BookBrowse Reviews On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger

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On the Clock

What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

by Emily Guendelsberger

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger X
On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger
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  • Published:
    Jul 2019, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tara Mcnabb
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The bleak reality of low-wage jobs is brought to light in this astonishing exposé that combines journalistic reporting with personal insights.

In her excellent debut, On The Clock, journalist Emily Guendelsberger thoughtfully examines the future of low-wage work through the lens of her personal experience. Guendelsberger was a reporter for a local newspaper until the publication suddenly closed in October of 2015. Over the next two years, the dispirited young professional embarked upon an ambitious project of writing about low-wage work in America, and sought employment at an Amazon warehouse in southern Indiana, a Convergys call center in western North Carolina, and a McDonald's in San Francisco. All the while she meticulously recorded her experiences working at the three companies, which eventually formed the basis of this engaging book. Mixing exposé and memoir, she explores what it really means to be a low-wage employee in today's America.

With seemingly endless technological advances in the workplace, some might assume that there's never been a better time to work in fast food, or pick orders at an Amazon warehouse. But nothing could be further from the truth. The rise in computerized time-trackers and monitoring equipment has led to an almost big brother-like scenario, where underpaid workers are expected to live up to the unrealistic standards of a machine, rather than the machine working for the benefit of workers. With startling detail, Guendelsberger bears witness to multiple incidents that signal how new technology has made life harder, not easier, for low-wage workers: the exhaustion of walking close to fifteen miles a day at Amazon to keep up with strict production quotas; the pressure at McDonald's to remember all twenty-three steps of assembling a Big Breakfast with Hotcakes and Coffee meal during rush hour; the stress of trying to memorize multiple digit passwords while holding a conversation over the phone at Convergys, a now-defunct company that sold information management technology to large corporations. In an especially memorable passage, the author sums up the horrors of constant surveillance:

Today…monitoring equipment integrated into the tools workers use to do their jobs can clock and track nearly any task a worker does in real time...those same systems can be set to harass, nag, startle, or otherwise trigger a worker's stress response every time she lags behind the desired pace.

The author's writing style at first fluctuates between the hilariously candid and heartbreaking as we follow the emotional ups and downs of low-wage life. Things start to take a much darker turn, however, as she realizes the psychological toll that comes with the intense pressure and physical pain of these industries. Never one to take painkillers besides the occasional aspirin, she nevertheless finds herself relying heavily on the complimentary painkiller vending machines at Amazon just to get through the long days. Angry, screaming customers at McDonald's and Convergys quickly cause an anxiety spike that almost becomes a full-fledged nervous breakdown. And what's more, many of her co-workers are barely scraping by despite working full-time. Despite increasing profits across most industries, the author makes clear, wages are not increasing at the same pace to keep up with the rising cost of living across America. Guendelsberger argues that we, as a society, must reopen the conversation about raising the federal minimum wage, and start to critically examine our own assumptions of low-wage service employees, namely the idea that they somehow have it easier than office workers and executives.

I revere this book not only because I can relate to it through personal experience, but also because I admire the author's courage to criticize the people and institutions that perpetuate this flawed system. The frequent references to science, anthropology, and psychology are fascinating, and result in a comprehensive treatise that critically examines the consequences of chronic stress and overwork. But what I love most of all about this book is its rallying cry for change, both at the grassroots level and in the highest levels of government. For too long, profit has been a priority over human dignity; we must fight for a more enlightened and humane economy. Because at the end of the day, it shouldn't be this hard to make a living.

Reviewed by Tara Mcnabb

This review is from the September 4, 2019 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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