McDonald's, Amazon or Convergys- are today's employers stressing us out?
On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane
Emily Guendelsberger 2019
How does your job treat you these days? Do you have an unpredictable schedule, low wages, and no benefits? Do you have to ask for permission to use the bathroom? Does a computer monitor your every move and encourage you to work just a little bit faster all of the time? Do you notice fellow employees crying regularly or taking pain killers to be able to physically cope? Hopefully you can say no to all these questions, but the reality for many workers in the American economy is uglier than we'd like to admit.
Emily Guendelsberger is a journalist who was fired from her newspaper job, only to decide to investigate the world of high-stress, low-paid work at some of America's biggest companies. Her book, On the Clock, is a detailed diary of her experiences in jobs that treat employees like interchangeable, disposable cogs in a well-oiled machine. Most of the workers in these jobs exist in the shadows of our economy and are unlikely to write about it. Guendelsberger gives an eye-opening view of how corporate America squeezes profits out of humans when they have few options. It's a maddening, fascinating look at what we put people through that makes me think twice about the three companies covered, all of whom I have done business with repeatedly.
The book takes a serious look at why people seem to be over-stressed and prone to abusing drugs, food, and alcohol. The tense job environments that many have to endure turn them into unfeeling automatons, and wreck havoc on their mental and physical health. (With no healthcare system to fall back on). She frequently uses the term "in the weeds" to describe times when workers are pushed to their limits with never-ending work and no chances to socialize or take a break. Algorithms devised by corporations deliberately push the boundaries with under-staffing, limited training, and little support, knowing that the workers they lose along the way are easily replaceable. That the market keeps supplying them with willing participants is a great mystery.
On the Clock starts at an Amazon warehouse, which the author describes as cavernous- 25 acres big with over 30 million items in various shelves that workers have to locate and send on their way to fulfill the orders that we consumers eagerly await. Typical shifts are 11.5 hours, with workers getting one 30 minute break and limited bathroom breaks. She checked her steps taken during a typical day, and it showed her walking an amazing 15 miles per day. All the walking, bending, and lifting takes an enormous toll on the body- so much so that Amazon has Advil vending machines so that employees can kill the pain and keep working as their bodies cry out for relief.
Amazon warehouse workers carry around a scanner that tells them where to go and retrieve merchandise that needs to be shipped out. These scanners track productivity and speed, and employees who don't reach targets are talked to, reprimanded, or even fired. The algorithms keep employees from getting too close to each other, so it is a lonely and boring 11 1/2 hours, and any breaks are considered "time theft". The author relates that she wasn't an actual Amazon employee, but a temp worker that is commonly hired during the holidays and treated with even less dignity. (All three employers in the book used intermediary employers to disperse accountability.) If you watch the movie "Nomadland", it makes the warehouses look fairly benign, and the senior citizen "work campers" that come to work during busy season look happy to be there. Guendelsbacher was a woman in her thirties and the physical demands got to her by the third day, with many of her classmates in her training class quitting or being fired well before Christmas and the end of the temp season.
The book then takes us to Convergys, a call center in North Carolina where people take phone calls from all over the country for other major companies- in this case ATT. At the call center, the stress is less physical and more mental and emotional. Workers are given a dizzying array of computer programs to become familiar with and have to navigate them with every call. All calls are monitored and all responses are heavily scripted. If you ever call into one of these call centers be aware that the person you are talking to is following a very specific script and has limited options. They can't hang up on you or lose their cool, and abuse from disgruntled customers is common and destructive.
Call center employees are not only supposed to resolve your problem (even if they have no power to do so), but they are also pressured to sell you more products, and the best salespeople are lauded and rewarded financially. Another thing I found surprising is that they can't have any paper at their stations on which to take notes because of identity theft risks. Getting help with difficult calls is not easy, and the author reports having to fumble around for long, tirade-filled minutes trying to find answers for callers. The turnover at Convergys is 240%, meaning that in just 7 months all the employees are replaced on average and replaced by new suckers.
The working conditions at this call center were surprisingly bad. In addition to the abusive customers and threats of time theft, the computer software is old and hard to operate, and the equipment is rarely sanitized so that diseases were spread from employee to employee.
The book finishes at a McDonald's in San Francisco, and it changed how I saw these popular fast food places. The algorithm at her McDonald's was able to predict how busy the restaurant would be at any one time, and in the name of efficiency would schedule people at the last minute and with a deliberate level of under-staffing so that employees were always waiting on customers and there was always a line.
Customers at this McDonald were occasionally rude and mean, causing the author to lose it at one of them and run away to the freezer to cry and break down. McDonald's restaurants pride themselves on efficiency and speed, which makes camaraderie with fellow employees almost impossible. Employees are punished if back even one minute late from breaks, but not allowed to clock in early, making for frantic pileups at the time clock. The author burned her hand seriously when a pot of coffee broke on her, and I had no idea that the coffee there is super-heated to 180 degrees so that it lasts longer, but is dangerous to touch or drink. (She mentions the famous lawsuit about coffee burns, and it is more involved than people think.)
Having been laid off from her newspaper job, the author is frank and brave about her own struggles. She lived in a van for a while and took showers at the YMCA. She describes how one of her co-workers tried to use fish antibiotics from a pet store to treat an infected tooth because they couldn't afford a dentist. She shares her vulnerability when abused by customers, yet she comes across in this book as a happy, well-adjusted person truly wanting to understand what she was experiencing.
In addition to her personal stories, which are gripping, the author weaves in fascinating details about the history of work,bringing in all the usual suspects like efficiency pioneer Frederick Taylor and assembly line inventor Henry Ford. We see how the modern workplace evolved and got more efficient, and now with the help of computers they are too efficient for our own good. Amazon already has robots that are poised to replace many of their human warehouse workers in the next decade, all in the name of efficiency.
Obviously, this is not healthy for the average human, and is not sustainable according to the author. The stress and lack of control brings on a sad state of learned helplessness that eventually causes physical and mental illnesses along with addictive behaviors. The people who are making the decisions in government and corporate boardrooms are blind to what they are creating, but as long as politicians keep getting voted in and corporations keep making money it will continue.
The author ends with a plea that the way we work is destroying families just as much as it is destroying workers. "Why is America so crazy? It's the inescapable chronic stress built into the way we work and live. It's the insane idea that an honest days work means suppressing your humanity, dignity, family, and other non-work priorities in exchange for low wages that makes home live constantly stressful too".
I highly recommend this book, both for those who've lived it, and especially for those who have not.