THE PLACE IS immense. Cold, cavernous. Silent, despite thousands of people quietly picking items, or standing along the conveyors quietly packing or box-taping, nothing noisy but the occasional whir of a passing forklift. I have just been hired as a picker, which means my job is to find, scan, place in a plastic tote, and send away via conveyor whatever item within the multiple stories of this several-hundred-thousand-square-foot warehouse my scanner tells me to.
My scanner tells me in what exact section — there are nine merchandise sections, so sprawling that there's a map attached to my ID badge — of vast shelving systems the item resides. It also tells me how many seconds I should take to get there. Dallas sector, section yellow, row H34, bin 22, level D: wearable blanket. Twenty seconds. At 5-foot-9, I've got a decently long stride, and I cover the 20 steps and locate the exact shelving unit in the allotted time only if I don't hesitate for a second and walk as fast as I can or even jog. Often as not, I miss my time target.
I'm working for Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc., which has ordered the exact number of humans from the temp agency to fill this week's orders if we work at top capacity. Lots of retailers use temporary help in peak season, and online ones are no exception. But lots of warehousing and distribution centers like this also use temps year-round. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that more than 15 percent of pickers, packers, movers, and unloaders are temps. They make $3 less an hour on average than permanent workers. And they can be "temporary" for years. Always, they can be let go in an instant.
Everyone in here is hustling. At the announcement to take one of our two 15-minute breaks, we hustle even harder. We pickers close out the totes we're currently filling and send them away on the conveyor belt, then make our way as fast as we can with the rest of the masses across the long haul of concrete between wherever we are and the break room. But first we must pass through metal detectors, for which there is a line — we're required to be screened on our way out, though not on our way in. If we don't set off the metal detector and have to be taken aside and searched, we can run into the break room and try to find a seat among the long-ass rows of tables. We lose more time if we want to pee. People who work at Amalgamated are always working this fast. Right now, because it's almost Black Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping season, there are just more of us doing it.
Amalgamated has estimated that we pickers speed-walk an average of 12 miles a day on cold concrete, and the twinge in my legs blurs into the heavy soreness in my feet that complements the pinch in my hips when I crouch to the floor — the pickers' shelving runs from the floor to 7 feet high or so — to retrieve an iPad protective case. iPad anti-glare protector. iPad one-hand grip-holder device. And dildos. Really, a staggering number of dildos.
At lunch in the break room, mothers frantically call home. "Hi, baby!" you can hear them say; coos to children echo around the walls. Lunch is 29 minutes and 59 seconds — we've been reminded of this: "Lunch is not 30 minutes and 1 second;"that's a penalty-point-earning offense — and that includes the time to get through the metal detectors and use the disgustingly overcrowded bathroom. So we chew quickly, and are often still chewing as we run back to our stations.
Near the end of my third day I get written up. I sent two of some product down the conveyor line when my scanner was only asking for one; the product was boxed in twos, so I should've opened the box and separated them, but I didn't notice because I was in a hurry. With an hour left in the day, I've already picked 800 items. Despite moving fast enough to get sloppy, my scanner tells me I'm fulfilling only 52 percent of my goal. A supervisor who is a genuinely nice person comes by with a clipboard listing my numbers. She needs this job, too, so she has no choice but to tell me something I have never been told in 19 years of school or at any of some dozen workplaces. "You're doing really bad," she says.
WHEN I WAS hired at the temp agency, I signed something acknowledging that anyone who leaves without at least a week's notice — whether because they're a journalist like me who will just leave or because they miss a day for having a baby and are terminated — has their hours paid out not at their hired rate, which for me was eleven-something an hour, but at the legal minimum, which in this state is about $7 an hour. In my 10.5-hour day I'll make about $60 after taxes.
And I'm working for a gigantic, immensely profitable company. The stuff we order from big online retailers lives in large warehouses, owned and operated by the retailers themselves or by third-party logistics contractors. Either way, the actual stuff is often handled by people working for yet another company — a temporary-staffing agency, like the one that hired me, along with 4,000 other drones, for this single Amalgamated warehouse between October and December.
Temp agencies keep the stink of unacceptable labor conditions off the companies whose names you know. When temps working at a Walmart warehouse sued for not getting paid for all their hours, and for then getting sent home without pay for complaining, Walmart — not technically their employer — wasn't named as a defendant. Temporary staffers aren't legally entitled to decent health care because they are just short-term "contractors" no matter how long they keep the same job. They aren't entitled to raises, either, and they don't get vacation and they'd have a hell of a time unionizing and they don't have the privilege of knowing if they'll have work on a particular day or for how long they'll have a job. And that is how you slash prices and deliver products superfast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the millions or billions.
"This really doesn't have to be this awful," I say to a friend. But it is. And this job is just about the only game in town, like it is in lots of towns, and eventually will be in more towns, with U.S. Internet retail sales projected to grow 10 percent every year — to $279 billion in 2015 — and with Amazon, the largest of the online retailers, seeing revenues rise 30 to 40 percent year after year and already having 69 giant warehouses, 17 of which came online in 2011 alone. So butch up, Sally.
IT'S MY 28TH hour as an employee. I probably look happier than I should because I have the extreme luxury of not giving a s--- about keeping this job. Nevertheless, I'm tearing around my assigned sector hard enough to keep myself consistently light-headed and a little out of breath. I'm working in books today. "Oh," I smiled to myself when I reached the paper-packed shelves. I love being around books.
Picking books for Amalgamated has a disadvantage over picking dildos or baby food or Barbies, however. In the books sector, it's cold, and the winter dryness is made worse by the fans and all the paper. I jet across the floor in my rubber-soled Adidas, pant legs whooshing against each other — 30 seconds according to my scanner — to take 35 steps to get to the right section and row and bin and level and reach for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and "F---!" A hot spark shoots between my hand and the metal shelving. It's not the light static-electric prick I would terrorize my sister with when we got bored in carpeted department stores, but a solid shock, striking enough to make my body learn to fear it. "Be careful of your head," a co-worker says to me. In the first two hours of my day, I pick 300 items. The majority of them zap me painfully.
I'm still only at 57 percent of my goal. It's been 10 years since I was a mover and packer for a moving company, and only slightly less since I worked ridiculously long hours as a waitress and housecleaner. My back and knees were younger then, but I'm only 31 and feel pretty confident that if I were doing those jobs again I'd still wake up with soreness like a person who'd worked out too much, not the soreness of a person whose body was staging a revolt. I can break into a goal-meeting suicide pace for short bouts, sure, but I can't keep it up for 10.5 hours.
At today's pickers' meeting, we are reminded that customers are waiting. We cannot move at a "comfortable pace," because 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.
Back in books, I take another sharp shock to my right hand 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 one in three 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 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: "We're all in the same boat," he said, after shaking my hand to welcome me aboard. "It's a really big boat."
From an article in Mother Jones. ©2012 by the Foundation for National Progress, reprinted with permission.