It's been a terrible year for the American worker, with a notable bright spot courtesy of one of the tech firms in the crosshairs of regulators and lawmakers.
If someone had said early in 2020, "A company is going to hire hundreds of thousands of non-college-educated workers during the pandemic at well above the minimum wage," you'd think there'd be huzzahs all around.
That's what the online retailer Amazon has done, but it still gets brickbats for how it pays and treats its workers. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the other day that Amazon jobs are a "scam."
If so, a swath of the US workforce is falling for the grift. Since July, the online retailer has hired 350,000 workers and now employs 1.2 million people globally.
This is a historic hiring binge. According to The New York Times, "the closest comparisons are the hiring that entire industries carried out in wartime, such as shipbuilding during the early years of World War II."
On top of this, the company provides work for roughly half a million truck drivers.
Amazon has been buoyed by the surge of online retail during the pandemic, which has accelerated and entrenched e-commerce. Companies like Walmart and Target have benefited, too, but Amazon leads the pack.
It overwhelmingly hires high-school graduates. It doesn't ask for a resume, gives its workers about a day of training and then puts them on the job in its fulfillment centers.
The difficulty of the work shouldn't be underestimated — it is taxing, repetitive and so highly regimented that it would make the legendary apostle of industrial efficiency Frederick Winslow Taylor blush.
Yet we've long complained about losing assembly-line jobs for non-college-educated workers. Amazon is hiring people for what is the 21st-century equivalent of such jobs, which were — despite the nostalgia for them — also tough and physically demanding.
It can't be that office work is now the only acceptable form of employment in America.
Amazon began paying its workers $15 an hour in 2018. If that rate rings a bell, it's the number for the federal minimum wage that Sen. Bernie Sanders and AOC have long been lobbying for, to little effect (it remains $7.25 an hour).
The evidence is that when a behemoth like Amazon pays more, it prompts competitors to follow suit.
It's hard to review what Amazon has done over the last year and consider it the work of a corporate monster. The firm had an unlimited unpaid-time-off policy for its workers when the pandemic began.
It hired temporary workers to replace them and deal with the surge of business, then kept most of them on and began hiring on top of that.
It has been offering signing bonuses of up to $3,000 and hiring places in the country where no one else is.
According to the research of Michael Mandel at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, Amazon fulfillment center jobs pay 31 percent more than retail jobs at brick-and-mortar stores, where pay has basically been stagnant for three decades.
Mandel points out that it's wrong to simplistically think of Amazon and other e-commerce outfits as replacing brick-and-mortar stores. What they are really replacing is the labor that consumers undertake on their own to shop for goods — driving to a store, walking up and down the aisles, making the selection, loading it and taking it home. Someone making a purchase through Amazon essentially hires a network of workers to do all that for him.
What Amazon and e-commerce more broadly are doing is selling goods to consumers at low prices, while giving them more convenience than ever before — rapid delivery to their doorsteps, with the possibility of easy returns — and creating new jobs in the process.
By all means, jawbone the company to treat workers better, but don't lose sight of the scale of its achievement — and how many Americans are employed because of it.