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On the Clock
What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane
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After the local newspaper where she worked as a reporter closed, Emily Guendelsberger took a pre-Christmas job at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Louisville, Kentucky. There, the vending machines were stocked with painkillers, and the staff turnover was dizzying. In the new year, she travelled to North Carolina to work at a call center, a place where even bathroom breaks were timed to the second. And finally, Guendelsberger was hired at a San Francisco McDonald’s, narrowly escaping revenge-seeking customers who pelted her with condiments.
Across three jobs, and in three different parts of the country, Guendelsberger directly took part in the revolution changing the U.S. workplace. Offering an up-close portrait of America’s actual “essential workers,” On the Clock examines the broken social safety net as well as an economy that has purposely had all the slack drained out and converted to profit. Until robots pack boxes, resolve billing issues, and make fast food, human beings supervised by AI will continue to get the job done. Guendelsberger shows us how workers went from being the most expensive element of production to the cheapest – and how low wage jobs have been remade to serve the ideals of efficiency, at the cost of humanity.
On the Clock explores the lengths that half of Americans will go to in order to make a living, offering not only a better understanding of the modern workplace, but also surprising solutions to make work more humane for millions of Americans.
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This book is an examination of the day-to-day experience of low-wage work in America in the mid-2010s. There was a lot of totally standard journalism and research involved, but because what interests me most is the experience, I worked three jobs undercover to be able to accurately describe that experience.
I mean, kind of undercover. I didn’t volunteer that I was writing a book, but I also didn’t lie or misrepresent myself. Here’s how that worked, if you’re interested.
About the timeline: The newspaper I worked at closed in October of 2015. I spent part of November and all of December that year in Southern Indiana, across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, working at Amazon. I spent most of the summer of 2016 in western North Carolina working at Convergys. I spent September and October of 2017 in San Francisco working at McDonald’s.
About getting the jobs: I applied using my real name and real work history as a journalist who’s also had a lot of service jobs. Interviewers were almost entirely interested in the cleanliness of my criminal record and drug test; my prior work experience came up exactly once, in my interview at Convergys. I said I was a writer who hadn’t had a steady job since her newspaper closed and laid everybody off a year earlier, which was 100 percent true. I would have been just as honest on follow-up questions had anybody asked them. Nobody did. All three companies seemed desperate to hire enough felony-and opiate-free bodies to keep up with the massive turnover rate built into their business models. Nobody called my references.
About not feeling bad about it: I might feel a little bad about taking advantage of careless interviewers or wasting my trainers’ time if the massive turnover at each of these jobs was a bug rather than a feature. But high turnover, and the consequent need to hire new bodies quickly and without scrutiny, is intentional. It’s central to the way these companies operate. I’ll get into detail on that later, but for now, just know that I stayed at these jobs longer than a whole lot of my coworkers did.
About quoting the boss: At Amazon and Convergys, the settings of parts 1 and 2 respectively, I occasionally recorded orientation sessions and other instances when a manager spoke as the voice of the company. Covertly recording your own conversations is legal in both Indiana and North Carolina, where the first two parts take place. California, where the third part takes place, is one of the few states where it’s legally fuzzy, so I just didn’t do it at all there—quotations in the third part are written entirely from memory and notes I made on breaks. Anyway, the pace at my San Francisco McDonald’s was so frantic and the training so minimal that recording wouldn’t have been useful, anyway.
About quoting coworkers: I didn’t feel right covertly recording my nonmanagement coworkers, even if it would have been legal. When I had a conversation I wanted to use in the book, I’d make a note of it and get back in touch with the person I had been speaking with later, usually after I’d left the job and didn’t have to worry about blowing my cover. I’d fill that person in about the book and what it was about and ask if he or she would be willing to try to re-create the conversation on tape. Any extended dialogue scenes with coworkers come from these after-the-fact recordings, which were made with consent.
About quoting others: Experts and sources are fully on the record, just like anything I’d write for a newspaper. I didn’t record my interactions with customers; those quotes are from memory.
About names: Some of the names I use for people I met are real, some aren’t. I initially let people pick their own fake names, but had to change this policy after the group of guys who appear near the end of the first part all chose names along the lines of Dr. Babydick. It was funny at the time, but it just didn’t work written out as dialogue. So, with apologies to Zeb, Eli, and the gang, I chose names for them and everyone else. I tried to pick ones that communicate as much about people’s age, race, and culture as their real names do.
