The Imbalanced Game of Work at Amazon

The Imbalanced Game of Work at Amazon

I don’t remember when I first learned to play tic-tac-toe. I have memories of playing it as a preschooler. It was such a simple game that even my parents understood the rules. There were a variety of moves and outcomes, and one could play it with nothing more than a crayon and a scrap of paper.

But somewhere in elementary school, I figured out that the game was “broken.” If you understood the game, you could ensure that you would win or play to a draw every time.

As soon as my friends figured that out, too, the game lost all its luster. I even stopped playing it with my parents (who never did catch on . . .).

Enduring games have certain common attributes. Most involve competition between players. There are rules. The winner is not determined by the first move or first few moves. A range of strategies and/or tactics can be used successfully, depending on the opponent(s) and the play of the game. An element of chance may be a part of the game (like poker or bridge) or not (like chess), but chance is not, in the long run, the dominant factor in determining who wins and who loses most rounds of play.

Most importantly, the sides are relatively balanced. This may be a result of matching players by age or ability. It also can be achieved, in some games, by a system of handicapping.  Either way, the game is enjoyable because the players who come to the table have a realistic hope of winning, at least from time to time, and the satisfaction (and challenge) of knowing that winning or losing depends, in significant part, on how they play the game.

Because of my education and training, as well as my experience and love of games, I often approach political and policy matters from a game-oriented perspective. This is not to disparage the “game” I’m examining; games like running for office and crafting a budget agreement are indeed very serious both in the way they are played and in the stakes being risked.

Still, they are, in important senses, games.

There are sides or players . . . sometimes only two, more often a multitude. There is a significant element of competition, with benefits going to winners (sometimes winner-take-all, sometimes a broader distribution of rewards based on game play). There are rules . . . or at least some sense of standards or acceptable practices. The first move rarely determines the final result. A range of strategies and tactics are available to the players, with different approaches and different combinations producing different results in different iterations of the game. There’s even a significant element of chance (as any Romney supporter will argue when considering Super Storm Sandy and the results of the November 2012 presidential election).

Some of us play any game we play with considerable attention, even aggression. Our competitive instincts surface at the first roll of the dice or the first ball in play. Others, more relaxed about such things, take more pleasure in the social element of game playing than in the outcome (or the struggle) of the game itself.

But where large amounts of money are at stake, most people and most organizations play for keeps. Penny ante poker players may laugh off a poorly played hand, but few players are so jovial at the $500 table.

The greater the stakes, the more important it is that the game be designed well. This can be achieved through founding documents (like documents of incorporation) or standards adopted by a particular industry or profession. In many cases, however, the only avenue for ensuring some semblance of good game design is for society as a whole (typically, though not exclusively, through government) to structure the game play so that players of all types have an appropriate and real chance of winning at least some of the time, based in significant part, not on chance alone, but on their play of the game.

What the U.S. Supreme Court recently determined is that this was not achieved by Congress in at least one dimension of the game between management/capital and workers/labor. The Court majority ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act does not require a company (in this case, Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc., under contract with Amazon) to pay its workers for time spent being screened by security to ensure that they are not taking anything from the warehouse where they work.

Amazon’s concern about employee theft is understandable. Their massive warehouses contain a treasure trove of goods from athletic socks to computers. Some of these items carry a hefty price tag but could easily fit in a pocket or purse. Various studies suggest that U.S. companies lose tens of billions of dollars each year due to employee theft.

But the Court’s decision strips employers of any incentive to make the post-shift security check efficient. Since the workers are not on the clock, and the security personnel are, it makes financial sense to establish a post-shift security process that involves the least investment in security personnel and equipment consistent with achieving the desired amount of loss reduction. If two security personnel can screen one hundred employees effectively from an inventory loss perspective, there’s no reason to hire three or more. The time employees spend waiting to be cleared does not enter into the equation.

Meanwhile, at least in the case of the workers in Amazon’s warehouses, they will “pay” an hour or two a week as a penalty for having worked a shift in the warehouse. At an estimated hourly rate of $13, that’s anywhere from $500 to $1000 or more per year per employee in time value lost. And there is nothing employees can do, no better way to play the game, to address that loss.

What the Supreme Court has declared is that the way Congress structured the game, in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Portal-to-Portal Act, employers are “overpowered” players . . . at least at the end of a shift.

Such a game, with such an imbalance, will be profoundly dissatisfying for most people (employees) who must play it. One suspects it also cannot prove to be enduring . . . one way or another.