Never-Ending Work

Sadly, even 60s Spider-Man isn’t exempt from the tyranny of work!

A while back my friend, supporter of the site and past contributor Ryan Calhoun sent me this story about how Amazon “solved” the problem of work for its employers.

The problem being, that the Amazon workers wanted overtime pay due to the amount of time (somewhere around a half-hour) that they’d be detained before leaving so that Amazon could make sure that the workers hadn’t stolen anything.

Here’s one of the key sections from the article:

If this time counted as work, it would cost Integrity Staffing Solutions* a lot of money, so Integrity Staffing Solutions would be motivated to minimize it. But if this extra time doesn’t count as work, there is no direct incentive to fix anything. In that situation, Integrity’s objectives are to make sure workers aren’t stealing merchandise, and to do so at the minimum possible cost. It does not need to worry about workers’ time, because that time, which is valuable to Integrity’s efforts to prevent theft, costs them virtually nothing. Meanwhile, the value of this time to the employees has not changed. They’re not home. They’re not at their other jobs. They’re not seeing friends. They are, as far as everyone else in their lives is concerned, still at work.

* “…a warehousing firm that provides storage space and order-filling services for companies that sell their goods online, such as the high-volume retailer”

The fact that we’re saying, “well are the people at work really working” just makes this seem even more absurd than it already is. Under this line of reasoning I could see employers trying to make arguments that target things like cigarette breaks, or waiting in the break room before you get called to your job, etc. The employing class can slowly move in and creep closer and closer towards disallowing any time that we can call our own.

Partly this whole situation misses the underlying problem which is that employers get to monopolistically and unilaterally dictate these conditions to the workers and the workers can’t do much against it except rely on the state.

The head of state, Obama, has gone against the workers, just in case your curious. So it’s not looking good for the workers in terms of the court case but we’ll get to how that turned out later.

In my experience, checking my bag was all there was to the process and then I was done. But even in that case (which is minimal compared to the complaints I’m talking about) it was an annoying, slightly invasive and generally demeaning procedure that I disliked.

Not the least of which because I typically hated where I worked and yet I still didn’t steal because I knew that, on average, the risks weren’t worth the rewards. And the chances of me actually getting away with something good were typically low with the cameras, etc. So if even wasn’t going to steal then I couldn’t imagine many other people where I worked were planning it.

Sometimes I’d not report to the person I was supposed to. This got me in slight trouble once or twice but I just simply stated I forgot or that I called and no one came and I didn’t know who to see so I left. Sometimes this was the truth and other times I simply just didn’t care. These types of things were reminiscent of the drunk-driving auditorium movies we had to sit through in high school. They were hacky, compulsory and probably would have minimal to no effect on the target audience.

That’s pretty much was what it was at work (or at least a few of the stores I worked at, can’t remember if all of them did the bag-checking) and just like at work I managed to get around those stupid auditorium videos once or twice too.

But there aren’t just economic incentives to do/not have a long and drawn-out process of checking your employees, the article also mentions some potential social incentives:

In some workplaces, long term worker morale would be an additional consideration. An employer might be incentivized to make sure its employees are happy enough to stick around. Being asked to wait in long lines due to an assumption that you are hiding stolen products in your bag is the kind of thing that might make an employee think, “I don’t want to work in this place, where I am antagonized and treated as a potential criminal.”

I already disliked where I worked so it isn’t like this is very applicable to me but this is still a fair point. Anyone who might just need a marginal push in one direction or another in terms of liking their employer or disliking them would probably be pushed towards the negative side. Anyone who already dislikes them is going to maybe dislike them more (unless they’re me, then it’s gonna be tough to make that dislike more potent) and so on. The only people who are going to be “okay” are people who strongly like their employers and those are usually going to be people actively trying to or about to be promoted or the employers themselves.

This means, generally speaking, this is going to be a problem for most employees and you’re most likely going to have more silent (and sometimes not-so silent) opposition to this sort of policy.

The general process of searching people’s bags, treating them like potential criminals and such is also going to potentially make some people want to act the part. “Well sure, if they’re going to treat me like a criminal then why not do it? See if I can get away with it!”. Now, granted, I’m only speaking of possibilities here. I really don’t know how likely it is that this would actually occur to most people. And again, the risks are great and the reward heavily vary.

But all I’m really saying here is that it’s easily concievable that this could have some sort of reverse effect on employees at worst and harbor silent resentment at best. In the end, it’s just not a good idea to implement policies that generally makes people feel like they’re criminals and are untrusted by those who claim they’re part of a “team”.

After all, what sort of team ties you up for twenty-five minutes after the work is supposedly done, denies you pay for that set of time and then proceeds to treat you like a criminal throughout said process?

I’ll perhaps have more to say in the future about whether these processes are good at all but I think we’ll move on to one of the last quotes from this article I find notable:

Amazon’s core employees—full-time office workers who don’t have to worry about post-shift detainment—are primarily concerned with the efficiency of systems (the company’s culture is notoriously metrics-driven). They operate in the mindset of a management consultant with one permanent client. So it makes sense that warehouse work would be treated as yet another logistical problem, and a tough one. Handing the work of hiring and then releasing these many thousands of menial workers to someone else is a valid logistical strategy insofar as it makes treating employees like products a simpler proposition. Integrity Staffing Solutions interacts with Amazon in the mode the company is most comfortable with: As a supplier of goods, from which Amazon can then extract further value. In Amazon’s view, it doesn’t need workers to satisfy a demand for labor. It needs a labor solution to solve a labor problem.

