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

Christian Smalls discusses the trade-offs between working in e-commerce and traditional retail.

Shaneé Benjamin for Vox
Shirin Ghaffary is a senior Vox correspondent covering the social media industry. Previously, Ghaffary worked at BuzzFeed News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TechCrunch.

As major department stores across the US have shut their doors or teetered closer to bankruptcy, the hundreds of thousands of workers employed by these chains have also suffered. Many have lost their jobs or seen their hours drastically reduced.

At the same time that department stores have slashed positions, the e-commerce industry has exploded in growth. That’s made up for some of these job losses in retail, in a comparable industry. (There are other replacements: discount stores, for example, are one. Some big-box retailers like Walmart are also growing their workforces, particularly 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 cash registers or stocking department store shelves. In particular, Amazon — the e-commerce industry leader that now, after Walmart, is the nation’s second-largest employer with more than 1 million employees — has come under scrutiny for its safety standards and working conditions. Some employees have complained that work at the company can be grueling and enforced 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 retail, whether you’re looking at department stores like Macy’s or big-box retailers like Walmart. (Walmart’s starting hourly wage is $11 for retail positions, although it is testing a $12 per hour starting wage in some stores; Target only recently increased its minimum wage from $13 to $15 an hour; and Macy’s average wage for a sales associate is around $11 an hour, according to self-reported salaries on Glassdoor. Beyond that, many Amazon workers say the company can offer a more promising career path for high achievers.

So, overall, what does the shift toward e-commerce in retail mean for the thousands of Americans who are now finding work fulfilling and delivering online orders? According to Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who became a leader of the e-commerce labor rights movement after Amazon fired him during the pandemic this spring, there are significant trade-offs. While Smalls never worked at a department store, he started his career in brick-and-mortar retail at Walmart and Target. When he compares the two types of labor, he acknowledges that working at Amazon can offer advantages — but these upsides come at a different cost: namely, he said, the stress of constantly trying to hit rates for the number of packages sorted in a given period of time.

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

“Like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian — whether they work in a corporate office or a fulfillment center — and we measure actual performance against those expectations,” said a spokesperson for Amazon in a statement responding to criticism that its performance rates are too demanding. “Expectations for fulfillment center employees are evaluated over a long period of time because we know that a variety of things could impact someone’s work in any given day or hour. We want our team to succeed, so if someone isn’t able to meet expectations at first, we support them with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

Here are insights from Smalls into what the changing future of retail means for the people whose livelihoods depend on the industry. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

On joining Amazon and what it was like working there

The funny thing is, I didn’t know anything about the company. By that time, I had a full-blown family — three kids — to take care of. And I did see that they paid pretty well. And they offered good benefits — health insurance and vacation time, things that you would want to see as an employee.

It wasn’t hard working at Amazon, the job was pretty easy. But I had to get adjusted to the long hours. The 10-hour shifts were a struggle. And mentally and physically being prepared for the job every day, that 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 pick an item. Imagine being under that scrutiny 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 move at the pace of customers. But Amazon moves at its own pace. The entire thing ran off metrics. They know what they want you to hit before you even clock in. In our pre-meetings, they give us a plan for our entire day.

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

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

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

On how working at Amazon compared to past jobs in retail

Working at Amazon was more family-oriented. Your coworkers became your best friends. You spend 40, 50, 60 hours a week with these people. You see them four or five days out the week, you start to get familiar. It was good to have an environment where everybody was looking out for everybody’s best interests compared to Target or Walmart, where you’re on your own. Your individual work ethic will get you recognized. Compared to Amazon [where] it’s a lot of team recognition. Your whole department gets rewarded for doing a good job. It wasn’t just one person. So it was good to see that I was being recognized for doing hard work, often.

At Target or Walmart, you’re not lifting heavy items all day long. You’re pretty much trying to deal with customers and make sure that you check them out in a timely manner.

But Amazon is more physical, you’re doing calisthenics. So that was the biggest obstacle — trying to adjust 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.”]

On holiday seasons

Holiday seasons are tough at retail companies.

At Target, Black Friday was like a mad rush. It definitely can be an overwhelming day for any employee working that day because you’re dealing with a massive amount of customers — compared to Amazon, where you’re in the warehouse, you don’t deal with the customers. But when you’re on the spot, that is a tough position to be in, when you’re trying to deal with hundreds of thousands of people that are coming in.

There’s so many people. It’s just you and maybe a coworker, if you’re lucky to have somebody else out there to help you. Even as a cashier, you got a massive line. And your job is to make sure you’re doing it as efficiently as possible, but you can’t make mistakes on people’s orders as well. You can’t ring up the wrong amount. So you still have to be careful. But at the same time, you’ve got a line of 50 people looking at you like, “what’s going on; what’s the hold-up?”

At Amazon, they just kill you with the mandatory overtime. Like I said, it’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: Rewarding hard work

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

As far as I remember, there was no recognition really for doing a good job for the day. It’s just like, “Oh, thank you, see you next day coming in.”

At Amazon, you get recognized for doing a good job either by yourself or as a collective for your department.

They’ll say, “Today — everybody gets rewarded.” They’ll hand out a pizza party, or they’ll do a Thanksgiving meal, or do a “clock in to win” where they put your name in a drawing for a prize like a PS4, Xbox, Echoes, or an Amazon gift card if you show up to work on time.

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

You know, when we talk about unions nowadays, we only talk about the real big trade unions. You don’t talk about the small unions anymore. That’s why unions have a bad rep. And that’s what Amazon uses itself. Like, “We [Amazon employees] don’t need a union because we offer the same amount of protection.”

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

So we do need, if not a union, we still need some type of contract that protects us workers. So that’s what I’m working for.

On why Amazon paying slightly more than competitors isn’t enough

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’s not all about money. It’s about the treatment. And, yes, money [would] play a factor, if Amazon paid, like, $35 an hour.

So they’re doing a slightly better job [than competitors]. This is something that 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.] You can’t give your workers two dollars more? I don’t understand that.


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