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Seasonal Associate (longreads.com)
60 points by kawera 33 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 28 comments

One winter in the 1970s, I got a job over the winter break as a stockboy at Montgomery Wards. The chain referred to all its employees as associates. Once Christmas was over, I looked at the schedule for the next week, and found myself not on it, ergo presumably... dissociated. I thought it an odd way to let me know, but in any case I would not have continued to work when school resumes.

For that matter my father earned the money for the engagement ring he gave my mother by working evening hours as a holiday-season mail handler for the United States Post Office. That would have been about 1952. He may have been on break from graduate school, or he may have been employed by the Geological Survey.

I don't object to there being seasonal jobs. I do object to them being the model for employment in general.

[edit: corrected typo]

I work for an auto-repair chain in the midwest, and my bosses have repeatedly insisted or suggested on hiring "seasonal associates" to help around the shop. The most cringe-worthy and condescending reference to them came from a general manager who once called them "santas helpers" in a presentation.

Everyone puts off auto work until they need to go somewhere over the holidays and either relents to the shop time (and the shop rate) or is towed off the highways after an accident or breakdown during holiday travel. holidays and post-holiday are our most stressful and busy time in the shop. You need to tune out the Michael Bublé in the front office, pay extra close attention to detail, and try to stay sane.

What people forget about places like Amazon is they are a shop floor. You might not have tire mounting machines and drill presses, but you have fork trucks and conveyors. You are in an industrial setting, and if you'd like to keep your fingers and toes, you should never rush the work.

In my professional opinion there should never be room for a seasonal worker in a shipping warehouse. You either have enough capacity to perform safely or you do not.

>You either have enough capacity to perform safely or you do not.

Honest question, in this situation if you need 1000 workers during the holiday season but only 200 during the rest of the year, what do you do with those 800 extra workers for 11 months? Retail is inherently seasonal, that's why Black Friday exists and why during Christmas my packages are delivered from a U-Haul truck instead of a UPS truck. So if you're not using seasonal workers, do you over-book your warehouse for 11 months, or under-book your warehouse during your most profitable season?

Honest answer: You reallocate non-fulfillment staff to fulfillment during crunch periods.

> In Final Holiday Push, UPS Grabs Its Accountants to Deliver Packages

> Parcel giant works to clear problems caused by surge of e-commerce orders coupled with tight market for seasonal workers


Not much choice in the matter when unemployment is at historic lows. If you can avoid the AMZN fulfillment sweatshop as a seasonal contract worker, you're going to.

unless "seasonal" is understood to imply extremely little skill/experience, why would you expect repurposing accountants to be a better solution than hiring seasonal fulfillment people? if you hire them a couple weeks before you need them, you should be able to train them to be at least as useful as an accountant in the warehouse.

That's an emergency solution to not having any available seasonal workers, not a better way of running your logistics than hiring extra people that actually want money for working in your warehouse over the holiday season (who probably have more relevant industrial work experience than your accountants anyway)

Then who is doing the accounting work? If accountants are so expendable (especially if they're expendable at the peak of tax season), why do we have extra accountants floating around?

We could get rid of the holiday season.

If they had to, I'm sure retailers would use pricing to force a flatter purchasing pattern. If prices doubled by November, you'd shop in August right?

As well as holidays there are sales. Do sales increase total yearly spend for the industry as a whole? Otherise, couldn't retailers just agree to stop doing them?

Car mechanics also experience a surge in volume during longer holidays because even at normal volumes, customers frequently have to leave the car there for a day or several. Being out a car is disruptive on a workday, so losing the car for a longer time on days they weren't scheduled to work anyway may be a worthwhile trade-off.

These systems are interdependent. Because there many are people who worry about how they'll get to work, the demand for these services during extended holidays goes up, which the industry is happy to accommodate by hiring temporary labor into a setting that's hardly fit for it.

That was powerful.

I once spent weeks packing donated children's toys and also spent a while in an auto plant. And there's this awful feeling I had at both. I would describe it as the place being contaminated by depression and if you stay too long you'll succumb to it.

These fulfillment centres are like Chernobyl in that sense. It all looks normal: there's merchandise we see at home, there's other people, there's music, there's employment. But it also just feels like you've entered a foreign environment that isn't capable of sustaining healthy human life.

I felt it again just reading this story. That urge to fight and cry is a sign that you're being exposed to too much contamination.

We need to get the humans out of there and send in robots to do that work.

