On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

The bitingly funny, eye-opening story of a college-educated young professional who finds work in the automated and time-starved world of hourly laborAfter the local newspaper where she worked as a reporter closed, Emily Guendelsberger took a pre-Christmas job at an Amazon fulfillment center outside Louisville, Kentucky. There, the vending machines were stocked with painkil...

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Title:On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane
Author:Emily Guendelsberger
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On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane Reviews

  • Suzanne

    This is a very good book. (Look at me being a professional reviewer, lol)

    My actual review goes up on Shelf Awareness right around pub date, but here are my informal thoughts:

    On the Clock both infuriated and entertained me. Guendelsberger is a journalist, which means she cites lots of sources and provides a long list of supplemental reading should you wish to do a deep dive. BUT she's also funny as hell, having written for places like The Onion.

    The resulting book is that rare non-ficti0n tome t

    This is a very good book. (Look at me being a professional reviewer, lol)

    My actual review goes up on Shelf Awareness right around pub date, but here are my informal thoughts:

    On the Clock both infuriated and entertained me. Guendelsberger is a journalist, which means she cites lots of sources and provides a long list of supplemental reading should you wish to do a deep dive. BUT she's also funny as hell, having written for places like The Onion.

    The resulting book is that rare non-ficti0n tome that kept me up reading until I should have been in my second REM cycle.

    She worked three jobs for this book: in an Amazon warehouse, a Convergys call center, and a McDonald's. Each is repetitive hell in its own way, with stress both physical and mental. All of them strain the boundaries of human tolerance, and it makes sense... because service jobs are meant to maximize productivity for the benefit of the company. (And sometimes for the customer, but let's be honest - make the customer happy and the company makes more money.)

    Guendelsberger goes into the history of timed tasks, assembly lines, and now -thanks to technology- the ability to track and monitor everything. Yes, you might be followed into the bathroom to prove that you have stress-induced diarrhea from being screamed at over the phone all day. (WTF, seriously)

    If you've never worked a service job, or if it's been a few years, this book is eye-opening. She draws connections between this type of work and the opioid epidemic, the rise of Trump, and the wage stagnation we've seen in the last 40ish years even in the face of massive gains in productivity.

    Honestly, I didn't expect such a heavy, complicated subject to be so readable. Strongly recommended.

  • Michelle

    On the Clock is a compelling, eye-opening, and necessary read for all Americans. Emily Guendelsberger gives us an up-close look at what it means to work the daily grind of low-wage work. Businesses boast that productivity is at an all-time high, ...but at what cost? Apparently, the heart and soul of the country.

    Guendelsberger does such a great job taking us through the three jobs that she took (as a journalist undercover), each for about a month or two: an Amazon warehouse, a customer call cente

    On the Clock is a compelling, eye-opening, and necessary read for all Americans. Emily Guendelsberger gives us an up-close look at what it means to work the daily grind of low-wage work. Businesses boast that productivity is at an all-time high, ...but at what cost? Apparently, the heart and soul of the country.

    Guendelsberger does such a great job taking us through the three jobs that she took (as a journalist undercover), each for about a month or two: an Amazon warehouse, a customer call center, and McDonald's. At each job, she was micromanaged to the second, with each job warning her about "time theft" which is when workers might--gasp!--take a few seconds to catch their breath. The jobs were all high-paced and stress-inducing on purpose to make sure that the workers didn't have time to think, talk, or otherwise act like humans. After all, if robots are so efficient, it pays for workers to try to emulate them, right? This is the new work in America, where everything is timed and where managers assume the worst of their workers.

    I couldn't put the book down; it was so fascinating and horrifying.. I could practically feel the exhaustion at the Amazon warehouse and the stress of the call center right along with Emily. That would have been enough, but she also intersperses her personal narrative with lots of evolutionary biology and history to help readers understand how, exactly, we got to this point. All in all, it's a wonderful book that caused me to think a lot about issues that I had taken for granted.

    Furthermore, the hopeful and optimistic tone at the end of the book is just readers need after such a dark look at what's become of the world of work. Guendelsberger assures us that even though we're at the cliff's edge, staring into the abyss, there's still time to turn around. We still have the power to stop this. She even offers some tangible solutions that I hope leaders take to heart. I would recommend this book to anyone wondering why we seem so stressed out these days when we are supposedly living in the best of times.