About descriptions: I include the race of most people I mention; I think it’s pertinent information. I’ve tried to break my habit of only noting a person’s race if she isn’t white: if I miss a few here and there, I really am trying.
About the companies: These are the actual companies I worked for, but that doesn’t mean this book is meant as an exposé of Amazon, Convergys, McDonald’s, or AT&T. The point isn’t that these companies are uniquely horrible. It’s that these technologies and practices are present in most other low-wage jobs, too. I chose these companies because of how well they’ve adapted to this system, but the system is the problem, not them.
About the paychecks: You bet I cashed those checks—I worked my ass off. These companies squeezed just as much labor and profit out of me as any of my coworkers, and I didn’t work any less hard because I was planning to write about it. Anyone wishing to debate the finer points of journalism ethics may do so after paying off my credit cards.
Introduction: In the Weeds
What does “in the weeds” mean to you?
I’ve been asking people that for a couple of years now—it’s become a sort of hobby. There’s two definitions, and you can often tell a lot by which one a person knows.
First, there’s what I call the academic definition: “To be bogged down in the minute or unimportant details of a large project.” I heard this a lot in the ten years I spent working in newspapers.
Then there’s the waitress definition: “To be harried or frantic because there’s more work on your plate than you can do at a reasonable pace.” A key part of this definition is a feeling of desperation and hopelessness—being unable to catch up, even though you’re working as fast as you possibly can.
I think of this as the waitress definition because that’s who I learned it from, at my first real job, scooping ice cream as a sixteen-year-old for $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage in 2000. “Hurry up, kid, I’m in the weeds,” snapped an older waitress, impatient to use the cash register I was fumbling with. Her meaning was obvious: she was hustling around at top speed, grim-faced, trying to get her customers taken care of before her tips went down the drain. And I was in her way.
I became very familiar with the weeds that summer. Counter kids spent hours in the weeds each evening, scooping as fast as we could and delaying our bathroom breaks until the line of hot, impatient customers at the window cleared, usually around 10:00 p.m. Afterward, it was bliss to lean my sticky forearms on the counter and relax a little as we waited on the trickle of late-night customers.
But the relief was always short-lived because of another new addition to my professional vocabulary: If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.
I loathed this cheery little rhyme, coined by McDonald’s founder* Ray Kroc and favored by passive-aggressive managers everywhere. It felt like I was being called lazy for taking five minutes to rest after a solid four hours in the weeds, which I found infuriating. In the weeds and time to lean, it seemed to me, were opposite sides of the same coin and should even each other out.
“This is some bullshit,” I thought, with the righteous indignation of a teenager at her first job. I legitimately worked as hard as I could when things were busy. Did they seriously expect me to ask for something to mop the instant I had a second of down time, like some overeager, kiss-ass robot?
After a few weeks, my dad asked how the job was going, and I vented about time to lean, time to clean. I’d just read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed—a new release at the time—and had become pretty passionate about labor organization. Dad was less than sympathetic to my new progressive ideals, probably because they came on the heels of what must have been a pretty intolerable Ayn Rand phase.
“They’re not paying you to sit around,” he told me. “If you’re on their dime, you do what they tell you—that’s how jobs work. Suck it up.”
But I wasn’t sitting, I protested. It wasn’t like I was doing nothing. I was supposed to be ready at the window whenever a customer walked up to buy some ice cream—and I was! I never complained about working twice as hard when we were in the weeds; it seemed only fair that the pace would slow down when business was slow.
Dad sighed, and gave me some fatherly advice that stuck with me for a long time.
“Well, life isn’t always fair, for one. But there’s dignity in working hard and doing your job well,” he said. Yes, even if that job was scooping ice cream. If you can take pride in doing your work well, that’s the key to a happy life, no matter what your job is. Be the best at whatever you do, try harder than everyone else, make yourself indispensable, and you’ll succeed. It’s the American Dream.
Chastened, I resolved to be the best ice cream scooper I could possibly be. For the rest of the summer, I tried to be that overeager, kiss-ass robot. I tried to make my cones beautiful. I made myself smile and be extra friendly when I was exhausted. I cleaned equipment before being asked to. I even asked if there was anything I could mop.
