What one of Amazon’s biggest critics thinks the future of the retail industry means for workers

As department stores across the United States closed their doors or approached bankruptcy, the hundreds of thousands of workers employed by these chains also suffered. Many have lost their jobs or have had their hours of work drastically reduced.

At the same time as the department stores reduced their positions, the The e-commerce industry has exploded in growth. That offsets some of those job losses in retail, in a comparable industry. (There are other replacements: discount stores, for example, are one. Some big box retailers like Walmart is also increasing its workforce, especially during the pandemic.)

But new jobs at cutting-edge e-commerce retailers haven’t always translated into a better life for the growing class of workers who are no longer working at cash registers or stocking department store shelves. In particular, Amazon – the leader in the e-commerce industry which, after Walmart, is now the country’s second largest employer with over a million employees – has been carefully scrutinized for its safety standards and working conditions. Some employees have complained that the work in the company can be grueling and imposed with an impersonal management style.

At the same time, Amazon pays its workers a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour – which is higher than many comparable entry-level positions in retailwhether you are looking for department stores like Macy’s or big box retailers like Walmart. (Walmart’s starting hourly wage is $ 11 for retail positions, although it is test a starting wage of $ 12 an hour in some stores; Target only recently increased his minimum wage from $ 13 to $ 15 one o’clock; and Macy’s average a salesperson’s salary is around $ 11 an hour, according to self-reported salaries on Glassdoor. Beyond that, many Amazon employees say the company can offer a more promising career path for top performers.

So, overall, what does the shift to e-commerce in retail mean for the thousands of Americans who are now finding work to fill and deliver orders online? According to Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who became a leader in the e-commerce workers’ rights movement after Amazon fired him during this spring’s pandemic, there are important tradeoffs. Although Smalls never worked in a department store, he started his career in physical retail at Walmart and Target. When he compares the two types of workforce, he recognizes that working at Amazon can offer benefits – but those benefits come at a different cost: namely, he said, the stress of constantly trying to hit the rates for the number of packages sorted in a period of time.

Amazon defends its use of rates and performance measures as a way to measure employees’ ability to do their jobs.

“Like most businesses, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – whether they work in a head office or a distribution center – and we measure actual performance against those expectations,” a spokesperson said. Amazon in a statement responding to criticism that its performance rates are too demanding. “Expectations of distribution center employees are assessed over a long period of time because we know that a variety of things can impact a person’s work in a given day or time. We want our team to be successful, so if someone is not able to meet expectations at first, we support them with dedicated coaching to help them improve.. “

Here’s a look from Smalls on what the changing future of retail means for people whose livelihoods depend on the industry. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

How to join Amazon and what it was like working there

The funny thing is, I didn’t know anything about the business. At that time, I had a full family – three children – to take care of. And I saw that they were paying pretty well. And they had some good benefits – health insurance and vacations, things you would want to see as an employee.

It was not difficult to work at Amazon, the work was quite easy. But I had to adapt to the long hours. The 10 hour shifts have been a struggle. And being prepared mentally and physically for the job every day was a struggle.

In retail, the work is nowhere near as intense. Of course, you have to do your job in a timely manner. But it’s not micromanaged.

At Amazon, it’s outrageous – it’s timed to the second. When you are clocked in, you have seven seconds to choose an item. Imagine being under this exam 10 hours a day. [Editor’s note: A spokesperson for Amazon said that when Amazon workers log in, they are given a countdown before they start working and that the seven-second countdown is not a quota.]

In retail, you keep pace with customers. But Amazon is changing at its own pace. Everything worked from metrics. They know what they want you to say before you even introduce yourself. In our pre-meetings, they give us a plan for the whole day.

If you don’t meet that quota, they’ll get you out of there.