  • Samantha Melamed

    An essential update to Nickel and Dimed, On The Clock turns the drudgery of work in 21st century America into a compelling and elucidating narrative that should be required reading for policy makers, business leaders and anyone else who hasn’t held a low-wage job in the past decade. This book documents the daily realities of those jobs, examines the economic climate that fosters them, chronicles the creepy history of workplace productivity schemes and delves into the science of what these jobs d

    An essential update to Nickel and Dimed, On The Clock turns the drudgery of work in 21st century America into a compelling and elucidating narrative that should be required reading for policy makers, business leaders and anyone else who hasn’t held a low-wage job in the past decade. This book documents the daily realities of those jobs, examines the economic climate that fosters them, chronicles the creepy history of workplace productivity schemes and delves into the science of what these jobs do to bodies and minds. Yet, it is also occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I was dismayed to learn how much more grueling algorithmic efficiencies had made the food service jobs I once worked as a teen, and to understand the true cost of Prime delivery. For anyone wondering why so many Americans feel forgotten, On The Clock is a crucial wake-up call.

  • Michaela

    ---Full disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. --- So, I'll have to come back & finish the review. In reading the reviews of others, however, I noted 2 things, First, people complaining about curse words in a book about stress & desperation. Are you fucking kidding me? Secondly, people are complaining about a lack of references, when the book is only JUST out, & even I read an ARC. Where are these people supposedly getting completed books from that they can gripe a

    ---Full disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. --- So, I'll have to come back & finish the review. In reading the reviews of others, however, I noted 2 things, First, people complaining about curse words in a book about stress & desperation. Are you fucking kidding me? Secondly, people are complaining about a lack of references, when the book is only JUST out, & even I read an ARC. Where are these people supposedly getting completed books from that they can gripe about references so early out of the gate? To that matter, I found the information presented to be thorough & quite solid. So these folks bitching & then touting their degrees as if that makes your opinion the be all end all, I have fancy-ass degrees too, so suck it. This info. is solid. Your top result on google not agreeing w/ the author's info. means diddly. (Also, if you're so damned smart, how are you not aware of google's altering of search results?)

  • Rajiv

    On the Clock is must read, this book is equal parts funny and heartbreaking with an eye opening look at how efficiency in business impacts the mental health of regular people (and the psychological and evolutionary perspective of what that means) who are happy to just have their jobs.

    If you don't work in the service industry (like McDonald's, a call center or an Amazon warehouse like Guendelsberger did) you know that their jobs are tough, but I didn't have a real appreciation for what it's like

    On the Clock is must read, this book is equal parts funny and heartbreaking with an eye opening look at how efficiency in business impacts the mental health of regular people (and the psychological and evolutionary perspective of what that means) who are happy to just have their jobs.

    If you don't work in the service industry (like McDonald's, a call center or an Amazon warehouse like Guendelsberger did) you know that their jobs are tough, but I didn't have a real appreciation for what it's like (a mile in their shoes and all that). I've worked difficult jobs, but it didn't follow me through the day and at home and cast a pall over my entire life. Guendelsberger's excellent writing and wry first person style makes you feel the nervous dread or anger that the everyday workers have and then explains why this is and what it does to your mind and body (I didn't know how chronic stress affects your decision making), with enough lighthearted anecdotes from her to show how resilient people are to find humor in even the most stressful jobs.

    A+ would HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

  • Radhika

    On the Clock is a must-read for anyone looking for an interesting, funny, fast-paced -- but most of all SMART look into low-wage work in the 21st century.

    Guendelsberger deftly weaves in the latest scholarship on labor and capitalism with an outsider's look into the sometimes mind-numbing, frequently painful and always non-stop nature of modern capitalism in the U.S. She has a keen eye for description and storytelling, and some many of her anecdotes (spoiler alert), from the Advil dispensers at

    On the Clock is a must-read for anyone looking for an interesting, funny, fast-paced -- but most of all SMART look into low-wage work in the 21st century.

    Guendelsberger deftly weaves in the latest scholarship on labor and capitalism with an outsider's look into the sometimes mind-numbing, frequently painful and always non-stop nature of modern capitalism in the U.S. She has a keen eye for description and storytelling, and some many of her anecdotes (spoiler alert), from the Advil dispensers at Amazon to the surprise broken coffee pot handle at McDonald's are hard to forget.

    Though the book is framed as the story of a Philly journalist who was forced to take a series of blue collar jobs after her newspaper closed, the book is so much more than a travelogue: it is an incisive look into the nature of work for most people in the U.S. today.

