Emily Guendelsberger discusses On the Clock

7 p.m. Aug. 1 |  Flyleaf Books

752 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Chapel Hill

919-942-7373  |  flyleafbooks.com

As it happens, Emily Guendelsberger and I had the same job, though not at the same time. We were both news editors at the Philadelphia City Paper. I left in 2010. She came on a few years later and stayed until the storied alt-weekly closed in October 2015. 

A few months before City Paper went belly-up, Guendelsberger set out to fact-check a claim being propagated by Uber that its drivers could make $90,000 a year, which she did by becoming an Uber driver and writing about her experience. She found, of course, that the $90,000 claim was wildly optimistic; she made about $9 or $10 an hour, as did most of the drivers she spoke with. 

The story got a lot of attention, including from book publishers, so when Guendelsberger found herself unemployed later that year, she decided to dive into a field that she found immensely fascinating: the intersection of technology and low-wage work, and how technology enables large corporations to control every facet of low-wage employees’ lives to extract profit at the expense of their humanity. 

The result is On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, published in July by Little, Brown and Company. At turns biting, darkly funny, and infuriating, On the Clock acts as a sort of spiritual successor to Barbara Ehrenreich’s seminal 2001 book Nickel and Dimed

In it, Guendelsberger tells the stories of three jobs she held: as an Amazon warehouse worker in Kentucky; as a call center employee for Convergys in Hickory, North Carolina; and at a McDonald’s in downtown San Francisco.

“The point of the book,” she told me, “is not that these three are outliers. The system that these three companies are very successful within is really brutal on low-wage workers across the board. It’s just that some companies are better at programming stuff than others.”

I misheard her: “You said they’re better at programming us?” I asked.

“Programming stuff,” she corrected, then paused. “‘Programming us’ is not that far off, honestly.”

Ahead of her appearance at Flyleaf Books on August 1—which includes a Q&A with former INDY staff writer and Splinter news editor Paul Blest—I spoke with Guendelsberger about what she learned from her experiences and what the future of low-wage work looks like. 

INDY: How did you pick these three places to work at? Amazon’s been in the news a lot, and McDonald’s has been the subject of Fight for $15 campaigns. But I’m curious about the call center. 

EMILY GUENDELSBERGER: Call centers, even though they are sort of the archetype of jobs that go overseas, there still are just tons of call center jobs here. Frequently, smaller industrial towns will try to recruit them to make up for lost factory jobs. North Carolina did in the furniture sector out west. I spoke to, I believe it was the head of the Chamber of Commerce, and that was something that they were very happy to get, and that was considered a pretty OK job. Except if you knew anybody that had worked there, the whole [job] orientation, it seemed to be trying to put our minds at ease about whatever horrible stuff we’d heard about the company. Because, you know, in a small town, you probably know somebody who has worked there, and people really did not like that place.

In the introduction, you set up this interesting idea that we’ve been in an economic recovery for nine or ten years now, and there’s a lot of talk about how well the economy is doing by top-level metrics—GDP and unemployment. But there seems to be this disconnect between what those numbers are saying and what a lot of the people who are filling those jobs actually experience. When you see those numbers, what goes through your mind?

That we need less simplistic ways of measuring how well the country as a whole is doing. Because, I think, either 90 or 95 percent of the jobs in the post-recession recovery were not jobs like you would generally think of. They were contractor jobs. They were like temp jobs, part-time work. The recession, it’s as if it wiped out a whole bunch of jobs that were the older-school type of jobs with benefits, reasonable working hours, dependable salaries, that sort of thing. And then those jobs were replaced by more precarious jobs where you can’t really plan ahead for anything because you don’t get your schedule until, like, the day or two before your schedule starts, which makes it really difficult to arrange for childcare or doctor appointments, or, you know, literally anything.

So, yeah, GDP is a really bad metric. GDP and unemployment are not good metrics for how well our jobs are doing. All these jobs kind of suck. There were these conversations, especially around five or ten years ago, about the skills gap, which is just ridiculous crap. There’s a study that came out pretty recently about how companies are complaining about how they can’t find qualified people to fill positions, and these are the free-market type, like neoclassical economics guys. And yet they are not applying their own theories of economics to—what do I do if I can’t get people to work my crappy job? In neoclassical economics, if you are not able to get enough workers to staff your business, that means you either need to pay more or make it more pleasant to work at. But they instead seem to to be drawn to this [idea that] America got real stupid and lazy. 

One of the things I find most irritating about people who complain about things like the skills gap is that they don’t have any idea what it’s like now. They maybe have memories of having a crappy job in the seventies or in the eighties. It has gotten really, really different in the last ten or twenty years because of how technology is so integrated into everything workers do these days. And it can be used to measure and time everything you do.

Tell me about that. I read that, in the McDonald’s handbook, there’s an assembly line that’s timed down to the second from when a customer approaches the counter to when the order should be presented. How programed is this entire working experience? I worked in shit food jobs, too, but that was twenty years ago when I was a teenager, and we didn’t have anything like that.

The average fast-food worker’s age today is twenty-nine years old. So with McDonald’s, I didn’t really get into that much of the specific timing metrics, just because it was so fast-paced all the time. I was just on register, and one of the very difficult things, I think, for retail and fast-food workers now is that under-staffing has become sort of a science, like all of these algorithms try to calculate exactly how many people are needed for any time of the day. And then they get scheduled by an algorithm around those busy hours, which means that (a), your hours are super strange and usually irregular, and (b), are usually staffed at exactly enough people to keep the line of customers from rioting. But nothing more than that, truly. When you are in the middle of a rush, you’re working at maximum productivity, because you don’t want the line to turn on you.

