Algorithms are Changing Low-Wage Work. What Educators Should Know About Life ‘On the Clock.’

Nov 26, 2019

A growing number of big-name restaurant chains, including McDonalds and Chipotle, have started to offer free or heavily-subsidized college education options to their workers. The idea is that this can help those employers recruit and retain workers by touting their educational benefits, and also offer them a path to more lucrative careers.

But how well do these new benefits work in practice? And what kinds of people do they best serve?

In part one of a two-part series of the EdSurge podcast, we explore the often surprising ways that technology has changed fast-food and service jobs in recent years. For a window into this world, we talk to Emily Guendelsberger, author of the new book, “On the Clock.” For her research, she spent at least a month working three different low-wage jobs—at a McDonalds restaurant, an Amazon warehouse, and at a customer-service call center. The culture she saw at these jobs was very different from what she remembers 20 years ago when she scooped ice cream for minimum wage as a teenager.

She describes what she experienced as “cyborg jobs,” meaning they often treat employees more like robots than people. One example, she says is that many service jobs now use algorithms to schedule when employees work, and the machine often isn’t shy about handing out assignments that she sees as unreasonable. Consider what workers call a “clopen,” when an employee is scheduled to close a store, often late at night, and then open the store the very next morning, often early, leaving almost no time to rest between shifts.

“I don’t think even the crappiest manager—even the ones that really did not like me—would have given me a clopen. But if it's a computer that tells you, "Oh yeah, this is the schedule." It just prints out and you're really not sure how it came up with that... then it sort of erases culpability.”

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We started our conversation with clopens, and with what Guendelsberger says is one of the most challenging things for many low-wage workers these days—those computerized work schedules.

“That is one of the most sort of under-remarked upon or under-reported on things about the way life is different for low-wage workers,” she says. “It's different in a way that's sort of hard to imagine, in that you don't have a regular schedule anymore.”


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Take fast food or retail workers for example. “Your schedule is set by an algorithm that sort of analyzes what they think the demand is going to be that day,” she says. “And they use data from the previous year and the previous month and if they can manage it, the calculation works best if they can use the data from the previous week. However, if you're using the data from the previous week, that means you aren't giving your people their schedule until the day before their schedule starts. There's no predictability, which is incredibly hard if you're trying to plan anything in your life whatsoever, especially having kids.”

In her book, Guendelsberger argues that the algorithms are used to try to keep staffing levels as low as possible, which means more hectic days for workers—and more stress.

“Under-staffing is pretty rampant,” she says. “And I don't think they would think of it as under-staffing. I think they would think of it as ‘right size’ staffing. But basically they want exactly as many people on staff to handle all the business that's going to come through while working as fast as they can. Because that's the most efficient way to have your workers operating if you're the owner, right? But that is a really unpleasant way to live, if you are working that way. Because you always have a line. You'll always have people angry because they had to wait in a line so more people are going to be pissed at you.”

So what does this mean for workers who want to take advantage of the new or expanded educational benefits that some of these companies are offering these workers?

“I don't know how people would do it,” Guendelsberger says, adding that she felt physically exhausted after a typical day working at Amazon. “It was like my willpower was drained entirely at work all day.”

She says work doesn’t have to be that way. She supports “fair workweek” laws that have been proposed to protect against unfair scheduling. And she says people are starting to push back against what she calls the “very carnivorous capitalism” practiced in America.

Her book is subtitled, “What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane,” and in it she makes the case that working conditions are impacting people’s mental health.

“I think that the way we work is killing us and making us crazy, because chronic stress has a lot of effects on your mental health,” she tells EdSurge. “And it also sort of changes the way you see the world. If you're under chronic stress, your worldview starts sort of narrowing. You start to care only about the people who are close to you. Your body just forces you to care about the present instead of the future, to prioritize the present over the future and prioritize people you know over strangers and people who aren't like you. And it's a biological thing.”

She even argues that it is contributing to the increasingly polarized political climate in the U.S.

“Until we can actually give those people some relief, I don't know that anybody's going to be able to really get a lot of people interested in, say, making sure the world isn't underwater in 60 years.”

For a more detailed discussion of ‘On the Clock,” check out the audio version of this article on our weekly podcast.

This is part one of two part series. Next week, we’ll hear the other side of the story, from some employers, including an interview with a McDonalds executive, and others working to create a new ecosystem connecting higher education to these jobs.


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