  • Meagan Houle

    I've read many articles about how Amazon exploits its warehouse staff, and I know enough people who've done call centre and food service work to understand it's a jungle, and not in a remotely fun way. Even with that prior experience, nothing prepared me for Emily's vivid account of her time at Amazon, Convergys, and McDonald's. I felt embarrassingly naive as she described the intrusive ways companies have found to survey and punish their lowest-level workers, pitting them against each other and

    I've read many articles about how Amazon exploits its warehouse staff, and I know enough people who've done call centre and food service work to understand it's a jungle, and not in a remotely fun way. Even with that prior experience, nothing prepared me for Emily's vivid account of her time at Amazon, Convergys, and McDonald's. I felt embarrassingly naive as she described the intrusive ways companies have found to survey and punish their lowest-level workers, pitting them against each other and ridding their jobs of what little joy they once offered.

    Working these sorts of jobs in warehouses, call centres, and restaurants has never been especially coveted, but a combination of overbearing technology and impossible performance targets has made these positions harrowingly difficult, on top of the low pay and precarious scheduling.

    As Emily reminds us time and again, the root issue isn't demanding work, safety risks, or lousy benefits. It's the systematic dehumanization of employees, to the point where Emily, who only had to work these jobs for a short period, had to turn off parts of herself in order to function. It's the blaring alarms when you take five seconds too long to assemble a burger. It's the algorithms that are intentionally programmed to ensure staff are underscheduled, so that they can never "get out of the weeds." It's the ruthless monitoring of bathroom breaks, and the sickening propaganda during training sessions. It's the inescapable reality that, for these enormous companies, human beings are just bodies, means to an end that can be replaced too easily to bother with trifles like dignity and respect.

    A lot of books and investigative pieces have scratched the surface of why these jobs are so unsustainable and soul-crushing, but Emily comes the closest I've seen to getting to the heart of the matter. Since she lived these experiences directly, she was able to communicate the relentless, exhausting monotony of them--the longing for sleep, the dependence on medication, the craving for unhealthy foods, the loss of connection with loved ones. She intersperses her own trials with the stories of her coworkers. Reading about a colleague who resorted to fish antibiotics because she could not afford proper medical attention for a serious infection nearly made me stop reading altogether. It was too depressing, too outside my ability to remedy. How could I keep inflicting this conveyor belt of misery on myself?

    But then we come to Emily's most impressive strength: her writing is so urgent, so spellbindingly compelling that I couldn't put the book down. That meant I was able to take in her suggestions for a better future, something that somehow seemed achievable, despite the seeming infallibility of the corporate world. It made me doubly thankful for my own job, where I am deeply respected; but more than that, "On the Clock" was a galvanizing force, spurring me to consider what I can do in my corner of the world to counter the dehumanizing effects of service work. A writer who can make you feel overwhelming despair and plucky optimism in the space of a few hundred pages is one who can change the world.

  • Jami

    Would recommend to people who like books like Nickel and Dimed, Educated, Maid, etc. The author is a journalist who, after being laid off from her newspaper, went to work at Amazon, Convergys (a call center that did tech support for AT&T, among other huge companies), and McDonalds. My mouth was a big O while reading--even though I knew before that these companies treat their workers terribly, seeing these details really made it salient. (Amazon has painkiller vending machines in their fulfil

    Would recommend to people who like books like Nickel and Dimed, Educated, Maid, etc. The author is a journalist who, after being laid off from her newspaper, went to work at Amazon, Convergys (a call center that did tech support for AT&T, among other huge companies), and McDonalds. My mouth was a big O while reading--even though I knew before that these companies treat their workers terribly, seeing these details really made it salient. (Amazon has painkiller vending machines in their fulfillment centers??) It also made me want to change my behavior in concrete ways (for example: always completing the survey when I get help from tech support, because it can help them make a 50 cent/hour bonus).

    I thought she did a decent job of being aware of her privilege (that she's a journalist who's here covering a story, not someone who needs to be here to survive, and what a difference that makes in attitude), centering others' stories, and by showing how the workers reacted differently to other Amazon news stories. (Several of the Amazon warehouse workers she spoke to said that the articles focused on the wrong things--the lack of air conditioning, for one. In response to that criticism, Amazon installed AC (to the tune of tens of millions of dollars), but AC doesn't help in such a huge, open space, and didn't actually really decrease the temperature. It was just a PR tactic.)

  • Donna Hines

    As a former factory worker; salaried $7.25 min wage; 10 cent raises; as top producer in two departments as a merchandise processor with a $25 one time bonus for associate of the month I know all too well about the American Dream falling to the waste side.

    For many years I've been told work harder, success comes to those who work for it, nothing is handed to you.