You’re talking about automation, and that’s only moving in one direction, right? Do you have any sense of what’s going to be left for some of these folks when, say, Amazon is able to have a fully automated packing line?

We’re in this weird brackish period between human work and machine work, where humans and algorithms and other things are in direct competition for jobs. Right now, human beings are so much better at a lot of things, such as visual recognition, fine motor control, pattern recognition, conversation, empathy, all of these things, but humans, from the very cold-hearted market point of view, are worse workers ’cause we’re human

And that means we’ve got to go to the bathroom and go pick up our kids from school. In order to be on top of machines, humans have to try to repress all our human inefficiencies, which is basically just everything that makes you different from a robot that has no life outside of work, doesn’t get bored, and doesn’t have to pee and, you know, will never call out sick. 

I don’t know if you saw that New Yorker article a couple of years ago about how all the Silicon Valley guys are building luxury apocalypse bunkers. Some of them are, but a lot of other ones, like even the libertarian types, are really interested in universal basic income, which should be antithetical to libertarianism. 

These people in Silicon Valley are valued because they see the future. If all of these people who are looking ahead are seeing either a population that has had at least half of their jobs automated away and pacifying them through some amount of basic income or hiding from them in bunkers, like, I definitely think that things are going to change a lot in the next ten or twenty years. We should not leave what this new society is going to look like to people like [Uber co-founder] Travis Kalanick and [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos. 

What was the weirdest thing you experienced while you were doing these jobs?

I think the thing that surprised me most was how common it was for a food worker to get food thrown at them. I was at the call center in North Carolina—and I did this before I went to McDonald’s—and our very sweet trainer was trying to reassure us about people yelling us on the phone, because one of the more difficult parts of working at a call center is that, at least in my call center, you weren’t allowed to hang up for any reason. You just had to sit there and let them scream at you and call you names. So she asked my training class of twenty people, “How many of you have worked fast food?”

Most of the people in the class raised their hand. And she said, “So when you work in fast food, how many of you have had a customer just get right up in your face, screaming at you, call you names, and throw food at you?”

And everybody’s hand was still up. I was pretty shocked by that. And when I went to work at McDonald’s, I think it was during my third week, a really angry lady pegged me with honey mustard, and it got all over my shirt and my hair, and I screamed at her and then got, you know, written up for screaming at her. Then when I would talk to my coworkers about it after that happened, I was definitely the weird one because that was the first time that it happened to me. It was not shocking to them at all.

That speaks to how people in fast-food jobs and then some of these other industries are perceived by everyone else—almost like serfdom, right?

Not even serfdom. It’s like you’re not really a human being. Like I had to work on, you may recall Szechuan sauce day. It sucked so bad. We didn’t even have the stupid sauce and all these stupid kids kept coming in, and, you know, like, “Do you have the Szechuan sauce?” It made the lines super long all day. I saw my coworker get hit in the eyes with a handful at sugar packets that day. Afterward, I went looking for anything about how bad it sucks for McDonald’s workers—like, how miserable this stupid stunt that McDonald’s PR attempted. I wanted to read anything about what I experienced, and there was nothing. There were plenty of articles about like some idiot on Twitter who drove six hours to get this [sauce] and then wasn’t able to get it, and there were all of these people who were disappointed after waiting hours in line for Szechuan sauce.

I saw a video somewhere, a bunch of people in a restaurant and in a McDonald’s in San Jose, which was pretty close to where my restaurant was. They kind of rioted a little bit, like there’s this video of it happening and some kid is laughing and sort of like taking his phone around looking at all of these guys. The dudes are like, “Give us the sauce, give us the sauce,” and everybody’s laughing and it’s really fun. But as he’s panning, you briefly see two poor counter workers still just trying to do their job, and it’s just so bleak, like, those people in that restaurant did not see the people behind the counter as equally human to them. I don’t know, it was really a bummer.

You mentioned the media coverage for that event. And I was thinking about something you’d written in the intro, which is that so many of the decision-makers and people who influence how we think about policies related to working-class folks, people in the media have either have never worked any of these jobs or haven’t done so in a modern environment. How many folks at The Washington Post or The New York Times went to Columbia and went to Northwestern and didn’t have to scrape by and work $8-an-hour, $10-an-hour jobs? So you become detached from that reality and you can’t relate to it. And so the story about the dude driving six hours to get this packet of sauce is more interesting than the people who are dealing with twenty-five assholes lined out the door yelling at them.

If I had been an editor or a reporter during that stupid day, and some editor assigned me to go write something about Szechuan sauce, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, honestly, to get something from the point of view of workers, because it would be annoying to track down workers, whereas like all these people were on Twitter and it’s easy to find them. And the people in the line resemble the people I hang out with, like, in my life more than the people behind the counter resemble people who I hang out with in my life, and you automatically assign more importance to things that seem relevant to you personally.

A lot of assignment editors are going off their own common sense. They’re just going on their gut, their feelings. People don’t really examine that as much as they probably should—and how much class can affect that, especially if you have never had a really crappy job or if you haven’t had one recently.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com.

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One reply on “Emily Guendelsberger’s New Book “On the Clock” Gives an On-the-Ground Account of How Automation Makes Shitty Jobs Shittier”

  1. I work at Amazon in Jax2, and while I know that picking was a more difficult job when I tried it, it definitely isn’t for everyone. I’ve seen people who have picked the entire time they’ve worked here, and they’ve been here for over a year. Personally, I have stowed for over a year as well, and I’m finally moving to a different department. But stow has become very easy for me, and I can say it’s the same for the long time pickers. They do still get tired, but they can make rate fairly easily unlike me who only picked off and on for about 2 months. That being said, I can still live my own life outside of Amazon. I have enough time off to come and go as I please, and I can still take care of my needs when I need to, because making rate isn’t hard.

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