It’s been a terrible year for the American worker, with a notable bright spot courtesy of one of the tech firms in the crosshairs of regulators and lawmakers.
If someone had said early in 2020, “A company is going to hire hundreds of thousands of non-college- educated workers during the pandemic at well above the minimum wage,” you’d think there’d be huzzahs all around.
That’s what the online retailer Amazon has done, but it still gets brickbats for how it pays and treats its workers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the other day that Amazon jobs are a “scam.”
If so, a swath of the American workforce is falling for the grift. Since July, the online retailer has hired 350,000 workers, and now employs 1.2 million people globally. This is a historic hiring binge. According to The New York Times, “the closest comparisons are the hiring that entire industries carried out in wartime, such as shipbuilding during the early years of World War II.”
On top of this, the company provides work for roughly half a million truck drivers.
It overwhelmingly hires high school graduates. It doesn’t ask for a resume, gives its workers about a day of training, and
then puts them on the job in its fulfillment centers. The difficulty of the work shouldn’t be underestimated -- it is taxing, repetitive and highly regimented. Yet, we’ve long complained about losing assembly line jobs for non-college-educated workers. Amazon is hiring people for what is the 21st-century equivalent of such jobs.
Amazon began paying its workers $15 an hour in 2018. If that rate rings a bell, it’s the number for the federal minimum wage that Sen. Bernie Sanders and AOC have long been lobbying for, to little effect (it remains $7.25 an hour).
It’s hard to review what Amazon has done over the last year and consider it the work of a corporate monster. The company had an unlimited unpaid time off policy for its workers when the pandemic began.
It hired temporary workers to replace them and deal with the surge of business, then kept most of them on and began hiring on top of that.
It’s been offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000, and hiring in places in the country where no one else is.
According to the research of Michael Mandel at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, Amazon fulfillment center jobs pay 31% more than retail jobs at brick-and-mortar stores, where pay has basically been stagnant for three decades.
Mandel points out that
it’s wrong to simplistically think of Amazon and other e-commerce outfits as replacing brick-and-mortar stores.
What they are really replacing is the labor that consumers undertake on their own to shop for goods -- driving to a store, walking up and down the aisles, making the selection, loading it, and taking it home. Someone making a purchase through Amazon essentially hires a network of workers to do all of that for him.
What Amazon, and e-commerce more broadly, is doing is selling goods to consumers at low prices, while giving them more convenience than ever before (rapid delivery to their doorsteps, with the possibility of easy returns) and creating new jobs in the process.
By all means, jawbone the company to treat workers better, but don’t lose sight of the scale of its achievement -- and how many Americans are employed because of it.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.