    That ideal is what propelled me to keep working hard even after getting hit on the head with a 50lb metal trolley from second floor above

    As a former factory worker; salaried $7.25 min wage; 10 cent raises; as top producer in two departments as a merchandise processor with a $25 one time bonus for associate of the month I know all too well about the American Dream falling to the waste side.

    For many years I've been told work harder, success comes to those who work for it, nothing is handed to you.

    That ideal is what propelled me to keep working hard even after getting hit on the head with a 50lb metal trolley from second floor above and not being worth enough to the company to even call an ambulance.

    The companies today want the young, the inexperienced, the college educated who will work for peanuts and work like dogs not caring about benefits or other accolades.

    When I worked I produced the highest amount of merchandise per hour which was not an easy task. We worked in deplorable conditions without fresh air or hell air conditioning. We had to breath in the truck's diesel as they pulled up to load and unload at our distribution center. The land was acquired through a tax break and written off.

    The company eventually let all but 25 workers off and then when I made a fuss about it with the new 'DT' campaign for President they slowly tried to relocate and bring some workers back.

    The backbone of the operation the temporary, seasonal, temp agency hires, and immigrants.

    I kid you not when I tell you we had to ask to use the bathroom. Stand on our feet 8 hr days. Work 40 hrs and paid 38 or less. No benefits. No job security. No appreciation. Plenty of stress.

    This is what I related to when reading this book as it's the clear definition of insanity.

    In fact as I sit here today I'm in extreme poverty with three kids having just visited my child support attorney on a free initial consult to try to plead for increase for kids.

    We cannot raise families on minimum wage. We cannot work ourselves to death. We cannot be put to pasture like animals without care or concern for our safety and well being. We cannot continue this trend!

    It's dehumanizing. It's depressing. It's the pure definition of slave labor.

    Whether it's Amazon, Walmart, or a smaller mom and pop store you can be sure that peanuts is what you'll be served unless you have strong connections, great wealth, and or honesty in hiring rather than nepotism and corruption.

    Automation is on the horizon if not already begun and it's more than just changing the atmosphere of work today.

    As a stay home mom who gave up her MPA/CJ degree to raise my 3 kids now all teens; I can attest to the fact that parenting is not 'work' in court. You can volunteer and achieve the highest award for service such as I with the Points of Light given by GH Walker Bush and it means absolutely nothing as you too will be told - 'Get a JOB'

    What happened to being a parent is the hardest job there is on the planet?

    Remember when we appreciated the sacrifices parents made for their kids.

    Why is it all about making less than poverty wages a means to end this madness?

    I make more money below poverty in an effort to raise my family than if I worked full time and that's not a figment that's fact.

    When this happens our economy plunders and remember when reading those all important unemployment numbers you know that many have given up looking, many of those not counted are working poor, many are beyond 6 m unemployment to be counted, many work temp, seasonal, or grant funded positions set to expire at moments notice.

    Numbers are being manipulated so politicians can continue selling the KOOL AID that everything is fine. The economy is up, housing markets booming, jobs are plentiful, low unemployment just to get re-elected in office.

    I'm so tired of it all especially when you're told to dummy down resumes you worked so hard to obtain.

    This is why I enjoyed this book immensely because it talks about these hardships from a reality perceptive, in the trenches, doing the job to get paid and in many cases not being paid.

    Here in PA our government was shut down, hiring was frozen by governor, wages were stagnant, pensions not paid out.

    In fact just yesterday Penn Dot was audited and found to be paying 4.2 billion to our State Troopers rather than doing the road work that we are being taxed $5 per vehicle upon.

    If this isn't fleecing and corruption I don't know what is...

    We need to get back to the idea that humanity matters, people matter, job salaries matter...

  • Kate ☀️ Olson

    (free review copy) You'll want to sit down for this. No really. Go get a cup of coffee and settle in, because I have a LOT of thoughts. To start with, here's my rating math for this one:

    Subject matter: 5

    My actual fondness for the writer: 2

    Ability to hold my interest: 5

    Academic content to back up assertions: 4

    Word choice: 1

    Math says my overall rating is 3.4 and I DO recommend this book.

    Subject matter: Since I first read Nickel and Dimed WAY back when it first came out, and then later in a grad pr

    (free review copy) You'll want to sit down for this. No really. Go get a cup of coffee and settle in, because I have a LOT of thoughts. To start with, here's my rating math for this one:

    Subject matter: 5

    My actual fondness for the writer: 2

    Ability to hold my interest: 5

    Academic content to back up assertions: 4

    Word choice: 1

    Math says my overall rating is 3.4 and I DO recommend this book.

