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On The Clock by Emily Guendelsberger
Social sciences

On The Clock


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by Emily Guendelsberger
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Quick take

Bathroom breaks timed to the second: The future of low-wage work in America.


After the local newspaper where she worked as a reporter closed, Emily Guendelsberger took a pre-Christmas job at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Louisville, Kentucky. There, the vending machines were stocked with painkillers, and the staff turnover was dizzying. In the new year, she travelled to North Carolina to work at a call center, a place where even bathroom breaks were timed to the second. And finally, Guendelsberger was hired at a San Francisco McDonald's, narrowly escaping revenge-seeking customers who pelted her with condiments.

Across three jobs, and in three different parts of the country, Guendelsberger directly took part in the revolution changing the U.S. workplace. On the Clock takes us behind the scenes of the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce to understand the future of work in America—and its present. Until robots pack boxes, resolve billing issues, and make fast food, human beings supervised by AI will continue to get the job done. Guendelsberger shows us how workers went from being the most expensive element of production to the cheapest—and how low wage jobs have been remade to serve the ideals of efficiency, at the cost of humanity.

On the Clock explores the lengths that half of Americans will go to in order to make a living, offering not only a better understanding of the modern workplace, but also surprising solutions to make work more humane for millions of Americans.

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Why I love it

“If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean!” Sound familiar? If you’ve ever struggled through a low-wage job (like nearly half of the American workforce), chances are you’ve heard a manager holler out this phrase. These days, stories about poverty, stress, and overwork are all too common—but none tell it like On the Clock, one of the smartest accounts of the technological and corporate hell that low-wage work has become, and what the media is missing in the national conversation about the American Dream.

You’ll cringe as you read investigative journalist Emily Guendelsberger’s account of the six grueling, soul-crushing months she spent working undercover in low-wage jobs. From the sweltering depths of Amazon’s labyrinthine fulfillment centers to the Sausage McGriddle assembly line at McDonald’s, Guendelsberger takes us on a journey through the Orwellian past, present, and future of work in America—and the mental, physical, and emotional toil it requires from the lower half of the labor force.

For all the heavy subject matter, the book is entertaining and snappy, punctuated by anecdotes of the sweaty-faced managers, heroic single-mom coworkers, and corporate goons who Guendelsberger encounters over the course of her investigation. The author deftly weaves together some of the most significant issues that workers face today—think automation, immigration, the housing crisis, Big Data, political apathy—but you feel like you’re listening to your best friend recount another crazy day at work. Fast-paced, mind-boggling, and somehow simultaneously hilarious and dismaying, On the Clock is for anyone who wants an entertaining read that is nevertheless packed with insight into working in America today.

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