In On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane (Little, Brown, July), journalist Guendelsberger analyzes her experiences working in an Amazon warehouse, a customer service call center, and a McDonald’s franchise.
What is something you experienced that surprised you, or that you think others might find surprising?
I was surprised by how out-of-date my mental image of service work was. Monitoring technology has worked its way into every nook and cranny of low-wage jobs, and the feeling that you always have somebody standing behind you with a stopwatch is really different. It’s so stressful.
Which job was easiest for you, and why?
I think McDonald’s was easiest. Walking 15 miles a shift, plus a lot of squats, at Amazon was really physically painful, but the isolation was what really got to me—you’re alone pretty much your whole shift, which in my case was 11.5 hours. The call center was mentally exhausting—there was a ludicrous amount of multitasking involved, and we weren’t allowed to hang up on a caller, no matter how much they screamed. At McDonald’s, I had almost no downtime; while the constant intensity got exhausting, it did make shifts go by quickly. And customers there tended to be in better moods than people calling in to AT&T because of some billing issue.
You talk about the psychological strain of working low-wage jobs. How is stress built into these jobs, and what do you imagine might make things easier for employees?
Regulation-wise, we need to make it easier for workers to form and join unions. Raise the minimum wage. Give all workers paid leave. Regulate how far in advance you have to give workers their schedules—two weeks at minimum. As for how to be decent, well, a lot of people have asked me whether it’s okay to order the book on Amazon. I tell them I don’t think individual choices matter much. The government is going to have to change the system underlying how we work and set better, up-to-date rules about how much stress companies are allowed to load onto their workers. In the meantime, treat service workers like they’re human beings, and not just the ones who are doing a perfect job. Buy from local businesses when you can. Tip well. Be patient when you have to wait—frontline workers are often purposely understaffed and are definitely at least as miserable as you. Try to understand the annoying situation as a top-down problem. If you must, ask to see a manager and complain specifically about understaffing. Possibly even track down the owner or CEO, too—they don’t hear about the negative effects of their cost-cutting strategies for workers and customers that much. Let them know, not workers who have nothing to do with it.