The lucky Americans who have jobs are working more hours for less money, which is keeping American productivity up but worker morale low, and over the last few months we've gotten a clearer picture of what that means for workers. This summer, workers at Research in Motion, the Canadian creator of the BlackBerry, detailed the unfavorable working conditions. Then, last month, Amazon employees spoke up about the unbelievable working conditions at the company's warehouses, and earlier this week, we learned about Target's regime in The Huffington Post. These employees are putting faces to the scary numbers of the Great Recession.
Here's the trend: More productivity; high unemployment. It's not just that Americans have magically gotten better at tasks, hours worked are up. Since 1977, the share of people working 50 hours per week has steadily risen for most demographics, as the Center for American Progress notes. What does that look like for in real life: Companies are requiring employees to work harder, longer hours. And it's not pretty, as Amazon employees explained to The Morning Call.
One former temporary warehouse employee said he worked seven months before he was terminated for not working fast enough. In his 50s, he worked 10 hours a day, four days a week as a picker, plucking items from bins and delivering them to packers who put them in boxes for shipment. He would walk 13 to 15 miles daily, he estimated, and was among the oldest pickers.
It's not just that companies are working people harder, they're also not compensating them more for these longer hours. As this sad chart from the Economic Policy Institute shows: productivity is up, wages are not.
And for the actual workers, it's not very pleasant sounding. Target forced Jason Kellner to work overtime sans compensation. "He often wound up working more than 40 hours per week without getting overtime pay," writes The Huffington Posts's Dave Jamieson. "He also says he would have to close the store down off the clock at the end of the day." Then, when he complained, he got fired. And the RIM employees complained of the same more-work for less-pay expectations at the BlackBerry manufacturer. "When there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, but you are still expected to work 12 hours a day (and only paid for 8), it becomes difficult to stay focused on what needs to happen to make things better," wrote an employee in a letter that Boy Genius Reporter posted.
Over the summer Mother Jones's Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery called stories like this America's "great speed-up." "We're not just working smarter, but harder. And harder. And harder, to the point where the driver is no longer American industriousness, but something much more predatory," they write. Companies see (demand?) increased productivity from workers, so fewer businesses feel a need to hire. Instead, they just overwork what they've got, squeezing out as much as they can get for as little as they can give. And for the actual people involved, it's not a pleasant working environment.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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