There’s a moment halfway through our tour when a woman asks our guide, Isaac, what’s in the vending machines.
Emily Guendelsberger and I give each other a look.
I already know the answer because she told me on our drive over: pain meds. Generic Advil and Tylenol that workers get for free when they swipe their badges.
Those vending machines saved her during her first week on the job as a picker — someone who picks items off of the shelves to get packed and shipped — during peak season at an Amazon warehouse, or “fulfillment center,” in Clarksville, Ind., a 15-minute drive from Louisville, Ky.
Guendelsberger had run out of Advil, which she had started “popping like candy" to quell the overwhelming aches she felt all over her body, and she was on the warehouse floor crying and yelling at herself, unsure of how she could go on without medical assistance. Then she remembered the vending machines.
The vending machines, Isaac tells our group of about 15, have safety equipment in them. Gloves, radios, high-visibility vests color-coded for what kind of job you have.
Yep, some of the machines carry those, too.
Guendelsberger spent two weeks working at an Amazon warehouse, as well as a McDonald’s and a Convergys call center, as research for her book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, which is to be released Tuesday. The Fishtown resident and journalist used to write for the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper. She once made headlines for sneaking into and recording a meeting of Republican lawmakers and then leaking it to the media.
Amazon had been aggressively promoting its warehouse tours to the public, so I went with Guendelsberger to get her take on what it’s like to work there.
The biggest surprise about working for Amazon
Early reviews of the book have already latched onto the pain medication in the vending machine, which, Guendelsberger points out on our drive to the warehouse in West Deptford, illustrates one of the bigger takeaways during her time working at Amazon: The mainstream media — that is, the white-collar professionals who dominate the mainstream media — gets it wrong. They’re appalled by a whole host of details — the aggressive productivity tracking, the ambulances waiting outside to take people who pass out from the heat — but for the people working there? To them it’s normal.
Not only that, but they see these as good jobs. The pay is well-over federal minimum wage. The hours are predictable. You even get unpaid time off — or, if you’re a permanent, full-time employee, you get to accrue paid time off, plus health insurance and a 401(K) match. The workers Guendelsberger talks to tell her that it’s one of the best jobs a person without a college degree or specialized skills could land.
The thing that does upset them is “being treated like a robot,” she said. "Their complete lack of agency” on the job. The Amazon jobs, Guendelsberger finds out, are designed so that no worker can make a significant decision about how to do the job. Everything they need to do is told to them by an LCD screen on a scan gun.
It tracks with what retail workers, hotel housekeepers, and workers in a hospital warehouse have complained about: that they’re micromanaged, that their managers treat them as if they aren’t smart enough to think, like they’re just brute labor.
The major innovation they didn’t show us
During the tour, which is conducted through a radio system and headphones because the machinery is so loud, Guendelsberger points out that many of the employees are working in stations just far enough away from the next person that they can’t chat. That was the most difficult thing for her.
“It can get really brutal in there, just being lonely,” she said.
There were no distractions: no windows, no music. She started asking people on breaks, “So how do you keep yourself from going nuts?” It became her icebreaker. (Guendelsberger took to memorizing whole albums and singing them to herself during her shift. Others risked interfering with their productivity metrics by making small talk in the rare moments when they’d run into someone. One woman said she tried doing her job as fast as she could, which made others resent her.)
Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty said that employees have many opportunities to talk with coworkers throughout the day, including at the twice daily “stand-ups” when managers review safety tips and workers stretch. She added that the work stations are designed for safety and "to streamline the fulfillment process.”
We watched as workers filed out to the break room at a specific time, and Guendelsberger later told me that because this warehouse had restrooms on every floor, it was “slightly less annoying" — breaks were 15 minutes and because of how big the warehouses are, it could take 10 minutes to get to and from the restroom or the exit, leaving just five minutes for your break. Guendelsberger, for her part, would always try to get outside during her break for a cigarette, but also because her shift was 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the winter and she wanted to get in some daylight.
The tour showed off many of Amazon’s technological innovations: robots that carry shelves and know exactly where to go, a computer that shines a light on a shelf, showing workers where to find the item they’re looking for, a robot named “Trudy” that lifts heavy packages.
But one major innovation that wasn’t highlighted was its sophisticated tracking system that acts as an ever-watchful eye on workers. (The Amazon worker who trains Guendelsberger during orientation, a Cuban man named Miguel, actually describes it this way: “We have a saying in Spanish,” he says, “Siempre va a te ver. That means, ‘There’s always an eye out there on you.’”)
Every worker’s “rate” is tracked — that is, the speed at which they perform tasks. For Guendelsberger, it manifested in her scan gun counting down the seconds she had to complete a task in the appropriate rate-vetted time (she worked there in 2015; Amazon no longer uses handheld scan guns). Breaks were tracked by the time between scans. If you were not working for any reason, it would be tracked as “time off task.”
And if you weren’t making rate, someone would come find you, Guendelsberger said. It happened to her twice: both for technical mishaps, she said. A letter to the National Labor Relations Board from an Amazon lawyer disclosed that the company had fired hundreds of workers over a 13-month period in Baltimore for failing to meet productivity standards, as reported by the Verge.
Lighty said performance is measured over a long period of time, not hourly or daily, “as we know that a variety of things could impact the ability to meet expectations" and that workers who don’t meet expectations are given “dedicated coaching."
“Our scanning process is to track inventory movement, not people," she said, adding “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."
The whole experience, as Guendelsberger told it, sounded pretty bleak.
But the silver lining is the possibility of their getting better. “There’s so much low-hanging fruit,” she said. Paid sick leave, better wages. These were things that elected officials could do to change many workers’ lives.
“There’s way more of us than there are of them,” she said. “You could really, I don’t know, get a movement going.”
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.