Thus we see the rule of Taylorism and of experts  personified in this example wherein people literally become the measurements themselves and if the measurements don’t match up with what the poor ole’ bosses can’t afford then they’re treated as expendable. Whether that’s the workers time away from loved ones or the workers own time or much of anything else, the employers get to decide.

You can see the importance of the employers (and not the workers) with how this court case is even framed. Even the workers are just claiming it’s an integral part of work (AKA integral time for the employers) and so they should be paid overtime.

I want to move on to some of the arguments the employers are making, the SCOTUSblog has this post  on what would be discussed in the case and highlights an argument made by the employers here:

…a gap between what the workers normally do in its warehouses and what they do when they go through a screening at the end of their shifts. Because the two are completely unrelated, the employer contended, the screening simply cannot be considered any part of their workday

This argument turns on what counts as “normal”. To me, it’s perfectly normal to be working pretty hard in a given job and doing monotonous and not very well paid work but what about breaks then? Breaks are breaks precisely because they are irregular or non-normal occurrences within work. Again, I could easily see this argument being applied to the concept of breaks (or at least certain types of them if nothing else). Because breaks aren’t “normal” in the sense that doing nothing, eating and recharging your energy has no functional relationship with, for example, folding clothes.

I’m not claiming that there’s no relationship at all between breaks and working or having energy and being able to do tasks, obviously. I’m mostly just trying to get at what counts as normal here. Sitting in the breakroom before you get called somewhere is dissimilar to most of what you do in a given job most likely. So does that mean that sometimes 10-15 minutes should be discarded from workers pay because the employers couldn’t get there fast enough?

Of course, we all know what would happen if the workers were that late.

In any case, I’m not so sure this is a compelling argument even if true. Sure, these two things are dissimilar and not very alike but so what? Why exactly does that matter in terms of whether the workers get paid? Even if this true I’m not seeing the relationship that apparently the employers think is so readily identifiable.

Here’s another argument:

The company used some of the same arguments to counter the workers’ contention that, because they had to wait in line to get screened, they should be paid for that time. Just as walking from the parking lot into and out of the warehouse does not justify overtime pay for that time, neither does staying after work to be screened.

This one is a bit more obviously wrong to me. Comparing walking from the parking lot into and out of a warehouse is something that (most likely) doesn’t take almost a half-hour. It probably takes under five minutes and even if it didn’t, the process isn’t a part of their employment. The walk from the parking lot doesn’t have anything to do with their job itself but the screening process does.

Even if I’m wrong about that, all of this still seems to be missing the fundamental point that the workers are basically having their lives dictated to them after work is over and that work itself is a huge manifestation of this power relation. I’m mostly humoring the premises that work as it stands is okay and that we should merely reform it. But far from needing to reform it we need to abolish it.

Lastly, from this article:

Among the few amici joining in the case, the most important for Integrity is the support it drew from the federal government, in a brief filed by lawyers for the Justice and Labor Departments. That document stressed, as Integrity has, that the key to overtime pay obligations for after-work activities is whether they have a close and more direct relationship with what the worker ordinarily does while on the job.

Offering the Court some advice on how to interpret the federal law at issue, the government filing suggested some “reasonably clear benchmarks” that are now clearly established, but those benchmarks, when spelled out, essentially are variations of the theme that the tasks which must be compensated are integral and indispensable to the primary job requirements.

Security screenings, on their own merits, the government brief said, are similar to a requirement that a worker check out after finishing a day’s shift.

So let’s look a little more into this federal government support, from New Republic:

It would certainly be cynical for the administration to side with Integrity not, because it was persuaded by their legal arguments, but because it was worried about paying its own workers more. But that just may be the case. As the Economic Policy Institute’s Ross Eisenberey points out, in its “Statement of Interest” for the amicus brief it filed with the court, the government discloses that it employs workers under the exact same conditions as Integrity. “In other words,” Eisenberey writes, “as an employer, the government wants to be able to get away without paying its own workers for their time.” The Department of Labor didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Of course, New Republic then goes on that it can’t imagine why the administration wouldn’t side with the workers and how the court case would go, but here’s a hint: the workers lost:

On December 9, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433, holding that an employee’s time spent waiting to undergo and undergoing security screening before leaving the workplace is not an integral and indispensable part of the employee’s principal activities, and therefore is not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Portal-to-Portal Act.

The original article I mentioned encapsulates some perfectly good reasoning for why this result wasn’t surprising:

The Obama administration has taken Integrity’s side, in a legal brief, which surprised some labor activists but really makes quite a bit of sense: The most revered companies in the country, the startups that are notionally building the foundations of a new American economy—the explicitly logistics-oriented Uber and Airbnb and Taskrabbit—are philosophically aligned with Amazon on matters of work.

Besides, if you’re choosing allies, Amazon will probably be around in ten years. Its warehouse workers, on the other hand, will be lucky if they haven’t been replaced by robots. (emphasis added)

And of course they have the same philosophy around this, just look at how New Republic boils this down:

To simplify a bit, this case rests on a basic question: when does work stop?


Work never stops.

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2 thoughts on “Never-Ending Work

  1. Pingback: Excerpts from, "The Case for Leaning Out", by Nico Lang - Abolish Work

  2. Pingback: Work, Stress, Death and the American Way - Abolish Work

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