Shawn Hubler

Shawn Hubler: How to think about Amazon

Two years ago, as California clawed its way out of a brutal recession, a minor miracle occurred in the Central Valley, just off Interstate 5.

Strong-armed by Gov. Jerry Brown after losing a fight over sales taxes, Amazon built a massive warehouse – a million-square-foot colossus that rose up out of the fields near the farm town of Patterson like something beamed in from the future. More than 750 people work there now, full time.

One is JonPaul Elemen, a 34-year-old pallet dock worker. Two years ago, I met him in the Amazon parking lot at quitting time. It was Christmas week, and the “fulfillment center,” as Amazon calls its warehouses, had been open for just three months. He was sitting with his buddy Scott Wilson in Wilson’s 2001 Mitsubishi Eclipse. The two then-fledgling employees were commuting 50 miles each way from Oakdale in Stanislaus County for the privilege of earning $13.50 an hour to load and unload everything from diapers to dog food.

“We got lucky,” Elemen told me. “We heard there were over, like, 6,000 or 7,000 applicants.”

“Lucky” was a word I heard a lot in the parking lot that evening. Some of the men I interviewed had been looking for meaningful employment for two or three years. Elemen talked about his Amazon benefits like a lottery winner describing a fully loaded Mercedes. Paid time off! Retirement! Health insurance! Tuition reimbursement! He rejoiced at the 10-hour days the e-commerce behemoth was “letting” him put in, compared to the scant, five-hour shifts he had to fight for in his last gig as a restaurant worker, and marveled at the Wii the company had raffled off that week as a prize for perfect attendance.

“They really take care of us,” he said. “It’s awesome in there.”

That was then. This week, Amazon is presenting a somewhat less awesome future, one in which the corporation and capitalism in general mainly just take care of themselves.

In a blistering New York Times story, scores of white-collar employees described a thrilling but Darwinian workplace full of relentless demands and grinding turnover, one where gifted workers might be jettisoned if they get sick or have kids and where constant criticism reduced brilliant professionals to tears, routinely.

“Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves,” one ex-marketer told the Times, repeating a workplace saying. Another former employee described the company’s management style, chillingly, as “running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff.”

The impulse upon reading was to count your workplace blessings. But the report, only the latest and most comprehensive of many on Amazon’s tendency to treat humans like expendable widgets, made it clear that the company’s methods are already entering the mainstream, thanks to global shifts toward winner-take-all economics and workplace trends such as continual worker feedback.

So how to think about Amazon? It’s an important question, and not just because – thanks to Brown – the online retailer now has 10,000 full-time employees in California.

If companies such as Amazon are our future, what are we signing up for, exactly? Armies of shift workers with great benefits and perfect attendance? Teams of overachievers grade-grubbing each other into unemployment? Driven capitalists treating humans like expendable robots?

Jobs that serve and enrich our lives? Or lives that serve and enrich some already rich guy?

This new economy is a minor miracle, with goods and services earlier generations couldn’t have dreamed of. But if we don’t anticipate and head off its excesses, we’ll deserve the future that we get.

I reached out to Elemen this week, wondering what he thought of the New York Times story. I also wondered if he’d experienced the ways in which Amazon’s driven culture has reportedly extended to its warehouses, running folks ragged and cutting corners on air conditioning.

He said he didn’t understand why anyone would complain about Amazon, where he and Wilson both still work, still commuting an hour each day from Oakdale. He now makes about $15 an hour, he says, adding that he’s an official “ambassador,” training new employees.

He can afford getaways with his kids and his girlfriend and recently bought a new Honda. And, he added, loading products in a, yes, air-conditioned warehouse is simple compared to dealing with surly restaurant customers and hot kitchen equipment.

Maybe he’s drunk the company Kool-Aid. Maybe Amazon’s style naturally fits him. Maybe he’s just still scarred from the recession.

Or maybe his future feels bright because California has strong workplace laws, and because Brown forced his boss to rethink some of Amazon’s old culture, which involved not hiring here and not collecting state sales tax until they had to. Corporations will always take care of themselves; nobody looks out for workers unless the rest of us make them.

“Some people make it with Amazon and some don’t,” Elemen wrote me in a Facebook message. “My life is going good these past two years.”