The Workers Who Bring You Black Friday
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
The call from the temp agency comes in late October. I’ve passed the drug test, cleared the background check, sat down for a quick interview—“Can you lift fifty-pound boxes?”—and completed a worksheet of basic math problems. Now there’s a job. A warehouse just outside the city of Ontario, about forty miles east of Los Angeles, needs more bodies to meet the holiday crush.
They do work for Walmart, Best Buy, “all sorts of big companies,” says the female voice on the line. Orientation starts at 8:15 am; pay is $9 an hour. “Make sure you’re early.” Before hanging up she repeats the order. “Be early.”
On an overcast Tuesday, I pull into the parking lot, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. Looming to my left is a giant rectangle of windowless cement. At 800,000 square feet, the warehouse is the size of Madison Square Garden, big enough that any misplaced products are as good as lost. I get my picture snapped for an ID badge and join thirty other new hires in the cafeteria. It is a diverse group, evenly divided by gender, mostly Latino but with a fair number of whites and blacks. As we sit, several men swap rumors of better opportunities elsewhere: a warehouse where pay starts at $12 an hour, another with productivity bonuses that can boost hourly wages to $15. But those are direct hire positions, and hard to land. During my job search, each warehouse I visited gave directions to the nearest temp agency.
After waiting twenty minutes, we are ushered into a room upstairs. A woman from the agency hands each of us a time sheet. For the sign-in, she tells us to write 8:30. “I know you were told to be here at 8:15,” she says, anticipating a protest that never comes, “but that was just to make sure you got here early.”
And, like that, fifteen minutes are lopped from our paycheck. It’s a small but important lesson in what it means to be a “flexible” worker. We are not in control here. Shifts may last four hours, eight hours or twelve; start times will bounce around as well. I’m originally hired for a shift that begins at 7 am, but that later moves up an hour, to 8, and then, in a rush to move goods out the door, to four o’clock in the morning. In the online world of holiday shopping, where demand can surge and retreat with the click of (many) buttons, workers must respond in real time, shoving other commitments aside. For people without cars, the ever-changing schedule makes it hard to coordinate transportation. One middle-aged woman, caught off guard on a day we’re dismissed at noon, will spend three hours walking the eight miles home. That she returns for the next shift—rubbing her feet and complaining under her breath—is a testament to her “flexibility,” to how far she’s learned to bend in the new economy.
A man I’ll call Brian (I’ve changed the names of people at the warehouse) takes over. He works for Ingram Micro, the warehouse operator, which he tells us is a “pretty big company.” (In fact, it’s the largest distributor of electronics in the world, with $37.8 billion in revenue last year.) Brian has a boyish face, wears an orange polo shirt and does his best to inject some passion into the room. “You guys are here to work—that’s awesome!” he calls. Blank stares. “We want people who want to be here!” Some fidgeting. He seems to be a nice enough guy, but it’s a tough crowd for a pep talk.
So down to business. Lesson number one: safety is a top priority of Ingram Micro. “We are constantly having people get hurt because they are working too fast,” Brian says. “You don’t get paid enough to get hurt.” (Someone behind me mutters, “You got that right.”) Brian walks us through the proper way to pick up boxes, and holds up a poster that illustrates safe stretching techniques.
But it’s a complicated message Brian is preaching. Why, after all, are people working too fast? Why did the employee in Brian’s lead anecdote try to slide under the conveyor belt—busting his head open in the process—instead of simply walking around?
Well, there’s this: the output for each employee, tracked at every moment via our scanning guns, will be posted daily. “All supervisors see are numbers, numbers, numbers,” he tells us. “So are we going to push you to work faster and be more productive?” The man to my left dutifully nods. “Yes, we are. Does the company expect you to pick up and carry fifty-pound boxes? Yes, it does.” Pause. “But we don’t expect you to carry them half a mile.”
Before we’re dismissed, the temp agency staffer returns with some final words of advice. Anyone who misses a shift on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday or Christmas Eve is out. Anyone who isn’t performing at 100 percent efficiency by the third week will be given one week to improve, and then is out. On the bright side, a few “top performers”—perhaps 150 of the 800 temps they’ll hire by Thanksgiving—may get to stick around after the holiday season and avoid the mass layoffs. “Some people even get hired permanently by Ingram Micro,” she says. Such a promotion, she tells us, would include raises and benefits. The emphasis is hers. She makes the words sound like exotic treats.
But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. Just this morning, she let someone go who was performing only at 20 percent. It won’t be easy to meet our efficiency goals, she acknowledges. “It sounds like a lot,” she tells us, “but it’s possible.”
* * *