I kept hoping that if I worked hard enough, the dignity my dad talked about would just materialize, like a runner’s high. But it’s hard to feel dignified when your right arm is never not sticky or when a jackass crew of boys runs you ragged while pretending not to recognize you from history class.
Anyway, my manager didn’t seem to notice my attempts to be the best damn ice cream scooper in the land. All us counter kids were summarily fired at the end of the season, and I moved on to a string of service jobs that took me through high school into college and my early twenties—dishwasher, cashier, receptionist, mall photographer, church pianist, grocery stocker, projectionist, sandwich maker.
When I moved to Philadelphia after college, I continued working service jobs to support myself while trying to break into journalism. I tried to embody my dad’s advice by working harder than everybody else—for about a year, I worked five days a week as a receptionist and two days a week as an unpaid intern. I stayed up late memorizing the AP Stylebook. I jumped at the chance to do anything editors needed—I practically asked if there was anything I could mop. And, though it felt agonizingly slow at the time, I gradually clawed my way up out of the service sector.
At my first white-collar job—copyediting on the night desk of the Philadelphia Daily News—coworkers were confused when I’d say I couldn’t go out for a smoke because I was “in the weeds.” Here, I discovered, “in the weeds” meant stuck in the details. Overburdened with work was a distant second, and it seemed to get more distant the higher you climbed up the career ladder. There was such a class difference between service and white-collar work that those three words actually meant different things, as if the two groups spoke different languages.
I was young, insecure about being self-taught, and desperate to fit into the white-collar world, so I started saying I was “swamped” or “on deadline” instead. But I did start noticing the many other ways a lot of people with influence seemed to live in a completely different world from the one I knew from service work.
The easiest example to pick on is the “Why don’t millennials do X?” think piece, which often settles on the cultural or technological quirkiness of my generation of consumers. (Okay, readers of a certain age, sing it with me: young people don’t buy houses or boats or diamonds or save for retirement because we don’t have any money.)
I noticed this dynamic a lot in media coverage, too—particularly when you got to the national level. Even now, real, respected people with real, respectable jobs express confusion about things that make me wonder how long it’s been since they’ve had a conversation with anyone making less than $100,000 a year. These vexing puzzles include:
• Why do American employers complain they can’t find good workers to fill open positions?
• Why has the life expectancy of middle-aged white Americans fallen off a cliff in the past decade?
• Why is the country ready to riot over jobs—immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them?
• Why are depression and anxiety so widespread when this is one of the best times to be alive in history?
• Why do people vote against their self-interest?
• If the data says everything’s so great, why is America freaking the fuck out?
You can make a lot of money explaining away the gap between data and reality in ways that flatter puzzled wealthy people. But if you’ve had a service job in the past decade, I’ll bet that some of the answers are probably as obvious to you as why millennials aren’t buying yachts. I’ll spend the next few hundred pages trying to make it just as obvious to all you readers, but the short answer? The bottom half of America’s labor market lives in the weeds. All the time.
And the weeds are a terribly toxic place for human beings. The weeds make us crazy. The weeds make us sick. The weeds destroy family life. The weeds push people into addiction. The weeds will literally kill you. And people fortunate enough to have good jobs making policy or writing op-eds seem to have no idea how crippled a life with no escape from the weeds is.
When was the last time you asked permission to go to the bathroom? Would you panic over running two minutes late? Is it normal to be constantly monitored at work, to have everything you do timed by the second? When did you last wear a uniform, or have food thrown at you? When’s the last time you sold something to pay a bill? Do you have to wait to be searched for stolen goods after you leave work? Have you ever considered DIY dental surgery? Have you gone to work sick because you can’t afford to take unpaid time off? Have you had to supply a doctor’s note to prove you deserve that unpaid time off? Have you recently overdrawn your checking account, or had all your credit cards declined, or put exactly ten bucks of gas in your car?
Nearly everyone with influence in this country, regardless of political affiliation, is incredibly insulated from how miserable and dehumanizing the daily experience of work has gotten over the past decade or two. Many have never had a service job. If I were to give my “in the weeds” poll to everyone with political clout—the donor class, lobbyists, politicians, academics, think tankers, media people—I’d bet everything I own that only a few would know the waitress definition.*
Paul Ryan might be an exception. The former Speaker of the House often plays up the time he spent in food service as a young man, particularly the summer he worked at McDonald’s, in 1986, as a high school sophomore.
