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Warehouse Woes: Amazon and the new “middle class”

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Not surprisingly, as workers have become more desperate, employers have become more predatory. Texas, with its anti-union atmosphere and lax to non-existent labor standards, is a low-wage haven for Amazon. Correspondingly, wages for Amazon workers in Texas are lower than in any other state.

Right now fulfillment associates (the most common warehouse position) are paid $10.75/hour which amounts to a yearly income of $22,360 assuming full-time employment, which at Amazon is a big assumption. Another way to put this is that those “middle-class” jobs that Amazon offers pay $1,190 below the federal poverty line for a family of four. Still another way to look at it is that Amazon is paying Texas workers an hourly wage that is only one cent above the minimum wage offered in 1968, adjusted for inflation. Amazon isn’t coming to Schertz to uplift Texas workers; it is coming here to exploit them.

To be fair, Amazon is hardly the lone actor in this situation. One of the better-known pieces of investigative journalism about the reality behind the online shopping juggernaut, Mac McLelland’s 2012 undercover piece “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave” for Mother Jones followed the author as she worked for a warehouse that fulfilled orders for several different online retailers. McLelland described an atmosphere of 10- or 12-hour shifts of speed-walking or outright jogging to complete her “inbound” work targets, split up by two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. Like Amazon often does, that warehouse used a temporary staffing company to hire many workers, keeping some of the worst charges against working environments leveled at the staffing company, rather than the retailer.

Many companies providing these so-called “middle-class” jobs have used the economic recession as an excuse to cut wages, which led to them realizing record profits. According to the National Employment Law Project, most of the jobs lost since 2008 paid between $13.53 and $20.66 an hour while the majority of the jobs gained in the same period paid between $7.51 and $13.52. This disaster for workers has been a boon for the top 1 percent of income earners who took in 93 percent of income gains in the first years of the “recovery.” That’s a hard business model to back out of, even as the economy slowly rights itself. With this in mind, Obama appears to be right in saying that Amazon jobs represent the future of work in America, but he is dead wrong in implying that these are good, middle-class jobs.

“We’re not going to make our customers pay for any of our inefficiencies.” With these words Amazon head Jeff Bezos joined with companies like Wal-Mart to lay the blame for their deteriorating work conditions on consumers. They argue that consumers demand products faster and cheaper, forcing them to lower wages and push workers harder (and “forcing” companies to collect massive profits in the process). This line of reasoning appeals to many—the customer is always right, and these practices help ensure customer service—but lets CEOs slip off the hook in terms of creating an ethical, or at least safe, work environment.

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