    Subject matter: Since I first read Nickel and Dimed WAY back when it first came out, and then later in a grad program, I have listed it as one of my favorite books. I haven't read it since 2004, though, so I can't give actual evidence for why I respect Ehrenreich so much more than Guendelsberger, but I suspect it has to do with the professionalism with which ND is written. Back on topic, though, the topic of low-wage work and how workers are treated is a topic of fascination for me, because I have done low-wage work. I worked retail, factory and janitorial jobs, albeit back before they were changed by technology to become so ruthlessly monitored and understaffed. I am currently a public school teacher, which isn't technically low-wage, but I'm not upper class by any means. My husband works a decently-paid Teamster job that while protected, does not offer paid sick leave and treats employees like robots. I GET everything the author describes. I have the upmost respect for workers in the jobs that are described, and I desperately wanted the nitty gritty dirty details of inside Amazon, a call center and McDonald's - this book more than delivered those. In addition, I am equally frustrated with the corporate and political entities and beings who perpetuate the untenable working conditions described here and I will surely be recommending this book to others for an updated look at low-wage jobs.

    My actual fondness for the writer: Oh boy. The good thing is that technically she recognizes how privileged she is. AND I understand that this book isn't necessarily written for me - the people who need to read are those looking down, who have never been paid low wage, or like Paul Ryan as she references in the book, did so so long ago that their experiences aren't comparable to today's in the same job. Overall, I honestly was just so frustrated with the author during the majority of this book because of her privilege and her moral outrage on behalf of the workers. Saying, "you should NOT put up with that" is so degrading to someone who needs the income to literally stay alive. The author's moral outrage is appreciated of course, in the sense that it's great that she understands how hard people are working for not enough pay, but her tone comes off to me, a late-30s middle class Midwesterner, as immature and privileged 90% of the time. Her outrage at people being penalized for being late grated on me to no end - I can't imagine a single job I have ever had at which I wouldn't have to explain myself if I am late on a regular basis. And shouldn't people be on time?? Or am I just too brainwashed?? As a teacher, coming back from lunch or a break late means my class isn't supervised - not acceptable. So, while I get that the measures in place by these companies are draconian, her reaction to some of them was beyond privileged. AND. AND. The ending. Let's just say that it didn't offer a solution, which maybe it doesn't need to. BUT, it kind of implied that was offering something of a fix, but that fix was laughable to anyone actually working a job she describes. My husband and I, in our current situation, with our current financial obligations including massive student loans, will not see a true fix in our working lifetime, even if "by working toward a better world, you'll eventually stop hating yourself for your failures as a shark. And, slowly but surely, you'll start feeling like a human being again." I'm a pragmatist and while the author basically says that you shouldn't listen to me because I'm not going to tell you that everyone should immediately RISE UP against pay injustice, I believe in true solutions that require real work from high up to enact. Those don't happen overnight. Teachers are undervalued, but the only way to get higher pay is through major political movement at the highest level. Yes we should band together. Yes we should keep fighting. But we need to stay employed while we fight these fights. And yes, I'm annoyed that my inner rage at injustice has been "sandpapered" (as she calls it) down to allow me to keep working in a system that sometimes treats me unfairly, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND DOGS I NEED TO FEED MY KIDS. And dogs.

    Ability to hold my interest: I inhaled this book in 3 hours and couldn't put it down. Her stories are riveting and there's great academic history included.

    Academic content to back up assertions: I loved the historical and academic interludes throughout the book that give backstory on why so many of our current work practices are in place. I was quoting them to my husband and will reference them often in the future.

    Word choice: The word "f*ck" was used 134 times in this book. Yes, I used search on my Kindle to get a count. And no, it wasn't just in dialogue. The word "sh*t" was used way less, mostly in dialogue. She used the phrase "sucks donkey balls" twice. The word c*nt was used at least twice. Why does that matter? Well, I have had it drilled into me that profanity = laziness when it comes language. This isn't fiction and she wasn't directly quoting profane people. For what was supposed to be journalism, this was extremely jarring. To me, it signaled unprofessionalism and crassness that make this book one I could never recommend to my teachers to use in high school classes, unlike Nickel and Dimed. Overall, the tone was casual and crass and something that turned me off. Yes, that's personal preference and maybe I'm just old, but I just can't imagine why editors wouldn't have seen this as a negative too. In my experience, if I want to be taken seriously, eliminating profanity is required - for the politicians and media professionals she wants to reach, perhaps this should have been a consideration.

    OVERALL: Yes, I'll recommend this book - WITH the caveats of language and privilege.

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