My family member has been working at an auto plant for over a decade now. She does not seem depressed. She is grateful for the job (had to use personal connections to get it) and would be scared of the thought of robots replacing her.

Agree. Not everyone is walking around with the "repetitive work is depressing" brain". In fact any change to an almost robotic daily productivity routine turns some folks into temporary ptsd patients.

Yep. In her case, she is definitely not a fast learner, but is very scrupulous. She's a great fit for a repetetive manual labor job. Of course, the work is very demanding compared to what we do, but she does not know any other kind of work, so she's okay with it. I suspect that was the issue with the author of the original article - moving from being a freelance writer (sounds like a relatively cushy job) to an Amazon site worker must have seemed like entering hell.

>moving from being a freelance writer (sounds like a relatively cushy job) to an Amazon site worker must have seemed like entering hell.

Agree. Everyone has some version of their own hell. Somewhere out there.

Yeah, that's a very fair point. I am speaking from my own context, which isn't the context that everyone shares.

I believe Amazon has built a somewhat more dreadful work environment than traditional factories.

First, it seems like they have optimized every last detail to the point where people are robbed of their individuality. If your wrist watch tells you when to pee, that leaves traces not just in your underwear, but in your psyche.

Second, traditional blue-collar work came with a social support network, build-in. There was a sense of belonging that can be described as anything from “class consciousness” to just the typical camaraderie of working a job, any job, with the same team for years. Amazon actively works against this when, for example, working against the formation of unions. They also inadvertently prevent it through their reliance on temporary work, and rapidly changing assignments, work procedures, etc.

> I believe Amazon has built a somewhat more dreadful work environment than traditional factories.

I kinda feel like you are comparing highly paid, often unionized factories with Amazon. Of course Amazon will come up short.

But when I read, say, about how modern chicken processing plants work, Amazon doesn't sound so horrible.

Here's the 2017 list of worst OSHA violations; Amazon doesn't appear on it.


This kind of dehumanization isn't at all new in factory-type environments.

Frederick Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management[1] was very popular 100 years ago, and included things like time and motion studies[2] which served to optimize processes as much as possible and remove individual variations as much as possible. The whole point was pretty much to make every worker a replaceable cog in the industrial machine.

I'd argue that this is actually pretty much what happened - and as the abilities of robots and other forms of automation grew, it was easy to replace humans because so much of the work had already been precisely measured and systematized.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Principles_of_Scientific_M... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_and_motion_study

People have choices. You don't have to be a beat down slave all your life. You can revolt. It's just that the will to revolt hasn't risen in recent times. But it would be interesting to see it happen again because I simply can't see how contemporary culture can continue a whole lot longer.

What I basically found out trying to "retire early" is that there are the "high" paying career jobs in offices and everything else is $10-$15/hr. crap work. There is barely anything in between, mirroring what is happening to the middle class--it is being hollowed out so that there will only be rich and poor and nothing else. Places like Mexico are already like this. It is sad and completely avoidable, but oligarchs and autocrats don't want it that way.

So revolution it will be. Only a matter of time and hunger.

What about skilled trades? Electricians, carpenters or plumbers (esp. self-employed) must be making more than $10-$15/h.

I moved furniture for 2 years and delivered appliances for 1 year in my early 20s in order to finance my shareware business.

There is a bleakness to physical labor jobs that can't be understood by someone working mental labor jobs. It's not just the low pay, the early/long hours, the dangerous environment, the constant barking of orders, the hustle and bustle of being pushed to work 10% faster than is sustainable, the staff of ex-military and ex-cons (some of the most disciplined, hardest working and nicest people I've ever met - as long as you don't cross them).

It's the fact that you have to do this tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.. as far forward into the future as you care to speculate. Knowing that 100% of the money you make goes to living expenses, children and debts. That any portion you spend on basic recreation like beer will be frowned upon by people who don't have the willpower to work as hard as you do. You have to develop a tough skin and shut down your conscious mind, going into another place in yourself in order to make it. I watched dozens of people try to do it over the years and most of them never made it more than 2 weeks.

By the end of it, I learned that the only winning move is not to play. By working there, I had taken someone's job who needed the money more than I did. What's worse, is I had lowered everyone's pay by increasing the size of the labor pool. I had squandered my own potential.