Even in my position as Supervisor at Amazon, you were as good as your team. If your team seems weak, it doesn’t help when you go up for your promotion

Christian Smalls, former Amazon warehouse worker.
Damon Casarez for Vox

How to Work at Amazon Versus Previous Retail Jobs

Working at Amazon was more family oriented. Your colleagues have become your best friends. You spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week with these people. You see them four or five days a week, you begin to familiarize yourself. It was nice to have an environment where everyone looked out for everyone’s best interests versus Target or Walmart where you are on your own. Your individual work ethic will make you recognized. Compared to Amazon [where] it’s a lot of team recognition. All your service is rewarded for its good work. It wasn’t just one person. So it was good to see that I was often recognized for my hard work.

At Target or Walmart, you don’t lift heavy objects all day. You pretty much try to deal with customers and make sure you check them in on a timely basis.

But Amazon is more physical, you do calisthenics. So that was the biggest obstacle – trying to adapt to it.

[Editor’s note: A spokesperson for Walmart said the company has invested more than $5 billion over the past five years for training, education, and higher pay for its store workers, and that the company is testing out a new program to make its retail staff more team-oriented. Target shared the following statement about its working conditions: “We provide store team members with a minimum starting hourly wage of $15 in addition to competitive benefits, merchandise and wellness discounts, flexible schedules, and hands-on training so they can build their skills to grow professionally. We regularly survey our team members, find that our team member engagement is well above the retail industry average, and encourage team members to have open dialogue with their leaders if they have concerns.”]

During holidays

Vacation times are tough in retail businesses.

At Target, Black Friday was like a wild ride. It can certainly be an overwhelming day for any employee who works that day because you are dealing with a massive amount of customers – compared to Amazon, where you are in the warehouse, you are not dealing with customers. But when you’re there, it’s a difficult position to occupy, when you’re trying to deal with the hundreds of thousands of people coming in.

There are so many people. It’s just you and maybe a coworker, if you’re lucky to have someone else to help you. Even as a cashier, you have a huge queue. And your job is to make sure that you do it as efficiently as possible, but you also can’t make mistakes on people orders. You cannot call the wrong amount. We must therefore still be careful. But at the same time you have a line of 50 people looking at you like, “What’s going on; what is the heist? ”

At Amazon, they just kill you with mandatory overtime. Like I said, that’s the physicality of it.

Your days are longer – it’s 10 hour shifts and sometimes even 12 hour shifts throughout the holiday season.

What Amazon Does Right: Reward Hard Work

At Target I wasn’t often recognized for my hard work, it was pretty much like I didn’t really exist. That’s what I felt from time to time.

As far as I can remember, there wasn’t much recognition for doing a good job for the day. It’s just like, “Oh, thank you, see you the next day.”

At Amazon, you are known for doing a good job alone or as a collective for your department.

They will say, “Today everyone is rewarded.” They’ll hand out a pizza, or a Thanksgiving meal, or do a “watch to win” where they’ll put your name in a design for a prize like a PS4, Xbox, Echoes, or an Amazon gift card if you show up for work at work. ‘hour.

On unions, and why not all unionized jobs are good jobs

You know, when we talk about unions these days, we are only talking about the real big unions. You are no longer talking about small unions. This is why unions have a bad reputation. And that’s what Amazon uses itself. Like us [Amazon employees] does not need a union as we offer the same level of protection. ”

No, they don’t. They do similar things as a union. But there is no protection for workers. That’s how they fired me too.

So we need, if not a union, we still need some kind of contract that protects us workers. Therefore that’s what I work for.

Why Amazon is not paying a little more than its competitors

I hate when Amazon says, “Oh look how good we are compared to a competitor.”

It makes me cringe every time because it’s like, “Yeah, we know.”

It is not just a question of money. It’s about the treatment. And, yes, money [would] play a role, if Amazon paid, like $ 35 an hour.

So they do a slightly better job [than competitors]. This is something you should be doing, and you could still do better. Jeff Bezos made $ 88 billion. [Editor’s note: It’s estimated that Bezos increased his wealth by around $90 billion from March through October.] Can’t give your employees two more dollars? I do not understand that.