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I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave

My brief, backbreaking, rage-inducing, low-paying, dildo-packing time inside the online-shipping machine.

"Do not say that," one of the workampers tells me at break. Workampers are people who drive RVs around the country, from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps. "We're retired but we can't…" another explains to me about himself and his wife, shrugging, "make it. And there's no jobs, so we go where the jobs are."

Amalgamated advertises positions on websites workampers frequent. In this warehouse alone, there are hundreds of them.

"Never say that you can't do it," the first workamper emphasizes. "When they ask you why you aren't reaching your goals—"

"Say, 'It's because they're totally unreasonable'?" I suggest.

"These decisions are made at a business level and are based on cost," an industry analyst says. "I never, ever thought about what they're like and how they treat people. Fulfillment centers want to keep clients blissfully ignorant of their conditions."

"Say you'll do better, even if you know you can't," she continues, ignoring me. "Say you'll try harder, even if the truth is that you're trying your absolute hardest right now, no matter how many times they tell you you're not doing good enough."

There are people who make the goals. One of the trainers does. She works here all year, not just during Christmas. "I hated picking for the first month," she told me sympathetically the other day. "Then you just get used to it." She's one of many hardcore workers here, a labor pool studded with dedicated and solid employees. One of the permanent employees has tried to encourage me by explaining that he always makes his goals, and sometimes makes 120 percent of them. When I ask him if that isn't totally exhausting, he says, "Oh yeah. You're gonna be crying for your mommy when today's over." When I ask him if there's any sort of incentive for his overperformance, if he's rewarded in any way, he says occasionally Amalgamated enters him in drawings for company gift cards. For $15 or $20. He shrugs when he admits the size of the bonus. "These days you need it." Anyway, he says, he thinks it's important to have a good attitude and try to do a good job. Even some of the employees who are total failures are still trying really hard. "I heard you're doing good," one of the ladies in my training group says to me. Her eyebrows are heavy with stress. I am still hitting less than 60 percent of my target. Still, that's better than she's doing. "Congratulations," she says, and smiles sadly.

Zappos: Brent Humphreys/ReduxZappos Brent Humphreys/ReduxWe will be fired if we say we just can't or won't get better, the workamper tells me. But so long as I resign myself to hearing how inadequate I am on a regular basis, I can keep this job. "Do you think this job has to be this terrible?" I ask the workamper.

"Oh, no," she says, and makes a face at me like I've asked a stupid question, which I have. As if Amalgamated couldn't bear to lose a fraction of a percent of profits by employing a few more than the absolute minimum of bodies they have to, or by storing the merchandise at halfway ergonomic heights and angles. But that would cost space, and space costs money, and money is not a thing customers could possibly be expected to hand over for this service without huffily taking their business elsewhere. Charging for shipping does cause high abandonment rates of online orders, though it's not clear whether people wouldn't pay a few bucks for shipping, or a bit more for the products, if they were guaranteed that no low-income workers would be tortured or exploited in the handling of their purchases.

"The first step is awareness," an e-commerce specialist will tell me later. There have been trickles of information leaking out of the Internet Order Fulfillment Industrial Complex: an investigation by the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call in which Amazon workers complained of fainting in stifling heat, being disciplined for getting heat exhaustion, and otherwise being "treated like a piece of crap"; a workampers' blog picked up by Gizmodo; a Huffington Post exposé about the lasting physical damage and wild economic instability temporary warehouse staffers suffer. And workers have filed lawsuits against online retailers, their logistics companies, and their temp agencies over off-the-clock work and other compensation issues, as well as at least one that details working conditions that are all too similar. (That case has been dismissed but is on appeal.) Still, most people really don't know how most internet goods get to them. The e-commerce specialist didn't even know, and she was in charge of choosing the 3PL for her midsize online-retail company. "These decisions are made at a business level and are based on cost," she says. "I never, ever thought about what they're like and how they treat people. Fulfillment centers want to keep clients blissfully ignorant of their conditions." If you called major clothing retailers, she ventured, and asked them "what it was like at the warehouse that ships their sweaters, no one at company headquarters would have any fucking clue."

Further, she said, now that I mentioned it, she has no idea how to go about getting any information on the conditions at the 3PL she herself hired. Nor how to find a responsible one. "A standard has to be created. Like fair trade or organic certification, where social good is built into the cost. There is a segment of the population"—like the consumers of her company's higher-end product, she felt—"that cares and will pay for it."

There's no time off on Election Day. "What if I want to vote?" I ask a supervisor. "I think you should!" he says. "But if I leave I'll get fired," I say. To which he makes a sad face before saying, "Yeah."

