Running (and Crawling) Through a Job in a Retail Warehouse

Every day, millions of us shop online, adding items to our virtual shopping carts and then hitting send. Within a week—or maybe even within hours—the items are on our doorsteps. The process feels seamless and automated, an assembly line for the digital age. But getting those orders from the warehouse to your doorstep takes actual, human labor.

Journalist Mac McClelland went undercover as a temporary worker for an online retail warehouse in 2012 to understand more about the process and conditions in a warehouse. As she describes it, she “was basically a robot piece in this assembly line, and [her] only job was to pick items as quickly and as efficiently as possible.” McClelland spoke to Doug Gordon about the brutal conditions she experienced as a warehouse “picker” as well as the consumer demand that necessitates such an environment.

Take me back to your first day. What was it like to step foot in this warehouse?

The warehouse was absolutely enormous. [It had] several floors. In some places there were second and third levels that you could walk up to and it’s just rows and rows and rows of stuff–they start at the floor and then they go a little bit higher up above your head so that you’d have to stand on your tip-toes and reach your arms all the way up in order to be able to get to them. It’s kind of like a library but packed full of stuff instead of books, except for in the book section which is packed full of books…Anything you could think of in the universe exists in this warehouse. There is all manner of toys–lots of sex toys, actually, which I was surprised to see. Groceries. Furniture. There was a battery-operated flour sifter. There was anything you could think of, and many things you would never think of…It was absolutely silent, even though there were thousands upon thousands of people working, very quickly and very quietly speed walking all over the place, just passing each other like silent little worker bees.

Can you tell me about a typical shift? What would you do?

Every single shift was the same and everything that you do on a shift is run. Everybody files into the warehouse and then you have to start immediately; you are not allowed to clock in one second late so it’s better to be early. You have goals for the number of items that you’re supposed to pick per day. You have a little scanner in your hand that tells you how you’re doing and how many seconds you have to make each order fulfillment. It’ll give you a code: it’s in this section of the warehouse, on this shelf, this row, this level, this color code–it’s broken down quite intricately. And you have fifteen seconds to get to that spot and get that Barbie doll. So you just hustle, and then, as soon as you scan the bar code with your little hand-held scanner, it gives you the next thing and it will say again, you have eighteen seconds to get to this space in the warehouse. As you’re walking very quickly or jogging, it will count down the time like, “17–16–15.” It’s like a countdown clock.

You do that until the first break comes, which is fifteen minutes long, and then you run back to the front. You go through a metal detector—because they didn’t want anybody stealing anything—and if you have to go to the bathroom you have to wait in another line. You have maybe 5 minutes to stuff some almonds in your face and then everyone, still chewing, runs back onto the floor. So you just run back and forth to food so that you can sustain yourself and then around the warehouse doing your job and then you leave…When you sign up for the job, they give you a bunch of paperwork saying that it estimates that you’re going to walk, by which I mean speed-walk or lightly run, an average of 12 miles a day on concrete floors.

[As a result,] by the end of the day I had screaming pains in my knees, my hips. I was 31 years old, I’d never felt my knees or my hips in my life. A lot of the items are on floor level or below waist or chest level so hundreds of times per day you have to drop to the floor and stand back up again. By the last day I actually was in so much pain from doing that so often that if I had items that were on the floor that were near where I already was, instead of stand up and then crouch back down, I would crawl to the next shelf over.

You write about a variety of infractions that could get you fired. Could you describe some of them?

There are a lot of ways to get in trouble. The big thing was being perfectly on time and making sure that you were working every single second of your shift. [There’s] a point system, kind of like demerits. If you clock in one second late, that is one point. It was graded, so if you were a minute late as opposed to a second late, it was more points…On my first day of training, at one point our trainer was saying, “You cannot miss a day or be late–even by a second–in your first week, or you will be fired.” If you do miss a day, you will be dismissed; you have to go back to the employment agency which they use for hiring temporary workers, re-fill out your application, retake the drug test, wait for your results to clear, and then wait until another training session starts.

The entire process can cost you a couple weeks worth of work and wages. As an example, our trainer pointed out to us that there was this guy named Brian in this session with us who had been through training already but on one of the days of training his wife had a baby so he had a miss a day and was fired. So everyone turned around and looked at Brian and the trainer said, “Don’t end up like Brian.”

How many companies use temporary workers like this and why do so many of them contract labor out like this?

There are multiple benefits to contracting out labor. One is that you don’t have to deal with it. Somebody else is dealing with it and, especially if you’re using temporary workers–which a lot of these places do, not just during Christmas but year round–you can have a pool of laborers who basically have to call in each day to see if they have work. Often, companies have software that knows how many orders they’ve gotten and is telling them exactly how many human bodies they have to have in order to fulfill their goals. They won’t have one extra body on the floor. That way you don’t have to be paying any extra money as long as everybody’s running around very quickly.

Another reason to contract out through these employment agencies is that you are not technically their employer. For example, Walmart uses companies like this. There was a lawsuit against the staffing company for some of their practices, but Walmart was not named in that lawsuit; those laborers were working at Walmart but they weren’t working for Walmart. It freed Walmart of liability and put it on this staffing company instead.

Are consumers complicit in the way that contract workers are treated?

I think that this is caused by consumer demand to an extent. We have this expectation now that our items are going to be super cheap and they’re going to ship for free. I was buying stuff on Amazon but I was never thinking, how does this company post these revenues, sell everything at a discount, and ship everything for free? How does that even work? It doesn’t have to happen in an ugly way. You could have more workers on the floor so that they weren’t working such punishing quotas and you could still be hitting these super fast speeds, except that everyone also expects every to be free. You have to squeeze it out of the laborers who are doing it. Of course it’s costing somebody.

True Stories Of A Warehouse Worker

A few years ago, journalist Mac McClelland went undercover to find out what really happens when you order something online from a site like Amazon. As it turns out, all that ecommerce is still largely driven by humans, many of whom work backbreaking temporary jobs in massive warehouses. 

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