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This Email From an Amazon Warehouse Worker Reveals What's Wrong With Work Today

"The realization of how little value I feel I have even though I'm a hard loyal worker gives me pause."

Want to understand why workers are quitting — and what it takes to get them back?

You must read this email I just received from an Amazon warehouse worker. The issues he raises go far beyond Amazon itself.

First, some context: Recently, Amazon gave its warehouse workers a very small raise — typically 50 cents or $1 per hour, according to reports. Many workers were upset about this, as my Entrepreneur colleague reported. They felt the raise did not recognize their needs or the rising cost of living.

After the report, a worker in the midwest emailed me directly to explain how it went down from his perspective.

I’m going to reprint the entire email here, and then will pick up with analysis below.

Here’s from the worker, who I will call James:

“I work at a smaller Amazon warehouse. The day we were notified about our pay increase, the site manager came in to tell us the news. She went through this drawn out speech about how happy she was the company decided to give us a raise and she had personally asked for it on our behalf. Then after the build up she said everyone would go from 15.50 to 16.00 per hour. A .50 cent raise.

“When we didn't respond and remained quiet she became upset with us and said ‘wow I'm disappointed. I thought you would be more excited.’ It seemed very out of touch with the reality of our country's current economic situation and how little 50 cents really is.

“We all work extremely hard and at odd hours. My facility does not hire full-time workers and everyone is on what they call flex schedule. That means we pick up available shifts on the employee app and have a weekly cap on our hours.

“I enjoy my job and coworkers very much but we must compete against each other for shifts and hours which can be difficult at times. At my age and life experience I would happily dedicate myself to Amazon for hopes of 'moving up the chain.' After this experience and the realization of how little value I feel I have even though I'm a hard loyal worker gives me pause. We should be loyal to the right things in life. Sometimes it just looks bad.”

Now, what can we learn from this?

Obviously, this story is representative of a lot of specific issues: There’s Amazon and its workers’ well-publicized unionization efforts. There’s also the importance of workplace culture; I wondered how James would feel about his compensation if other parts of his experience were improved, like the competition for shifts and a clear path for advancement.

There’s also the question of James’s manager: After all, she didn’t set those rates herself, but she was stuck selling them to her team. It reminded me of interesting new research from LinkedIn about how managers and executives are quitting at increasingly higher levels — in part because they’re feeling squeezed between the people they report to, and the people who report to them.

But here’s what I really want to flag:

Notice how James repeatedly stresses that he and his colleagues are hard workers.

Hourly workers are often under-appreciated by companies and consumers, and I’m sure that’s on his mind. But also, I’m sure he’s heard a lot of people saying that “nobody wants to work anymore” — a common refrain among employers and critics. You can imagine the retort: Those Amazon workers are being offered a raise, but clearly they just don’t want to work.

Is it true? Does nobody want to work anymore? No.

As it turns out, people have been saying that for more than 100 years. Here’s an example from 1894:

This Email From an Amazon Warehouse Worker Reveals What's Wrong With Work Today

Rooks County Record

University of Calgary instructor Paul Fairie found many other examples like this from the past century, and he collected them into a thread that went viral on Twitter in July. When I saw his collection, I became curious about why people kept saying that nobody wants to work anymore — so I called work historian Peter Stearns to learn more (and made a podcast out of his fascinating answer).

Peter said that, every so often, the nature of work changes. It happened as America became more industrialized, as workers successfully pushed for eight-hour workdays, as factories became automated, as computers entered the office, as the pandemic scrambled work as we know it, and so on. Every time it’s happened throughout history, Peter said, it triggered the same response:

Workers saw an opportunity to renegotiate the deal they’re getting at work, and to improve their lives.

“There's certain job situations that I would rather not have to tolerate,” they’d say, in Peter’s telling. “It's not that I don't want to work. I'm going to look for work that's more congenial, either because the pay is better or the situation is better.”

In response to this, employers typically do two things:

  • They complain that nobody wants to work anymore.

  • They start competing for talent — not just with money, but with improved working conditions.

That is what we’re seeing now. Has every company gotten the memo? Clearly, no. James’s story exemplifies that. Amazon claims it offers competitive salaries wherever it operates, and that may be true—but I’d say James’s story highlights the importance of addressing other parts of work that can be demoralizing. Pay seemed to be only one part of James's concerns.

But we are in a messy, interesting time. Companies are now having fascinating conversations about how to improve work. I mean, back in 2019, would you have expected major companies to go completely remote, or to experiment with things like the four-day workweek, or to double down on flexibility and wellness benefits? Also, clearly no.

I travel a lot speaking to corporate teams, who ask me to help them embrace change. They are all grappling with questions about how to attract and retain talent, no matter the industry. It’s high on their list of concerns.

I see this as positive. That’s not to dismiss the challenges that employers and employees are having. The difficulties are real. But they’re also prompting a hard, long-overdue conversation.

Companies are asking, “How can we attract and retain the best, hardest workers?”

People like James are saying, “I want to work hard, but I need to be recognized.”

Right now, these two sides sometimes talk past each other. But ultimately, they must realize that they’re driving towards the same point: Change must take place, and that change can benefit everyone. After all, happier workers are also loyal workers, which drives growth and profits.

So, my plea to everyone on both sides of this issue: Things are not perfect, but please keep talking.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Andia