If they are aware how inhumane the reality is. But awareness has a long way to go, and logistics doesn't just mean online retail; food packagers and processors, medical suppliers, and factories use mega-3PLs as well. And a whole lot of other industries—hotels, call centers—take advantage of the price controls and plausible deniability that temporary staffing offers.

"Maybe awareness will lead to better working conditions," says Vinod Singhal, a professor of operations management at Georgia Tech. "But…" Given the state of the economy, he isn't optimistic.

This is the kind of resignation many of my coworkers have been forced to accept. At the end of break, the workamper and I are starting to fast-walk back to our stations. A guy who's been listening to our conversation butts in. "They can take you for everything you've got," he says. "They know it's your last resort."

At today's pickers' meeting, we are reminded that customers are waiting. We cannot move at a "comfortable pace," because if we are comfortable, we will never make our numbers, and customers are not willing to wait. And it's Christmastime. We got 2.7 million orders this week. People need—need—these items and they need them right now. So even if you've worked here long enough to be granted time off, you are not allowed to use it until the holidays are over. (And also forget about Election Day, which is today. "What if I want to vote?" I ask a supervisor. "I think you should!" he says. "But if I leave I'll get fired," I say. To which he makes a sad face before saying, "Yeah.") No time off includes those of you who are scheduled to work Thanksgiving. There are two Amalgamated-catered Thanksgiving dinners offered to employees next week, but you can only go to one of them. If you attend one, your employee badge will be branded with a nonremovable sticker so that you cannot also attempt to eat at the other. Anyway, good luck, everybody. Everybody back to work. Quickly!

I feel genuinely sorry for any child who ever asks me for anything for Christmas, only to be informed that every time a "Place Order" button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job.

Speed-walking back to the electro-trauma of the books sector, I wince when I unintentionally imagine the types of Christmas lore that will prevail around my future household. I feel genuinely sorry for any child I might have who ever asks me for anything for Christmas, only to be informed that every time a "Place Order" button rings, a poor person takes four Advil and gets told they suck at their job.

I suppose this is what they were talking about in the radio ad I heard on the way to work, the one that was paid for by a coalition of local businesses, gently begging citizens to buy from them instead of off the internet and warning about the importance of supporting local shops. But if my coworker Brian wants to feed his new baby any of these 24-packs of Plum Organics Apple & Carrot baby food I've been picking, he should probably buy them from Amazon, where they cost only $31.16. In my locally owned grocery store, that's $47.76 worth of sustenance. Even if he finds the time to get in the car to go buy it at a brick-and-mortar Target, where it'd be less convenient but cost about the same as on Amazon, that'd be before sales tax, which physical stores, unlike Amazon, are legally required to charge to help pay for the roads on which Brian's truck, and more to the point Amazon's trucks, drive.

Back in books, I take a sharp shock to my right hand when I grab the book the scanner cramping my left hand demands me to and make some self-righteous promises to myself about continuing to buy food at my more-expensive grocery store, because I can. Because I'm not actually a person who makes $7.25 an hour, not anymore, not one of the 1 in 3 Americans who is now poor or "near poor." For the moment, I'm just playing one.

"Lucky girl," I whisper to myself at the tail of a deep breath, as soon as fresh winter air hits my lungs. It's only lunchtime, but I've breached the warehouse doors without permission. I've picked 500 items this morning, and don't want to get shocked anymore, or hear from the guy with the clipboard what a total disappointment I am. "Lucky girl, lucky girl, lucky girl," I repeat on my way to my car. I told the lady from my training group who's so stressed about her poor performance to tell our supervisor not to look for me—and she grabbed my arm as I turned to leave, looking even more worried than usual, asking if I was sure I knew what I was doing. I don't want our supervisor to waste any time; he's got goals to make, too. He won't miss me, and nobody else will, either. The temp agency is certainly as full of applicants as it was when I went to ask for a job.

"Just look around in here if you wanna see how bad it is out there," one of the associates at the temp office said to me, unprompted, when I got hired. It's the first time anyone has ever tried to comfort me because I got a job, because he knew, and everyone in this industry that's growing wildfire fast knows, and accepts, that its model by design is mean. He offered me the same kind of solidarity the workers inside the warehouse try to provide each other at every break: Why are you here? What happened that you have to let people treat you like this? "We're all in the same boat," he said, after shaking my hand to welcome me aboard. "It's a really big boat."


This story ran in the March/April 2012 issue of Mother Jones, under the headline "Shelf Lives."

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