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.