Last weekend, the New York Times ran a brutal expose on the workplace culture at Amazon. Work hours far greater than 40 is the norm. Being available on e-mail at all times of the day is the default expectation. Workers are encouraged to tattle on their co-workers to managers and are judged by insanely high standards. Even crying at one’s desk is a regular occurrence.
Having worked in competitive work environments — in both the public and private sector — I found that much of what was described in the article seemed all too familiar. “That’s work in America,” I thought. And that in itself is the problem. Amazon may or may not be a terrible company to work for (and plenty of Amazon workers have pushed back on the story), but the American workplace has increasingly become a terrible place for workers.
According to a 2013 Gallup poll of workers, 70 percent report that they either hate their job or are actively disengaged from what they do. Only 30 percent said they like their bosses or enjoy their job.
People complaining about their jobs is not new; bitching about “bosses from hell” is as reliable as death and taxes, but workplace frustration would perhaps be more manageable if workers were well-compensated and able have a balance between family and work.
But the reality is that hourly wages have barely budged in the last 35 years, making wage stagnation a permanent feature of the American workplace.
Fewer workers are receiving health care benefits — and out-of-pocket costs are rising for those who do get coverage. Fewer receive pension benefits and if they do, it’s generally a more risky 401(k) rather than a traditional defined benefit plan. American workers receive fewer days of vacation than their foreign counterparts, a quarter receive no paid vacation at all, and approximately 40 percent don’t even use all of their time off. “Benefits grew strongly from 1948-’73, not so much since then, and not much in recent years at all,” says Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
It is hardly coincidental that these changes correspond with a steady decline in union membership — to 11 percent in 2014, the lowest level in four decades. With no one advocating for them and with fewer protections as well as lousy benefits, workers have little choice but to put up with the deprivations of a hyper-competitive workplace. It’s not as if they can rely on the social safety net to provide much benefit. With the exorbitant cost of child care, the lack of paid and sick leave (an especially tough issue for hourly workers), and the growing costs of higher education, even a lousy job is better than no job. At least Amazon workers get company stock; for many workers the result of not working hard is far starker.
Indeed, four decades of government policies that tilt the work balance in favor of companies over workers and an environment in which workplace benefits go to those who work the longest hours and leave those who can’t keep up on the outside looking in has taken a disastrous toll. Indeed, as bad as it may sound for Amazon’s white-collar workers, the challenges are far greater for blue-collar workers – and the chances of moving up the economic ladder all too limited.
To be sure, the Amazon workplace described by the Times may be ideal for some workers. Certainly those who want to prioritize their job over all else should be able to do so. The problem is for those American workers who don’t. For them, happiness in the workplace, economic security, and finding the proper balance between work and home life no longer exists.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.