The only good thing to come from that job is it made me realize that I must dedicate my life to ending labor as we know it. We need to automate these jobs and use the free capital to fund a moonshot reeducation program. Give everyone the opportunity to use their minds - not their bodies - for income and move to a UBI to liberate the unlimited human potential that we steal through wage slavery.

She seems neurotic. The job may be soul crushing, but a 3 month temp position is hardly something to get worked up over. And the confrontation she had with her coworker was just painful to read. I guess she's never worked on a team with disagreeable people before.

{ I worked at an airport for a subcontractor of UPS one winter, around the holidays. On the one hand, it was an awesome job for someone who loved airplanes as much as I did (do). On the other, this was in Montana, and spending 3-4 hours every morning before school unloading an airplane's worth of packages, and then loading them into other smaller aircraft, in the ~0F weather plus 30mph windchill was pure misery. We were just tools, used to unload awkwardly sized containers full of packages onto a conveyor, and sort those packages to the right aircraft. Somehow this (in 2004) was still cheaper to use humans for, rather than some sort of automated barcode scanning system....but it was ~7.25 an hour in Montana, and for a HS student, that was good money.

Its not the same kind of repetitive mind numbing work that this article describes, but it was just as full of unexplained pitfalls, with the added benefit of being on a freezing cold active runway. I ended up losing that job, after a few months, which in retrospect, was probably a good thing for my education.

I immediately noticed an unusual (to my ears) usage of the phrase "down to you" in her article: "it’s not down to you ... it's down to others.". Where I'm from in the states, we usually say "up to you" to mean something isn't one's choice. Is this another odd difference between American and British English?

Required reading - The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair:


This is the book that led to food safety reforms after the dangers of meat packing plants were revealed to the public. With the loss of unions in the US and around the world, social darwinism is back in full force. Unions may or may not be the answer to the problems facing humanity today, but the discussion about how to form a more equitable economy is long overdue. And the irony of listing the Amazon link for this book is not lost on me!

Edit: I remembered another required short read:


Anyone else notice that one of the places you can order the book is... Amazon?

I have no idea what it’s like as a seasonal associate at Amazon today.

But I do know what it was like 20 years ago.

A genuine mixture of chaos, frustration, hard work, and passion trying to build what’s next.

Chaos was ever present with a large team of dedicated Problem Solvers. Associates who understood the system well enough to solve anomalies.

Frustration largely came from the incongruence of trying to keep customers happy while trying to hire new associates that allowed us to “average up”(each hire improving the overall average).

Hard work was constant, but it was achievable for anyone in mediocre health or better. The biggest issue was the overtime. We did run mandatory overtime for all associates that was challenging, but doable. Exempt management just worked silly hours, it’s part of why I eventually departed on good terms post Holiday madness.

Seasonal Associates were referred to as temps back then.

They were all sourced from a single temping agency Integrity.

Often times just a mob of warm bodies, numerous temps discovered to be intoxicated, and a few times armed.

Shifting from paper pick lists to handheld scanners was a big change.

I guess you could call it early human/computer interaction that allowed individual metric measurement to be scaled.

An earlier poster’s reference to Taylor’s Scientific Management is interesting.

Amazon’s reputation in Operations being harsh originated 20 years ago when it scaled from a small team of true believers to a large enterprise of regular human beings.

We fired people quickly and decisively like an assembly line.

Amazon Operations then, and I presume now, is not suitable for someone who is physically unfit or unhealthy.

Which when looking at the unsuitability of such a high percentage of young people being unfit for military service(obesity epidemic), leads me to believe that many who choose to work at Amazon are physically unsuitable due to lifestyle choice.

Where is it all going?

I would love to see a flattening of consumer spending to avoid the need for seasonal hiring, but that’s unlikely, especially, with the introduction of Amazon’s truly artificial holiday stress test Prime Day.

The very early folks like myself benefitted enormously from the low wage gamble we took in exchange for Amazon stock options.

More recently, the upside in compensation and stock units is far more limited, although promotion prospects within the company are considerable.

There just isn’t the profit per employee with Amazon as there is with Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Netflix that is often confused and conflated by labour advocates.

I just remember us all making fun of Walmart and being like the Rebel Alliance. Now it’s portrayed as the Galactic Empire a mere 20 years later.

With all the great humour/satire around “Red Shirts” and evil minions in Venture Brothers, I wonder if we will see any satire around Amazon inspired by dystopian stories like THX1138.

Happy Holidays to all, especially those seasonal workers moving all of our Chinese made consumer goods from A to B.

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