Weak job growth, low pay and Amazon’s hypocrisy undermine the administration’s story about new opportunities
President Barack Obama inadvertently foreshadowed July’s mediocre employment numbers when he picked a new Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a speech last week about the need to improve the quality of American jobs.
Calling for stable middle class jobs from an Amazon warehouse is like announcing a fitness initiative in a grocery store’s snack aisle, and nodding approvingly as unhealthy-looking Americans toss giant bags of potato chips into their carts.
Over the course of his speech, Obama stumped for manufacturing jobs “Made in America”, and for funding employment opportunities that upgrade our forever-crumbling infrastructure. He called for continued investment in wind, solar and natural gas, and all but begged Congress to raise the minimum wage. We all need “a good job with good wages”, he said.
The closest a job at an Amazon warehouse is likely to come to all this is that it is located in the United States.
True, Amazon cheerfully piggybacked off Obama’s speech to announce 5,000 new fulltime warehouse positions. They said nothing, however, about the fact that those new employees will almost certainly be working alongside temps – that is, people doing almost the exact same job, but for less in the way of benefits, hours and stability.
A visit to the website for Staff Management SMX, a temporary employment firm, offers a look at the many less than stable Amazon positions.
For example, there’s a need for warehouse associates in San Bernardino, California, who can earn “up to $11.50 per hour”. In return? Well, you might not want to bother signing up for direct deposit. As the job write-up goes:
“This is currently a temporary project and may last for several weeks or much longer depending on client business needs. If client business needs increase or decrease there may be a potential for the project to be extended or shortened.”
Even if it lasts, $11.50 an hour at 40 hours a week equals just under $24,000 annually. That’s less than $500 above the poverty line for a family of four in the United States.
You can describe a job like this in many ways, but few of us would choose the words “middle class”.
Yet the Obama administration is all but forced to declare these sorts of job gains victories. If they didn’t, there would be little to claim progress on when it comes to the job front.
Friday’s release of the July unemployment numbers is a case in point. “Today’s employment report provides further confirmation that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” the White House blog proclaimed, noting the headline unemployment number had fallen from 7.6 to 7.4%.
However, about half of the rather meager 162,000 jobs created were in the low-wage areas of retail, leisure, travel and dining, and just under two-thirds of the new positions were part-time. It’s an ongoing trend. More than three-quarters of jobs created this year were less than full-time work, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
Lowly pay scales are also part of our post-2008 reality. As Pat Garofolo reminded me, the National Employment Law Project reported in 2011 that the majority of jobs lost during the Great Recession paid between $13.53 and $20.66 an hour. The majority of their replacements, however, offer pay between $7.51 and $13.52 per hour.
These are the sorts of jobs that not only don’t replace previous salaries, they all too frequently leave workers dependent on government and social service programs, ranging from food stamps to Medicare.
The unhappiness of the American public is palpable. According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 70% of us despise our work, and about half simply go through the motions to get to the next paycheck. (Note to all employers: underpaying workers is not a known motivator.)
Lower-paid employees are increasingly making their discontent known. Last week saw a number of one-day strikes by fast food workers in several cities, including New York City, Chicago, St Louis and Detroit; they claimed, rather reasonably, that they cannot get by on jobs paying at or near the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, much of the jobs picture cannot be fairly blamed on the Obama administration. Republicans in Congress stymie every initiative to improve the situation.
Yet it’s one thing to not have to take full responsibility for the current jobs picture; it’s another to try convincing us that low-quality jobs are worth celebrating. The Obama administration, it’s sad to report, crossed the line twice last week.