“When I was flipping burgers at McDonald’s, when I was standing in front of that big Hobart machine washing dishes, or waiting tables, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life,” Ryan once told a crowd. “I thought to myself, I’m the American Dream.”
But work has changed a lot since 1986. The insane technological advances of the past decades have turned time to lean and time to clean from subjective things determined by a human manager to objective quantities determined by computers that calculate, monitor, and min-max every second of workers’ time on the clock.
A modern McDonald’s job, for example, isn’t the leisurely activity implied by “flipping burgers.” Fast food today is intense. In McDonald’s phone-book-size operations and training manual, every task has a target time in seconds, as in the assembly of a burger:
Target order display screen reaction time: 5 seconds.
Target toast time: 23 seconds.
Target sandwich assembly time: 22 seconds.
Target sandwich wrapping time: 14 seconds.
Target order assembly time: 16 seconds.
“Guests should wait no longer than 60 seconds from the time the order is being totaled until the order is presented,” the manual advises, and the total time between a guest approaching the counter and receiving her food should never be more than three and a half minutes.
Until pretty recently, it was much too difficult to track and enforce guidelines this specific. Today, though, monitoring equipment integrated into the tools workers use to do their jobs can clock and track nearly any task a worker does in real time. And the street runs both ways—those same systems can be set to harass, nag, startle, or otherwise trigger a worker’s stress response every time she lags behind the desired pace. (The next time you’re in a busy McDonald’s, for example, note the maddening, near-constant beeping of alarms.)
Or look at the copy in a sales brochure for HM Electronics, a major supplier of these sorts of micromonitoring computer business systems for McDonald’s and other massive fast-food chains:
Speed-of-service timers connected to prominent wall-mounted displays give employees the opportunity to compete against the clock and deliver orders within management-set goals. Large timer displays visible to employees help create a greater sense of urgency in completing orders.… Incentives and friendly competition among crew members can actually make their jobs more enjoyable and challenging while improving customer satisfaction and increasing sales. By reviewing the timer reports, managers and operators can evaluate employee performance and make the necessary changes.
“Necessary changes” is some pretty amazing business-speak—and who doesn’t love an opportunity to compete against the clock and their coworkers for minimum wage?
The other big advance that’s made life miserable for low-wage workers is algorithmic scheduling. Work schedules that used to be drawn up by managers now rely heavily on algorithms that analyze historical data to predict exactly how much business a store can expect in the upcoming week. As it’s most accurate with the most recent data, this means many workers’ schedules vary wildly week to week and are made and posted the day before they start—making it impossible to plan anything more than a week in advance.
Businesses also save a ton of money by scheduling the absolute minimum number of workers to handle the predicted business. And they save even more by scheduling slightly fewer people than can handle the predicted work at a reasonable pace. If workers can push themselves to cover the duties of a sick coworker, doesn’t that just mean they’re not giving it 100 percent the rest of the time? Why can’t they work that efficiently every shift?
The answer’s obvious if you’ve covered for a sick coworker at a fast-paced job—because you’re stuck in the weeds the entire day, and just because you can put up with a miserable day once in a while doesn’t mean that the weeds are a sustainable place to live.
From a boss’s point of view, though, the weeds are where workers should be—at maximum productivity, all day, every day.
The white-collar world tends to be the focus of national conversations about stress and overwork—probably because the people with the clout to affect that conversation socialize with far more lawyers than fast-food or retail workers. Tons of jobs in the white-collar world are extremely stressful and closely timed, of course. I shudder thinking of a friend at a big Manhattan law firm whose time is billed in six-minute intervals, or of Paul Ryan, who until recently had one of the most miserable jobs I can imagine. So I can understand why those people might look back on “flipping burgers” as a low-stakes, low-stress breeze. I mean, until recently, my own mental image of service work had fossilized at the last time I held one, too.
But when I look at the favored policies of Paul Ryan and people like him, I see an understanding of “flipping burgers” that’s thirty years out of date.*
“What [the left is] offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul,” Ryan said in a 2016 speech about how social safety net programs deny Americans the opportunity for that thing my dad once told me was the key to a happy life—the self-respect and satisfaction that can only come from hard work. “People don’t just want a life of comfort,” said Ryan. “They want a life of dignity.”
