a lot of the people that I was working with, these people in low-wage jobs, whenever I would talk to them about politics, the answer was generally, "They're all crooks."

In my standpoint, everyone was just so disgusted with how ridiculous and out of touch the American political system had become. Both parties.

They weren't voting. Poor people in America kind of don't vote, and that's partially because it's really hard to do that when you have a schedule like a lot of these people do, and you're not allowed to take off work to go vote. But it's also disgust and despair, because they haven't really  gotten anything that actually affects their lives in a really long time, not something that they can see.

They got Obamacare, but if you actually use Obamacare, as somebody on a low-wage job, it's not that great. It's better than nothing probably, but . . . people still do not see that as a good thing.

And then when you add to that having to take unpaid time off to go to the doctor and having a point system attached to unpaid time off . . .  you could get fired for taking too much unpaid time off.

Yeah, exactly. That's another thing about the discrepancy between the two understandings of in the weeds. If I were interviewing for a job at a newspaper, and somebody told me, "Oh, you can take this amount of time off without pay and we won't fire you, but after that? We might fire you." Nobody from a white-collar background would except that.

Again, I'm trying to first bridge the gap, not just so that the people in power can understand how bad things have gone, but so people like my coworkers, I really wanted to get them to understand that they deserve more, and that other people do have more.

You know what I mean? I want the bridge to go both ways.

Right. Class divides remain pretty stark.

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Minnesota are striking on Prime Day this year.

And the Bloomberg article on the strike characterized it as "a sign that labor unrest persists even after the company committed to paying all employees at least $15 an hour last year." 

"Even after": To me this suggests sympathy for the issues facing warehouse workers largely stops at the hourly-wage level, that that's about as far as the professional class has gotten. Whereas workers are quoted as saying the company has failed to meet demands like converting more temps to permanent employees, and permanently easing productivity quotas which they say make their jobs unsafe and insecure.

I feel like that is the part that is really not as widely understood. Partly I assume because Amazon is secretive, you know, they don't just let reporters like you roam the floor taking notes. Normally.

Yeah, I recently went on a tour, and I actually have a question for you. This is my informal poll: Have you been getting a lot of social media ads for touring Amazon warehouses?

No. Weird.

Yeah, no, it's funny. A lot of my coworkers in Philadelphia in journalism have been getting these ads. I've been getting these ads on Twitter and Facebook like, "Go tour the Amazon warehouse, see how great it is."

So we went on this tour of a much newer [Amazon warehouse]. SDF8, the warehouse I worked, in was built in 2014, I believe. So it was pretty new when I was working at it [in late 2015]. They've since incorporated a lot of robots, and made picking into this stationary job where the robots will pick up the stuff and then bring it to you. They still need human eyes and fingers to pick out the objects out of the drawer full of whatever.

And of course it was a very friendly, very happy sort of jovial tour, and the tour guide was very nice. But then when the person I was with went to talk to workers, they were doing it with the PR rep lingering right over their shoulder in the conversation.

The reason that I did this first-person is that I don't trust people not to have an agenda, if they know I'm a reporter, I guess. All the dialogues in the book are re-creations of conversations that I had, or conversations that were done with consent and taped with coworkers. I wanted to make sure that people weren't exaggerating things, because I was a reporter. That this was just the normal amount of griping, of just talking to a coworker about how bullshit this was.

It's the same thing with touring an Amazon warehouse. Of course you're not going to get anything real out of that. You'll get to see what it looks like, for sure, but you're not going to get anything on it from workers. Or at least you can never be sure that they're being honest, because there is incentive for them to say that it's the best job ever had, you know?

Yeah. Right. I mean, if you're constantly afraid of being fired for things like being late from coming back from the bathroom, unburdening yourself to a reporter sounds like a very easy way to get fired in America.

Yeah.

The daughter of the family that you stayed with [while you worked at Amazon] talked about having worked at Zappos and how wonderful it was. And then when Amazon bought Zappos, how all of that company culture got subsumed by the larger one. I thought that that was a really effective illustration of how it's not necessarily that warehouse fulfillment center work is inherently bad, it's deliberate employment practices that are making people sick and crazy who work there.

Yeah. I mean, that's the thing, this is a choice.

And it's a choice, if you're operating in this system that we have, which in America is a very carnivorous one: it's very dog eat dog. The way of operating within that system, it makes sense to bring every profitable ounce of labor out of your workers. Because at this point, it's gotten so much less expensive to constantly lose workers, who quit because it's too hard, or it's exhausting, or it's humiliating, or whatever. It's gotten very easy. I only needed two days of training at Amazon and I only needed a day and a half of training at McDonald's.

It is now less expensive for people to constantly have to replace their workers who quit than it is to stop crushing people so that they quit. So there's no incentive for them to stop doing that, and improve working conditions so they don't destroy your home life, your body through repetitive stress injuries, your mental health through being constantly isolated all day. Which again, it's hard to describe, but it really gets to you. They've made a choice to go with the least expensive thing, which is keeping job conditions crappy, and just putting a lot of effort into recruiting new workers.

Once you put your finger on what the problem is, then you can change it. I understand people. That is one of the things that I am genuinely optimistic about. Like, my coworkers knew something was wrong. They knew that they weren't being treated right, they just didn't quite have the words. Since so many of them had really bought into this American Dream thing, where if you just work hard enough and if you do the right thing and if you're good, if you're never late, then you will succeed.

I frankly think it is really cruel and immoral to exploit that, which I think is a fundamentally good quality of Americans, that they generally want to work. They really do, they just want to work in something that doesn't destroy their lives.


Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's deputy editor in chief.

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