I’m sitting at a red light near my house in the car. The light turns green, but I and the others behind me at the intersection cannot proceed because an Amazon Prime truck is double-parked on the other side of the street, blocking the driving lane. I bring this up not because it’s notable; it isn’t.
Alec MacGillis takes the ubiquity of that scene and blows it up into something on the scale of Homer’s Odyssey in his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.” Throughout the work, MacGillis’s thesis is that Amazon, aptly named after a mighty river, drowns everything in its path. But his focus isn’t on Amazon solely as a company or its history of growth, but rather “to take a closer look at the America that fell in the company’s lengthening shadow.”
MacGillis’s story is as emotional as it is analytical — he visits characters and industries affected by Amazon, demonstrating over and over again that the empire is irreparably changing every aspect of American life as we know it. Some case studies stand out. One is the company’s effect on the state of the media. The company that destroyed retail and department stores came to shutter local newspapers by depriving them of the print ads that had sustained them. “From 2005 to 2015,” MacGillis writes, “one out of every four reporting jobs vanished across the country: 12,000 of them.” The loss of local journalism, of course, has a cascading effect in terms of trust in the news itself.
And then there’s the human toll. In a chapter on Amazon fulfillment centers, we meet William Kenneth Bodani Jr., a 69-year-old forklift driver who struggles to work 10-hour shifts with few bathroom breaks. Workers strain to complete tasks while they are monitored for their productivity and alerted “via a vibration if [the wristband] detected that they were going off task.” MacGillis ponders the word “fulfillment,” the company’s term for what goes on in the massive warehouses. He writes: “But the word, plastered in large black letters alongside their company name, seemed meant to conjure something larger than the building’s functional purpose. It advertised the company’s promise to all who passed by, all who had longing — for what, exactly, they might still be trying to decide — and not know from whence it would be delivered to them.”
That promise, almost recasting the idea of manifest destiny, rings false for someone like William Bodiana, who, by the end of the chapter, had figured out the only way to pee on the job without taking a break. “The bladder pressed. Bo had already used his allotted breaks,” MacGillis writes. “He tried to hold it, he did. But sometimes he couldn’t, and he found a quiet corner, and parked the forklift as a hopeful shield.”
The toll on workers goes beyond insufficient breaks and productivity monitors. MacGillis scavenges newspaper stories and small headlines for the people left in Amazon’s wake. Like Jody Rhoads, a 52-year-old woman who died at work in a fulfillment center in Carlisle, Pa., after crashing into a shelving unit on the job while operating machinery used to move pellets. Inspections were undertaken at the fulfillment center by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The final report revealed “‘potential hazards’ ... notably the under-ride risk associated with the vehicles.” Rhoads’s sons received a letter after the inspections were done; the company was not found to have violated any safety or health standards.
Roughly three years later, Carlisle EMTs were called into the Amazon warehouse again. This time, a driver for a local trucking company was trying to back his tractor up to a loading dock and was having issues. An Amazon employee, Devan Shoemaker, offered to help. The two worked together to try and get the vehicle to get up on the loading dock, but the driver ultimately ran over the employee. Shoemaker “was lying face down in a pool of blood. Someone called 911.” Shoemaker was pronounced dead on the scene. Again, OSHA reviewed the incident and sent a letter to the Amazon employee’s family. One family member said that “no one from Amazon had visited or called on the night of the accident, and that the family had learned of what happened only after calling a coworker when Devan didn’t come home from the warehouse as usual that night.” Devan had started out as a temp employee after he’d graduated two years prior from East Juniata High School, “where he belonged to Future Farmers of America,” MacGillis writes.
It is hard not to think of the split screen between this and the scene I mentioned before: the Amazon vehicle rendering everyone trying to drive by motionless. It’s the ordinariness of that scene that makes it worthy of attention. Amazon has permeated every aspect of our lives and our minds. Our families’ jobs have changed and so has the way we live. Ordinary people go to work, and some of them die on Amazon’s company time. Sometimes the things we see every day become invisible. MacGillis asks us to look closer.
Amy Pedulla is a journalist living in Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America
By Alec MacGillis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $28