Capitalism Is Making Us Sick: A Q&A With Emily Guendelsberger About Her New Book, On the Clock

Amazon pays, but the work can break you down. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post via Getty Images

Back in 1980, Dolly Parton had it all figured out. “Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living!” she sang. “Barely gettin’ by, it’s all taking, and no giving. They just use your mind, and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.” Work hasn’t changed much since Parton wrote the words of what would later become Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign song. Americans work more than almost anyone else in the developed world, and for many, that work is getting more and more unpleasant. The rise of automation has been accompanied with jobs that, increasingly, force workers to behave like robots.

The psychological burdens imposed by this regime can be serious, as Emily Guendelsberger documents in her new book, On the Clock, out now from Little, Brown and Company. After her newspaper closed, Guendelsberger, a journalist, took three low-wage jobs. At an Amazon warehouse in Kentucky, a call center in North Carolina, and a McDonald’s in San Francisco, Guendelsberger dealt with threatening customers and isolation at work, physical pain and emotional turmoil. Her book, a clear successor to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, recounts those experiences alongside explorations of the history of work. Technology may have created software that monitors every minute of a person’s workday down to their bathroom breaks, but the quest to turn human workers into docile drones predates the invention of the computer. The problems workers face, then, are much larger than any single corporation — even Amazon. Here, Guendelsberger talks to Intelligencer’s Sarah Jones about her reporting, and why capitalism is making us all sick.

Photo: Little, Brown

Sarah Jones: What really struck me most about your book is that the jobs you held — at Amazon, and Convergys, and McDonald’s — were not jobs designed to let human beings be human beings. What sort of psychological effect does that have on workers?

Emily Guendelsberger: That is the takeaway that I hope people have. The book was mostly written for people who have not had one of these jobs, to clue people in, I suppose. But I also wanted workers from these industries who read it to be able to recognize that it is all the same struggle. People in fast food should have common cause and solidarity with people who work at Amazon. I think the Fight for 15 has done a really great job of showing fast-food workers that this is one fight. It’s not just unionizing McDonald’s or just unionizing Burger King, it’s all fast food. And I think that the inescapability of the sort of computer business systems and timing and monitoring systems that I talk about in the book, I tried to draw sort of a thread between them. And it’s been really cool, honestly. The feedback I expected to get on the book was just people saying that millennials don’t have any work ethic, people don’t know how to work hard, it’s their own fault if they can’t keep these jobs, no one’s holding a gun to their head. But honestly the response that I’ve gotten from almost everybody who’s actually had one of these jobs is, wow, I didn’t realize it was this similar in other industries. I thought it was just my job that sucked.

We’ve gotten so good at technology that can quantify workers’ job performance with metrics. And since it’s pretty much the same everywhere, it’s difficult, especially for unskilled workers, to vote with their feet the way they used to be able to, and the way that classical economics says that they should be able to. You know, if you don’t like your job, you go find another job, and then the previous job can’t find workers and it goes out of business. But when the situation is the same at pretty much everywhere you go, you’re expected to be a robot — whether it’s mentally, like at Convergys or McDonald’s, where you’re supposed to suppress all of your anger and shame and rage when people treat you like garbage, or Amazon, where you have to really push your physical limits.

The mental effects are what I think is even more dangerous than the physical stuff, which is what people generally focus on when they talk about Amazon. Amazon has been getting mowed down by the press lately. But it’s not just Amazon: At other warehouses it’s as bad or worse. I found that, at least among people who had had other warehouse jobs, they tended to find Amazon to be comparatively safe and comparatively well-paying. The problem is that they hate being treated like robots, like where you’re expected to not need to talk to people all day or you’re expected to have to do this extremely monotonous, repetitive job without any sort of mental distraction.

You go into this a bit in the book, but could you tell me more about the specific coping mechanisms that you and your co-workers devised to stay sane?

Well, Amazon is the easiest one to describe, because the mental part is mostly isolation and it’s really difficult. Most jobs in an Amazon warehouse are set up so that you don’t really ever get to talk to your co-workers except on break and lunch.

I was a music theory major, I went to Oberlin, and I did a lot of singing stuff in college. Especially weird, 13th-century chant stuff. So I probably weirded a lot of people out doing some Hildegard von Bingen bangers out there. I definitely sang all the time so that I wouldn’t go crazy. I snuck in headphones at one point, and I’m sure other people do that too. But you can get in real trouble for doing that.