And I do get that. There is a spiritual reward in hard work. I’ve been lucky enough to have found a career where I do find meaning and dignity in my work, so I get to experience it. But in getting out of the service sector, I’ve been largely insulated from a decade of technological work speedup. So, by definition, have politicians, pundits, donors, lobbyists, and New York Times columnists.
And so we offer advice like my dad gave me: Be the best. Take pride in working harder than everyone else. Go the extra mile. Ask for something to mop. And we think it’s useful.
As a culture, we put far too much blind trust in data and technology.* Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it’s so pretentious to pretend that they have adequate vocabulary to accurately describe a human, much less whether a human is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with a hundred billion neurons making connections in a mind-bogglingly complex web that constantly changes. Our levels of technology aren’t remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won’t be for a very long time.* Numbers and statistics just aren’t up to communicating how something feels, even though that’s often extremely important information.
That’s why I decided to go experience this brave new world myself—so readers can get an idea of what the modern experience of low-wage work feels like. I went to work at an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonald’s—three places that are fairly representative of the future of work in America. I spent between one and two months at each, and I worked them for real, with every ounce of my Dad-infused work ethic. And at each one, productivity-enforcing technology constantly corralled me and my coworkers into the weeds like a sheepdog snapping at a herd’s heels.
Working in an Amazon warehouse outside Louisville, Kentucky, I walked up to sixteen miles a day to keep up with the rate at which I was supposed to pick orders. A GPS-enabled scanner tracked my movements and constantly informed me how many seconds I had left to complete my task.
Working at a call center in western North Carolina, I was lectured about how using the bathroom too often is the same thing as stealing from the company, and had the minutes I spent in the bathroom tracked in a daily report sent to my supervisor.
Working at a McDonald’s in downtown San Francisco, we were underscheduled to the point of a constant, never-ending line of customers—everyone worked at the frantic speed of those in-the-weeds waitresses of my youth all shift, nearly every shift.
I did plenty of research beforehand, and I’d heard crazy things about how stressful each job would be—each in its own special way, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families. But at each of them, technology made it impossible to escape the weeds. And every time, my thorough research totally failed to prepare me for how dehumanizing the job felt.
We’re at a strange point in the history of work. Automation of most jobs is only a decade or two away, and human workers increasingly have to compete with computers, algorithms, and robots that never get tired, or sick, or depressed, or need a day off.
Still, in industries that rely on skills that robots still aren’t great at—fine motor control, speech and pattern recognition, empathy—the cheapest option is still low-wage human workers. And so many employers demand a workforce that can think, talk, feel, and pick stuff up like humans—but with as few needs outside of work as robots. They insist their workers amputate the messy human bits of themselves—family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to make rent, sickness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic—or at least keep them completely at bay.
I call these cyborg jobs—I have to have something to use as shorthand—and they make up an increasing slice of the American labor market, including most of the postrecession job growth. With labor power crippled by the last few decades of US policy, low-wage workers today have a strong-bordering-on-mandatory incentive to crush those unuseful human parts of themselves down to atomic size. And the pressure’s starting to reach unmanageable levels.
How many cyborg jobs are there? It’s hard to get good numbers on something that vague, but the statistic I find most convincing comes from a 2013 paper out of Oxford University.1 The authors tried to calculate how many and what kinds of jobs were so highly routinized that it’d be very easy to replace their human workers with computers or robots—that is, “occupations mainly consisting of tasks following well-defined procedures that can easily be performed by sophisticated algorithms.”
They concluded these employed about 47 percent of the US workforce.
So what does “in the weeds” mean to you?
To people with education and influence, “in the weeds” is something academic, about small, unimportant details. It’s the footnotes. It’s something you observe from the outside.
To everybody else, “in the weeds” is something you experience. It’s something you feel. It’s your life.
It’s easy to make fun of that righteously indignant teenager at her first job. Readers to whom this all seems obvious may find the adult me just as naive. I was shocked by the pain-medication vending machines at Amazon, for example, while people familiar with warehousing work might roll their eyes. That’s fine. For you, this book may be useful as an exploration of how much better people have it on the other side. Because every white-collar person I’ve mentioned those vending machines to was just as horrified—and they wouldn’t put up with any of this for a second
- On Sale
- Jul 16, 2019
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company