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‘The most physically painful experience of my life’: One month working in an Amazon warehouse | Book Excerpt

An excerpt from a new book by Philly author Emily Guendelsberger in which she examines the future of work — and how it might be driving us all a little insane.

Emily Guendelsberger, author of "On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane," worked several service jobs as research for her book. This is her Amazon warehouse nametag.
Emily Guendelsberger, author of "On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane," worked several service jobs as research for her book. This is her Amazon warehouse nametag.Read moreEmily Guendelsberger

After Philadelphia City Paper closed, local alt-weekly newspaper reporter Emily Guendelsberger took a pre-Christmas job at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Louisville, Ky. There, she worked as a picker, pushing a cart around the massive warehouse locating items that had been ordered, scanning them, and sending them off on a conveyor belt to be boxed and shipped. She often walked 15 miles a day or more in an 11.5-hour shift; vending machines in the warehouse were stocked with painkillers; and her scanner constantly ticked away the seconds she had left to do the task at hand.

In her new book, “On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane” (Little, Brown and Co.), Guendelsberger explores the future of work firsthand, from Amazon to call centers to McDonald’s. She takes readers to work along with her as she experiences the grueling world of modern, tech-infused “unskilled” labor and details the history of how jobs have been reshaped to maximize efficiency and productivity at the cost of humanity.

Amazon Fulfillment Center SDF8 feels deserted on Christmas Eve at 6 a.m., my last shift as a picker. I’ve spent the past month pushing a cart around Amazon’s eerily infinite-looking shelving system, following my handheld scanner’s directions to find and grab one item after another out of the tens of millions of items in this single warehouse, one of nearly 200 Amazon facilities in the U.S.

The number of coworkers at standup meeting each morning has steadily dwindled to maybe 50 people today — probably a quarter of the crowd it had been when I started a month ago.

Standup is less businesslike than usual; there are more smiles and conversation as we stretch. The crazy holiday season is finally almost over. I’m barely even grumpy to be assigned to the fourth floor. Again.

Nobody likes the fourth floor. Sometimes, when pickers log into their scanners and draw an assignment on 4, they’ll log out and back in again, re-rolling the dice until they get any other floor. My suspicions about my probability-defying number of fourth-floor assignments were confirmed when we all got scolded for re-rolling at standup one morning.

Here are some of the many reasons to hate the fourth floor:

  1. Productivity. The fourth floor is where they store oversize items, and the double-wide drawers and extra trips to the conveyor belt make it really hard to “make rate,” or pick as many items per hour as Amazon’s algorithms think you should be capable of. Rate is 90 items an hour (or whatever it is today — it’s always changing) whether you’re picking books and small miscellany from the tiny yellow cubbies on the ground floor, where I once clocked 140, or big stuff up on 4, where I average between 50 and 60.

  2. Stairs. All the bathrooms and break rooms are on the ground floor, and three flights of stairs is no joke when your body hurts this much from 15 miles of walking and hundreds of squats per day.

  3. Time Off Task. Your scanner starts counting the seconds anytime you aren’t actively completing a task. A bathroom break from the fourth floor will saddle you with 10 minutes of Time Off Task, minimum, and you’re only supposed to have 18 minutes per 11-hour shift, maximum. And they do notice — a manager will come find you and give you a talking-to if your scanner reports you’re taking too much Time Off Task.

  4. Heat rises. It’s not so bad in December, but the fourth floor is the only place in SDF8 where I get sweaty. I can’t imagine what it must be like up here in the summer.

  5. It’s dark, lonely, and kind of creepy. The algorithm that charts my path through the infinite-seeming shelves rarely puts me within shouting distance of another picker, but 4 is especially isolating. You don’t realize it on the lower floors, but the fluorescent lights turn off after five minutes or so if they don’t sense motion nearby. There are so few people on the fourth floor that each picker basically blazes a light trail into the darkness as she walks. From above, it must look like that Snake game on early Nokia cell phones.

But there’s an upside to the motion-sensor lights for me — they make it clear when there’s nobody within earshot, which means I’m free to sing at full volume. This has been no small thing over the past month, as I’m losing my mind with boredom.

It’s hard to communicate exactly how big a deal the boredom has been — pain is much easier to write. My first two weeks of picking were agony, way worse than I’d expected despite all the warnings from former pickers. And I’m not inexperienced with pain. As a kid, I went through years of complicated correctional surgeries on my legs, followed by some nasty physical therapy. I’ve broken bones. I’ve been beaten up. I get incapacitating migraines. Playing rugby in college, I was once matched up against a woman called “Rhonda the Tank.”

But my month at Amazon has been the most physically painful experience of my life. The first two weeks felt like walking on knives for most of my shift. Even a month in, I’m still dosing myself with Advil five or six times a shift to keep the stabbing pain in my lower body at a manageable level.

But I’d never considered quitting because of the pain. Eleven hours a day of isolation and monotony have brought me close to walking out more than once this past month.

Because not only can’t we talk to one another, we’re not allowed to bring anything sold by Amazon in through security, especially not phones or mp3 players. The only thing to listen to is the white noise hum of conveyor belts, fans, and fluorescent lights. There’s nothing to do out here but pick, and the monotony is really starting to get to me.

“How do you keep yourself from going nuts out there?” has been my icebreaker at my unpaid half-hour of lunch. Everybody has something — a lot of people sing, others dance. I sing until I’m hoarse, every day. I have literally started memorizing new songs on my days off so my repertoire has more variety.

I spend most of the morning singing Christmas carols to myself as I push my cart around the empty-seeming fourth floor. After a couple of hours, I catch a flash of red and white out of the corner of my eye, and wonder if SDF8 has finally driven me mad.

But I’d never considered quitting because of the pain. Eleven hours a day of isolation and monotony have brought me close to walking out more than once this past month.

Emily Guendelsberger, author of "On the Clock"

But when I backtrack a few feet — yes. Bent over, rummaging in a drawer, is Santa Claus. Perfect natural beard, glasses, hat, red suit — though as a concession to the temperature and physicality of picking, the sleeves have been cut off.

My scanner nags at me to move along, but it’s my last day. It has no power over me. It starts reporting my seconds of Time Off Task as I go talk to Santa.

He says he does this every year, to lighten the mood. He’s actually a professional Santa when he’s not as SDF8. “In fact, I've got an appearance tomorrow — the Haven House Christmas party for the homeless. I've been their Santa for about three years,” he says. It’s a volunteer gig, “but you know what? That's what it's all about. All this stuff — “ He waves a hand at the shelves. “There's so many people in this country that have nothing.”

“I get that feeling in here a lot,” I say, smiling at him.

“Stuff! That's all it is. It's stuff. And if we don't have people like you with a smile on your face, who know that they're blessed to be healthy enough to work here, even though it's hard work ... why get upset?” He gestures at the cardboard labyrinth again. “Some people get so angry with this, the bad things that happen here, and — it is what it is.”

Then Santa notices his scan gun, which has been blinking at him for a while. Unlike me, he needs to keep this job. “Oops, I’ve got to keep going!” he says apologetically, tossing the bagged shirt he’s holding into his tote. “Have a blessed Christmas!” Santa says over his shoulder as he rounds a corner and vanishes into the shelves.

Emily Guendelsberger will be having her Philly release party for “On the Clock” at the Pen & Pencil Club, 1522 Latimer St., at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 18.