And at Convergys and McDonald’s, where you are in a customer-facing job, I think the coping mechanism that I ended up with and saw mirrored in my co-workers was that you just have to stop caring about the customers. Because otherwise, it leaves you kind of vulnerable, that American work ethic where you make sure the customer has the best possible experience and you go above and beyond to give good service.

There’s a perception, and I think it’s a bipartisan perception, that minimum-wage or low-wage work is typically performed by either teenagers or young adults. That it’s supposed to be your first job, a way to get paid work experience. But many if not most of your co-workers were supporting families with their pay, right?

It’s a weird upper-class idea that people who are teenagers don’t need to make a living wage; in the first place I worked with teenagers at Convergys who had children, like multiple children. But the average age of a fast-food worker is 29. And I believe that a third of them are supporting at least one dependent. If I could, I would force Congress to go have to work one of these jobs during recess, without telling people who they were. Amazon lately has been trying to counter all the bad publicity they’ve been getting with warehouse tours, and it’s just so comical, the idea that walking through it is somehow the same as working there.

The whole thing is gonna be so stage-managed.

Yeah, exactly. I went to tour a new one pretty recently. You walk around with some tour guide, and I was with another reporter who was there to write about my impression of the warehouse. And she had a PR person with her constantly, hovering over her shoulder when she was talking to workers. Don’t be ridiculous! Of course people aren’t going to be honest with you if they have some higher-ups looking over their shoulder. If people want to know what it’s like, just go hang out at the smoking area and talk to people without someone hovering over your shoulder, or go work there. It’s easy to get a job there.

Speaking of Amazon, it suffered another wave of bad press recently because of these Twitter accounts from people from people saying that they were fulfillment-center employees.

Yeah, I’ve known about this for quite awhile. It’s an interesting thing. I really dislike people dragging these people on Twitter or saying they’re bots or whatever. They’re the real people. I met plenty of people at Amazon warehouses that were very enthusiastic about it because in a lot of rural places, especially since the $15-an-hour raise, it is a better job than you can get in a lot of places. A lot of people are very grateful for it.

It’s hard to talk about because Amazon does need to treat their people better. They need to treat them like human beings, and not burn through them like they’re rental cars. But the mainstream understanding, the Twitter understanding, of what makes Amazon jobs bad is not right. It’s not about the pay or hours. People I worked with thought that they paid pretty well and had good benefits back when I was working there, when it was $10.50 an hour. [Ed. note: In 2018, Amazon raised its company-wide minimum wage to $15 an hour.] The long hours — most of the year it’s usually ten-and-a-half-hour shifts, though during peak it’s longer than that — people from the outside tend to look at that as if it’s egregious. But a lot of the people that I talked to actually liked the ten-and-a-half-hour shift because that meant they only had to work four days a week, which made child care a lot easier.

Anyway, be nice to those people! They are real. They probably are not being exactly honest, but it’s not like a PR bot or something. They are real Amazon workers who work in fulfillment centers. They are on the clock when they’re doing it. There are better fights to pick out there.

How have your co-workers reacted to the book since it came out?

I’ve been in touch with people and they’ve liked it so far. I’ve gotten really cool feedback, not just from people I knew, but other people who have worked at Convergys, Amazon, or McDonald’s. There have been people with MAGA avatars on Twitter, and people who are big fans of Bernie, and people in between, who work these jobs have said, “Yeah, that’s my job and that’s why my job sucks.” And I find it very interesting that it seems to be across the political spectrum, so I think that’s something that can be really powerful in the upcoming election.

Even though Fight for 15 is becoming a major force in American politics, some politicians are still afraid to alienate companies like Amazon because they want to be able to say they’ve brought in jobs. And you make it clear we’re talking about a company that’s extremely hostile to unionization or to anything that makes the jobs more hospitable for people.

With the push for $15 an hour, I can definitely see a lot of parallels with Amazon and Ford, when Ford introduced the $5 day back in 1913. Ford had completely insane turnover numbers, so he came out with a $5 day, which was, I think, the equivalent of about 20 dollars an hour today. Which was enough for workers to put up with how miserable the assembly line was. In the case of Amazon, I think people who don’t have these jobs are confused that the protests continued even after Amazon raised wages to $15 — like, what else do they want? But at these protests, the signs all say, “We are not robots.” They want to be treated like human beings.

