This piece by journalist Eoin Higgins was originally co-published by The Flashpoint. The Flashpoint, like Discourse Blog, is part of the Discontents media collective. Subscribe now and get a 20% discount.
Dan starts work every day at 3am at FedEx. He works at the package distributor until 8am.
“Our shifts usually last for five hours,” Dan said. “The management is hyper-vigilant about keeping us for less than six hours so that they don’t have to send us on break.”
His workday at FedEx starts just a few hours after his 5pm to 11pm shift at Chipotle ends. It leads to a disorienting work schedule that leaves him with little time for uninterrupted sleep and a personal life.
Dan’s story is not out of the norm in the American workplace. US laborers face multiple challenges, from lies during the job-seeking process to overwork and mistreatment.
I asked workers to tell me their stories. Here’s what they said.
“Retail is soul-sucking by default”
Dan’s partner works at the retailer Michael’s as a replenishment manager. They have similar schedules.
“I have to drive my fiancée into work, too,” the 32-year-old Rochester, NY region resident said. “She goes in an hour before me, so most of the time it’s between two-and-a-half to three hours and then I will take a nap when I get home sometimes.”
Dan hopes his fiancée can leave her job soon. After working at Michael’s for over a decade, she’s ready for a change.
“Their response to the pandemic really soured her on working there,” Dan said. “She was already getting tired of it, retail is soul-sucking by default, but they forced her to take all of her vacation and sick time while they were shut down at the beginning of the pandemic last year.”
Get out while you still can
The past two years have left people in the US soured on their jobs and the American system. Even companies with good reputations increasingly come in for criticism.
Elise worked for a Los Angeles area Costco for a month before quitting. She took the job after hearing good things about the company and how it treated and paid its employees. But the interview and onboarding processes were exhausting, leading her to become disillusioned with Costco before even starting.
“I applied and was contacted to set up an interview,” Elise said. “One interview became three, then a drug test, then an eight-hour (paid) orientation where myself and the other eight to 10 people were informed at the very end of the orientation that we were only being hired as seasonal employees and we would only be getting $16 an hour.”
That’s only $1 an hour over LA’s minimum wage, and it got worse. Despite the implied benefits, the only one these new seasonal employees would be able to access was a free store membership. It was another example of the bait and switch strategy I detailed last month, where employers get prospective employees in the door with lies about what they’ll be making.
Elise also found that the “good things” she’d heard about Costco were not really backed up by those who had worked there for a long time. Those workers who had been with the company for a long time were doing well, she said, but “many of the more seasoned employees told me the same thing, get out while I still can.”
Meanwhile, the food service industry continues to chew people up and spit them out. The grind of the work makes longevity a rarity.
Larry, a 37-year-old in the upper Midwest, told me that during his decade-long career in “a top quick service pizza corporation” he’s seen “insane abuse.” Companies train people to expect overwork and all manner of mistreatment.
Wages are so low that the only employees other general managers are high school kids, Larry said, and they don’t last.
“The money isn’t enough to get you out of being economically precarious and they abuse you, so why even show up,” Larry said.
The business chews people up and spits them out. Larry told me he’s seen people “collapse on the job with back spasms, throw up, work bleeding.” He’s had to leave the career twice over health complications.
The bait and switch strategy in job interviews I detailed last month—promising one wage then offering a lower one—is alive and well around the fast food pizza industry. In Arizona, Ray worked for Dominos as a delivery driver, where he made $9.50 an hour. A nearby Papa John’s advertised for $27 an hour—but after Ray got an application, that number turned out to be contingent on the estimated wage with tips and mileage.
“I don’t work at Dominos anymore,” Ray said. “When I walked past the store they had a poster up making the same kind of claim, saying they’re paying drivers $23 an hour.”
Employers will use keywords to lure in workers with promises that the position they’re interviewing for is a higher level than what they’re actually being hired for. As Michael found, this can manifest itself with some companies featuring payment plans that are akin to multilevel marketing schemes that require recruitment for advancement.
“The most well-known company that did this to me was Aflac,” Michael told me. “I went in expecting a one-on-one interview for a Management Trainee position, and when I arrived it was a group interview with like 19 other people.”
“Finding genuine, long-term office work is a Herculean task depending on where you live,” Michael added.
Dean moved from Atlanta to the Bay Area to take a job at a charter school. He took the position after the school promised him, in a conditional offer letter, $2,000 in moving costs—but that number was changed unbeknownst to him or the administrator who made the job offer. The offer was adjusted down to $1,500 in the fine print, Dean said, and he only discovered that when the check arrived two months later.
“These figures were explicitly discussed with not just the principal but HR, who sent me the offer letter,” Dean said. “After months of pestering them for the check, they told me I had to fill out another requisition form for $1,500 because ‘we only offer $1,500 for moving, check your contract.’”
Dean concedes that he should have read over the contract more carefully, but he still feels hustled.
“I still call this dirty pool,” he said.