In better days, Emily Guendelsberger worked as a reporter for a Pittsburgh weekly newspaper.
When her newspaper closed and she lost her job in 2015, she decided to join the service sector and experience some of the jobs that are reshaping U.S. work culture. At different times over two years, she worked in an Amazon warehouse, for a call center, and at a McDonald's outlet.
All three companies seemed desperate to hire "enough felony- and opiate-free bodies" to keep up with the "massive turnover built into their business models." She used her real name and work history when applying for the jobs, but none of her references were ever checked.
In her book, "On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane," Guendelsberger writes that those who haven't worked the service sector for more than a decade or so haven't a clue how low-wage jobs have changed and why so many jobs are making life miserable for workers. She wonders if many people with political or social influence have ever held a service job.
If you're unfamiliar with this world, consider a few of the author's questions: When's the last time you sold something to pay a bill? Do you have to wait to be searched for stolen goods when 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? Is it normal to be constantly monitored at work, to have everything you do timed by the second?
Amazon has some 170 fulfillment and sortation centers across the country. The warehouse in which Guendelsberger worked, SDF8 outside of Louisville, was as long as seven New York City blocks and could hold 30 million items. Her stint coincided with the holiday season from Black Friday through Christmas. She routinely walked 10-20 miles a day, tethered to a scanner which told her where items were located and how long each retrieval task should take.
Conveniently located throughout the facility were vending machines dispensing pain medications, needed by employees for the unrelenting pace and physicality of their work.
On the positive side, Amazon pays more than the minimum wage.
At Convergys, a call center in Hickory, North Carolina, Guendelsberger underwent weeks of training to take calls and sell services to AT&T customers. She dealt every day with angry or confused customers, typically 60 calls in an eight-hour shift. If you've ever phoned in a telephone order and couldn't get the representative to stop offering another "great deal," it's probably because he or she has memorized specific verbiage that's supposed to overcome your objections.
The most dispiriting aspect of her job was the worst customer — whether a liar, the obviously insane, the late payer — had more value to the company than the best rep, whose dignity was assessed at zero, given the constant monitoring of their actions.
The McDonald's where Guendelsberger worked was located in downtown San Francisco's tech district, a busy outlet with never-ending lines. She worked the counter, assembled orders and dealt with diverse customers: thousands of foreign tourists, the city's large number of homeless people, the mentally ill and the food-throwers. The work isn't easy either; Guendelsberger details the 23 steps needed to assemble a "Big Breakfast with Hotcakes" and coffee, with each task having a target time in seconds.
Guendelsberger makes the point that many of today's low-wage jobs are governed by algorithmic scheduling, which enables companies to provide the fewest employees possible and little or no regular scheduling, resulting in unpredictable hours. Employees then have difficulty planning child care, doctor's appointments and other personal needs without knowing what next week's or next day's schedule might be.
Throughout the book, Guendelsberger offers informative tidbits from her research on subjects as varied as the decline of North Carolina's furniture industry, the effects of NAFTA on rural communities and the impact that the lack of affordable housing has on low-wage workers. She also weaves in life stories of some of her coworkers, their personal and employment struggles. (There's much humor in her observations; even her footnotes are funny.)
For this reader, it was difficult to decide which of the author's jobs was the worst. At Amazon, she describes the isolation, the lack of human contact and the dehumanizing, robotic aspect of the work. At least at Convergys, she was able to make friends and actually talk with fellow workers. McDonald's hyper-efficiency, its tracking of employees and often deliberate understaffing had negative impacts on workers, many of whom had second jobs.
The book is reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 exposé "Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America." Both books provide disturbing examinations of jobs where employees are expendable cogs in a brutal work environment.
Madeline Matson is the reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.