Amazon wouldn’t have given that raise if it didn’t make financial sense for them. And it’s not what people wanted. People wanted a decrease in the rate at which they’re expected to finish tasks, although I’m sure the $15 an hour helped. They wanted to not be driven until they ran through their entire battery and have nothing left for home and family.

Did you ever hear any of your co-workers talk about unions in a positive sense?

No, honestly. I didn’t bring it up that much. I mostly wanted to talk about them and their experience and jobs, and frankly a lot of them had not ever had a union job or had very much experience with them. Union membership is what, 10 percent now.

Yeah. It’s pretty low.

It’s low. And especially in the places that I was in for Amazon — North Carolina and I think South Carolina sort of trade off between being the least unionized state in the United States. So it was really uncommon in North Carolina. And at Amazon, I didn’t want to really blow it, and talking about unions on the clock is a really good way to get singled out, from what I’ve heard. So I didn’t really talk about it at all.

Moving on to your Convergys job. You had to deal with a lot of really verbally abusive people. And that got me thinking about the way phone help lines are set up. Do you see a connection between the way call centers make work a dehumanizing experience for employees, and the user experience?

Oh yes. It’s bad for both. There’s a chapter that I had to cut out: I actually managed to get ahold of the guy who as a 20-year-old, well-meaning Silicon Valley kid had actually written one of the first programs that ran a type of call center that used computers to constantly monitor everything. I found him through his posts online, where he was talking about how he deeply regretted having made this software, which was now being used to time bathroom breaks and drive people insane. So I managed to get him on the phone. He’d had really good intentions: He’d had very bad bosses who were biased in one way or another to favor some employees over others. And he thought that by quantifying everything, making it all extremely objective and metric-based that he would make everything fair. It would make it impossible for middle management to be biased against people. And then the company that he was working for got bought by a giant call center, and the technology that he had written turned into this warped version of what he had been imagining.

He told me that companies can’t go back to having good customer service again because it’s so much cheaper to use these third-party outsourcers. The companies that use places like Convergys and other for-profit third-party call centers, instead of having their own call centers to take care of their own customers, they’re aware that the service is bad. It’s just that it is so cheap, even though they know it’s miserable for the workers and for the customers, they won’t go back to having their own employees.

Yeah, everyone talks about how you shouldn’t be rude to your waiter, which of course is absolutely true. But I really haven’t heard that sentiment applied quite as often to the people you reach on the other end of the phone.

I would get customers all the time, and they would get angry and then sort of stop themselves, and be like, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not mad at you, I’m just mad at AT&T.” And then they immediately go back to yelling again. It makes your brain not work quite as well because half of your brain is dealing with someone screaming at you. Like: “Oh my God. Like, what do I do? I’m in danger right?? And meanwhile, your responses aren’t even intentional, it’s because you have to stick to a routinized script.

You talk about the fact that we have this immediate fight-or-flight response that kicks in, that we evolved to have to respond to stress. And all of a sudden we’re supposed to pretend that it isn’t there.

Usually when people complain about their job or they say it’s boring or they hate dealing with abusive customers, the only thing you get from a lot of people is, suck it up. Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you. That is 100 percent not true, though. Anybody who has had a screaming match with somebody knows that words set off your fight-or-flight response. And when your fight-or-flight response gets set off several times a day, not to mention the few dozen times it would go off when I was taking bad callers at Convergys, it breaks your body.

If you’re not measuring it at all, if you’re not even trying to find out what the long-term effects of this are, the taxpayers are going to end up paying for it. And I think one good thing that could really come out of Medicare for All would be the idea of health justice. If everybody has to shoulder the burdens of long-term injuries or long-term problems that people get from their jobs, then there’s going to be a much larger push to make sure that the things don’t happen. That’s that’s one of the reasons I really believe that we have to have some sort of nationalized health-care system. I think that’s one of the only ways that we’re actually going to be able to hold companies responsible for the effects their job conditions have on people in the long term and not just the short term. We’ve done a reasonable job of holding companies accountable for short-term things, like when your finger gets chopped off in a sausage machine. But they are never going to have to pay for the repetitive stress injuries that are being caused in all of these jobs or the mental health problems that are being caused by jobs that are chronically stressful. We’re allowing them to make money off of chronically struggling workers, and the taxpayers are eventually going to pay for it. We’ve really got to get on that.

So basically capitalism is making everyone sick.

Yeah. Literally. Like, very literally.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.


Low-Wage Workers Are Breaking Down. A New Book Explains Why.