The Law of the Shelf: What Lives Behind Your Amazon Order

Amazon is scary good, people. It’s always kind of an unsettling miracle when the order […]

Amazon is scary good, people. It’s always kind of an unsettling miracle when the order you’ve placed online finds its way to your front door, as though there’s some magical winged deliverer, some mythical albatross who, from the belly of the earth, has brought to your stoop longed-for treasures. It’s amazing. Granted, most of us naturally remember the one time this process did not work out so romantically, the time the wrong power converter/phone charger/ABBA record/hair treatment came, but how often has that happened, honestly? Amazon is really good at getting you what you demand. And you are one tough customer, demanding perfection and pummeling the comments column when anything less is provided–it’s a gross understatement to say that our consumerism is expectation-laden. Like the pig to the trough, here is our modern feeder; now that this kind of delivery has been achieved, it becomes what we expect. What was the miracle is now the standard. But what is happening when we place an order? What happens in the days (or hours) between mouse click and door knock?

Mother Jones sent Mac McClelland to go work for Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc., one of the country’s largest 3PLs (third-party logistics contractors), and then write about the inner-cogs of the online shipping industry. The recurring theme? If this is our deliverer albatross, it’s certainly around our neck. It’s a ruthless work environment, physically and emotionally unforgiving, one that sets unachievable goals and reminds you you’re not meeting them. Ringing any bells? The whole article is an exposé of the hidden world we navigate every day and can’t really keep ourselves from navigating–and what’s more, it’s really not as different from the rest of our lives as we’d like to pretend. Instead, our own psychological response to the demand for our perfection is about the same–we rev up in crisis, we fire what doesn’t perform, we expect and we do not forgive. The revealed world of Amalgated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. is the concealed world of you and me.

Inside Amalgamated, an employee’s first day is training day. Though we’re not paid to be here until 6, we have been informed that we need to arrive at 5. If we don’t show up in time to stand around while they sort out who we are and where they’ve put our ID badges, we could miss the beginning of training, which would mean termination. “I was up half the night because I was so afraid I was going to be late,” a woman in her 60s tells me. I was, too. A minute’s tardiness after the first week earns us 0.5 penalty points, an hour’s tardiness is worth 1 point, and an absence 1.5; 6 is the number that equals “release.” But during the first week even a minute’s tardiness gets us fired. When we get lined up so we can be counted a third or fourth time, the woman conducting the roll call recognizes the last name of a young trainee. “Does your dad work here? Or uncle?” she asks. “Grandpa,” he says, as another supervisor snaps at the same time, sounding not mean but very stressed out, “We gotta get goin’ here.”

The culture is intense, an Amalgamated higher-up acknowledges at the beginning of our training. He’s speaking to us from a video, one of several videos—about company policies, sexual harassment, etc.—that we watch while we try to keep our eyes open. We don’t want to be so intense, the higher-up says. But our customers demand it. We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies. The gal conducting our training reminds us again that we cannot miss any days our first week. There are NO exceptions to this policy. She says to take Brian, for example, who’s here with us in training today. Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.

Soon, we move on to practical training. Like all workplaces with automated and heavy machinery, this one contains plenty of ways to get hurt, and they are enumerated. There are transition points in the warehouse floor where the footing is uneven, and people trip and sprain ankles. Give forklifts that are raised up several stories to access products a wide berth: “If a pallet falls on you, you won’t be working with us anymore.” Watch your fingers around the conveyor belts that run waist-high throughout the entire facility. People lose fingers. Or parts of fingers. And about once a year, they tell us, someone in an Amalgamated warehouse gets caught by the hair, and when a conveyor belt catches you by the hair, it doesn’t just take your hair with it. It rips out a piece of scalp as well.

If the primary message of one-half of our practical training is Be Careful, the takeaway of the other half is Move As Fast As Humanly Possible. Or superhumanly possible. I have 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. We are broken into groups and taught how to read the scanner to find the object among some practice shelves. Then we immediately move on to practicing doing it faster, racing each other to fill the orders our scanners dictate, then racing each other to put all the items back.

…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 not before passing 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; apparently the concern is that we’re sneaking Xbox 360s up under our shirts, not bringing in weapons. 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 rows and rows and long-ass rows of tables. We lose more time if we want to pee—and I do want to pee, and when amid the panic about the time constraints it occurs to me that I don’t have my period I toss a fist victoriously into the air—between the actual peeing and the waiting in line to pee in the nearest one of the two bathrooms, which has eight stalls in the ladies’ and I’m not sure how many in the men’s and serves thousands of people a day. Once I pare this process down as much as possible, by stringing a necktie through my belt loops because I can’t find a metal-less replacement for my belt at the local Walmart—and if my underwear or butt-crack slips out, I’ve been warned, I can get penalized—and by leaving my car keys in the break room after a manager helps me find an admittedly “still risky” hiding place for them because we have no lockers and “things get stolen out of here all the time,” I get myself up to seven minutes’ worth of break time to inhale as many high-fat and -protein snacks as I can. People who work at Amalgamated are always working this fast. Right now, because it’s almost Black Friday, there are just more of us doing it.

Then as quickly as we’ve come, we all run back. At the end of the 15 minutes, we’re supposed to be back at whichever far-flung corner of the warehouse we came from, scanners in hand, working. We run to grab the wheeled carts we put the totes on. We run past each other and if we do say something, we say it as we keep moving. “How’s the job market?” a supervisor says, laughing, as several of us newbies run by. “Just kidding!” Ha ha! “I know why you guys are here. That’s why I’m here, too!” At another near collision between employees, one wants to know how complaining about not being able to get time off went and the other spits that he was told he was lucky to have a job. This is no way to have a conversation, but at least conversations are not forbidden, as they were in the Ohio warehouse I reported on—where I saw a guy get fired for talking, specifically for asking another employee, “Where are you from?” So I’m allowed the extravagance of smiling at a guy who is always so unhappy and saying, “How’s it goin’?” And he can respond, “Terrible,” as I’m running to the big industrial cage-lift that takes our carts up to the second or third floors, which involves walking under a big metal bar gating the front of it, and which I should really take my time around. Within the last month, three different people have needed stitches in the head after being clocked by these big metal bars, so it’s dangerous. Especially the lift in the Dallas sector, whose bar has been installed wrong, so it is extra prone to falling, they tell us. Be careful. Seriously, though. We really need to meet our goals here.

“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.

“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.

We will be fired if we say we just can’t or won’t get better, the [coworker] 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 [coworker].

“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.

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5 responses to “The Law of the Shelf: What Lives Behind Your Amazon Order”

  1. Nick Lannon says:

    Holy Mother of…

  2. honeybee says:

    I am speechless. I am without speech.

  3. American capitalism sucks… I’m moving to France…seriously…even if I’m deluded about it being any better, at least I get two hours for lunch.

  4. Ted says:

    Read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for more.

  5. Ginny says:

    Yikes. Capitalism at its…finest?

    This article doesn’t even touch on the millions of small family businesses that Amazon has put out of business.

    I’ll definitely think twice about where I get my books.

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