How Amazon Solved the Problem of Work

On Wednesday, October 8th, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk. The case pits warehouse workers Jesse Busk and Laurie Castro against their former employer. The issue at hand is time: Should minutes spent waiting to be screened at the end of the workday — Integrity manages warehouses that fulfill online shopping orders — be counted as work? If so, then shouldn’t workers be paid?

Supreme Court cases that feel ethically simple are often legally complicated; similarly, cases that make it that far and yet appear legally tidy are often ethically difficult. This case seems to fall into the former category: you have decades of opaque labor legislation through which the definition of work must be read and in the shadow of which it must be revised; you also have a specific situation in which workers reach the end of their shifts and are then effectively detained at their workplaces for up to 25 minutes, without pay, in order to be checked for stolen merchandise.

One way to understand this post-work/pre-departure limbo is in terms of incentives: If this time counted as work, it would cost Integrity Staffing Solutions a lot of money, so Integrity Staffing Solutions would be motivated to minimize it. But if this extra time doesn’t count as work, there is no direct incentive to fix anything. In that situation, Integrity’s objectives are to make sure workers aren’t stealing merchandise, and to do so at the minimum possible cost. It does not need to worry about workers’ time, because that time, which is valuable to Integrity’s efforts to prevent theft, costs them virtually nothing. Meanwhile, the value of this time to the employees has not changed. They’re not home. They’re not at their other jobs. They’re not seeing friends. They are, as far as everyone else in their lives is concerned, still at work.

In some workplaces, long term worker morale would be an additional consideration. An employer might be incentivized to make sure its employees are happy enough to stick around. Being asked to wait in long lines due to an assumption that you are hiding stolen products in your bag is the kind of thing that might make an employee think, “I don’t want to work in this place, where I am antagonized and treated as a potential criminal.”

Integrity Staffing Solutions does not seem to see itself as the the kind of employer that owes its workers anything at all. In its job listings, it portrays itself as a leader in a bold new economy:

We are the people putting people back to work. We are the leaders of the new normal and we have been since 1997. Providing jobs, solutions and a deep competence for a new economy. We supply the skills that propel life forward. We inspire individuals to find their third, fourth and their umpteenth gear. We are an engine of opportunity. We are the gateway from good to great.

Welcome to the new normal. Welcome to Integrity Staffing Solutions. Engine of Opportunity. Engine of the new economy.

This listing’s zealous tone takes on a new dimension when you consider Integrity’s star client: Amazon.

These words are likely the first thing you will read if you come across a job opening at one of Amazon’s many shipping warehouses. This holiday season, the company is planning to hire 80,000 workers on a temporary basis. Many of those people will be subject to exit searches, and they will be in no position to complain: They will be seasonal workers in need of a job. If they could easily go somewhere else, they would already be there. (This listing, for a warehouse in Kentucky, promises “Up to $11.00 per hour.”)

In the public imagination, Amazon is an online retailer and electronics company. In practice, it is a logistics firm that oversees a system through which goods move from manufacturer to warehouse to customer. Its electronic products are just physical instances of this mindset: That the Kindle solves problems for readers is secondary to its ability to solve logistical problems for Amazon, the book seller, which sees the physical book (and maybe publishers) as an inefficiency. (I would argue that the reason Amazon’s more advanced tablet and phone products haven’t succeeded is because the device’s priorities were painfully obvious to anyone who actually used them: They weren’t better than their competitors at anything other than selling you things from Amazon. They attempted to solve the company’s problems without even accidentally solving any of yours.)

Amazon’s core employees — full-time office workers who don’t have to worry about post-shift detainment — are primarily concerned with the efficiency of systems (the company’s culture is notoriously metrics-driven). They operate in the mindset of a management consultant with one permanent client. So it makes sense that warehouse work would be treated as yet another logistical problem, and a tough one. Handing the work of hiring and then releasing these many thousands of menial workers to someone else is a valid logistical strategy insofar as it makes treating employees like products a simpler proposition. Integrity Staffing Solutions interacts with Amazon in the mode the company is most comfortable with: As a supplier of goods, from which Amazon can then extract further value. In Amazon’s view, it doesn’t need workers to satisfy a demand for labor. It needs a labor solution to solve a labor problem.

It would be nice to think that the perpetuation of Integrity’s dystopian “new normal” somehow depends on the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision, but it doesn’t. Integrity is merely claiming to be compatible with the economy as it demonstrably exists today, with an increasingly post-union, post-full-time workforce for whom long-term careers are an outdated fantasy. The Obama administration has taken Integrity’s side, in a legal brief, which surprised some labor activists but really makes quite a bit of sense: The most revered companies in the country, the startups that are notionally building the foundations of a new American economy — the explicitly logistics-oriented Uber and Airbnb and Taskrabbit — are philosophically aligned with Amazon on matters of work.

Besides, if you’re choosing allies, Amazon will probably be around in ten years. Its warehouse workers, on the other hand, will be lucky if they haven’t been replaced by robots.

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, an Amazon spokesperson sent a statement. It is reproduced here in full:

We have a longstanding practice of not commenting on pending litigation, but data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait.