Book Review: On the Clock: What Low‑Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I used to be a telemarketer. After I graduated from college, I spent six months of 2004 working for a third-party teleservices company and trying to convince people to buy Minnesota Orchestra tickets.

It helped that I had a degree in music and was, as the phrase goes, “classically trained.”

It also helped that I stuck around for six full months, four of which I spent as the office’s top seller. I used to think that this had something to do with my talents; now I assume it had more to do with my experience. Turnover, as you can imagine, was constant—and it was the eventual management turnover, with its stringent rules and pared-down script,* that eventually drove me out of telemarketing and into an envelope-stuffing job at an insurance agency.

Then, as I’ve mentioned many times before, I went to grad school.

I’ve often told myself that if I had to, I could go back to telemarketing. But—after a handful of recent volunteer phone banking sessions for the Andrew Yang presidential campaign—I’m not sure that I could. People are much less likely to pick up the phone these days. They’re no longer interested in making pleasant small talk with a salesperson, even if they support the cause you’re calling about. They know that any information they share can and will be used against them, and that you’re only there to ask them, three distinct times, to hand over their money.

So I read Emily Guendelsberger’s new book, On the Clock: What Low‑Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, with a steadily growing sense of dread.

When the Philadelphia newspaper at which Guendelsberger is employed shuts down, she decides to test out three different low-wage jobs and write about what she learns. After working at an Amazon fulfillment center, a call center, and a McDonald’s, Guendelsberger’s biggest lesson is less about the hard work involved (or the low wages) than it is about the way today’s low-wage jobs measure and manage a person’s time.

Here’s a sample of what she experienced while working for Amazon:

Your scanner starts counting the seconds anytime you aren’t actively completing a task. A bathroom break from the fourth floor will saddle you with 10 minutes of Time Off Task, minimum, and you’re only supposed to have 18 minutes per 11-hour shift, maximum. And they do notice — a manager will come find you and give you a talking-to if your scanner reports you’re taking too much Time Off Task.

As a former telemarketer, I was already familiar with the concept of “your break starting the minute you hang up your last call” (vs. the minute you leave your desk or, god forbid, the workspace) and “if the workday starts at 9 a.m., that means you need to be on the phones at 9 a.m., not starting your computer and loading up the software.”

But that was fifteen years ago, when we were still filling out time sheets by hand. Our managers could literally see when we were still booting up our computers instead of making calls, and we were reprimanded accordingly, but they weren’t keeping track of whether we logged into the call system at 9:00:00 or 9:00:45.

Today’s systems log everything. They slice and dice your pay. They hand out points (points are bad) if you don’t come back from break on time—but you can’t clock in early, so workers learn to spend the last few minutes of their break standing in front of the clock or computer or fingerprint scanner, ready to clock in at the exact right second.

Today’s systems also automatically create schedules that utilize the minimum number of workers required to handle the anticipated workload, which not only ensures that workers are stuck with variable, unpredictable schedules, but also that they’re always working as hard as possible. There were periods of downtime in both my telemarketing job and my envelope-stuffing job. That downtime has been profitized away.

But, again, a lot of people know this already, whether from experience or, like, reading the news. As I read On the Clock, I had some of the same thoughts that I had while reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed back in college: who doesn’t know that working in food service means going hungry? I worked various service jobs, including one at an upscale restaurant, as a young person; even with my parents’ full refrigerator to come back to, I still lost weight because I worked the maximum number of hours allowed before I was legally required to have a lunch break (with another 45 minutes on each end for the commute).

Of course, as both the news and this book continually remind us, the people working today’s service jobs aren’t teenagers. They have families to support, and even when they earn more than the minimum wage, they still aren’t bringing home enough money to make the jobs worth it—at least from Guendelsberger’s perspective.

From the perspective of the people she meets while working—especially, ironically enough, at Amazon—the jobs they hold now are the best ones they’ve ever had.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my couch with my complimentary copy of this book and all of the accompanying privilege that goes along with that, thinking “please let me never have to be a telemarketer ever ever ever again” and “oh god I hope that basic income becomes a thing because in the two years since Guendelsberger worked these jobs and started writing her book a lot of what she did has already been outsourced to robots, and I want people not to have to use Fish Mox as a substitute for going to the doctor, and this book makes me feel like the rats Guendelsberger wrote about who are getting electric shocked all of the time to see what happens when an organism experiences constant low-grade anxiety and and I’m the person sitting on my couch, not the person at the register or under the headset.

Consider On the Clock highly recommended. ❤️

*My first manager also had a background in music and was fine with letting me take my time and “build rapport” with orchestra fans. The new manager required all of us to stick to the script, and my sales plummeted.