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Philly author Emily Guendelsberger worked a series of low-wage jobs to chronicle the stress doing so takes on both the human psyche and the American landscape in her new book, “On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane.” | Image: Kerith Gabriel

Emily Guendelsberger has never been very good at simply taking someone’s word for it. 

In 2015, she made national news after she posed as an Uber driver for Philadelphia City Paper to debunk the ride-sharing company’s claim that the average driver could earn up to $90k a year. She gained even more recognition two years ago when she infiltrated a Republican retreat in Philadelphia, posing as the wife of a congressman.

That last one got her racked up on federal charges. 

While it deterred her for a while, Guendelsberger, 34, has popped back on the scene, turning her investigative prowess into what she hopes will become a bestseller courtesy of her first book,“On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane.” Guendelsberger spent the last three years working low-wage jobs across America, chronicling the stress and toll it took on both her and the colleagues she met across the way. The book has already been heralded by critics as an honest account of what life is really like for the working-class American and is just the latest way Guendelsberger dedicated herself to telling the story — for better or worse. 

On the heels of the book’s release, she sat down with Philadelphia Weekly to talk life after journalism, what it’s like to be an author and why people in power need to pick this book up. 

You’ve done a ton of interesting shit in the name of journalism, yet you’ve decided to step away from it and jump into the literary world. Why?

Honestly, it was the summer of 2015 when [Philadelphia] City Paper went out of business. It was around that time I published that Uber story. If you don’t know, I went undercover as an Uber driver to test their claim that the average driver made $90k in a year. Right off the bat, this just seemed like total bullshit to me. But it's really hard to fact check those things unless you are actually doing it yourself. Anyway, I was at the Daily News two years, maybe three [and] we were all getting pink slipped and laid off all the time and then my previous job at the Onion closed out from under me too. It was just like those three things in a row where honestly I was like ‘fuck journalism.’ Actually, it wasn't even journalism, but just its business model I can't fucking deal with anymore. 

When it comes to the book, what was the lightning strike where you knew you had to write “On the Clock?"

I had gotten contacted by an editor at a pretty big publisher who was like, ‘Hey, have you ever thought of doing a book?’ I always imagined books more along the lines of what rich New York journalists do. But I knew I had a ton of material, but it's just like everything in journalism, it takes a lot of capital upfront to be able to do this. Fortunately, my husband has a good job and he was able to carry us on his salary long enough for me to go try to do this crazy thing.

So what made you pick Amazon as the first place to get some good research for the book?

I really went to Amazon as a kind of spur of the moment thing. I was out of my mind after City Paper closed, and I just needed to leave the city for a minute. It was research for this book, but I was like even if I go and it doesn't turn into anything, I've satisfied my curiosity and I'll probably have a few thousand bucks in my pocket and maybe I'll lose 20 pounds or something.

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In her time as an Amazon employee, author Emily Guendelsberger got an inside peek at just how unfulfilling job at a fulfillment center really is, not only for her, but for scores of Americans. It inspired her to write a novel about it. | Image: Kerith Gabriel 

So an Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota. What the hell what that like?

It was exactly that. Hell. I worked as a picker and there are these vast shelving situations that, regardless of what direction you look in, seem to go on forever. We did mostly apparel with a small section of random crap. You would push your cart around this sort of maze, armed with a scanner that would actually time how long it took to pull items. It was extremely stressful because the length of time it took for you to pick essentially meant how effective you were. And then you’d have these 20-year-old dudes right out of college that were nice about telling you essentially to pick up the pace. 

Emily, this sounds like modern day slavery. Straight up. 

Yeah. I mean, it's all about the levels of control, right? My brother-in-law is an economist at Columbia, and the last time I saw him, he was telling me that he had asked one of his classes whether slavery counted as capitalism. Amazon is regarded as a good job. I would talk to a lot of my co-workers for the book and a lot of them were like, ‘Yeah, like the other warehouses around here are much more dangerous. They don't have [cooling] fans or [ample] water.’ I couldn’t believe that companies make you operate in unsafe conditions. Amazon was a really miserable experience, but people didn’t think it was that bad because it paid $10-15 an hour. It was a company town, where the company owns everything and it's just about the amount of control — like slavery.  

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“Companies just squeeze every ounce of labor out of workers and when they burn out, they just move onto the next. It’s wrong, and on a micro-level, you could even argue it’s criminal.”

– Emily Guendelsberger, author and journalist

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How much was working low-wage jobs by design? Did you really want to see just how bad these jobs were, or did you go in with the expectation of thinking they aren’t as bad as they seem?

My initial fascination was definitely with Amazon because there's this super fascinating online world that I got into for the Uber story, where drivers were talking to each other about different ways that the company screwed them this week. Those same forums exist with people who work for companies like Amazon. It was just fascinating. It just sounded so dystopian. People hated it but had no other choice. You can't even understand it until you've worked there, and that was what really made me want to go myself.

I know you can’t get into detail, but a few years ago, you made national headlines and got yourself into hot water by infiltrating the Republican National Convention here in Philadelphia. Without getting yourself into more hot water, what can you say you learned from that experience?

Well, you’re right, I can’t talk about it. In fact, I asked my lawyer about it since I kind of knew it would come up in interviews for this book. I asked flat out if I could talk about it, and his response was, “Are you an idiot? Of course you can’t talk about it.” But I will say this...that experience made me a lot more afraid of police and law enforcement than I ever used to be. I’ll just leave it at that. 

Fair enough, let’s leave it alone. Last question. What’s the overall takeaway you hope readers get from this book?

Honestly, I really hope people who read are people who have power and who are going to be voting in the election. People who have power don't understand this [kind of grind]. A lot of them have never had a service job, shit, a lot of them have never had a real job and by real I mean something that's not politics or an op-ed columnist making $100k a year. This [kind of grind] is life for most people, right. And it's so stressful that it is legitimately driving the country kind of crazy. The things that chronic stress does to your body and your mind, it makes you paranoid it makes you irritable. It makes you angry. It makes you afraid of outsiders. It makes you, interestingly enough, more receptive to a strong man leader. Companies just squeeze every ounce of labor out of workers and when they burn out, they just move onto the next. It’s wrong, and on a micro-level, you could even argue it’s criminal. 

On the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane. | July 16. $18.98. Available at select local bookstores and via amazon.com

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