The Way We Work Now

Instead of Teaching Summer School, I’ll Be Working at an Amazon Warehouse

The pandemic is changing life plans and career paths in unexpected ways

Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. Photo: Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images.

I’d heard the horror stories about the harsh working conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but by the time I sat down to apply for the job last week, I had other worries on my mind. During most of the year, I work as a special education English teacher in Baltimore. And while I typically have a side gig to supplement my income — most recently as a driver for Uber and Lyft — the combined threats of a deadly global pandemic and economic downturn changed everything this year.

With so much uncertainty in our day-to-day lives, it’s hard to predict what the next few months of my life will look like. The middle school where I worked recently closed down, so in the fall, I will be teaching at a high school two miles away. It’s still unclear whether we will return to physical classrooms or continue with online learning. Everyone has a guess, but no one knows. Education across the country has never seen a more uncertain moment.

We are living through a time of heavy transition. Our nation is not only reckoning with a deadly pandemic but also police brutality and systemic racism. These issues have had a profound effect on my students — many of whom see our school building as a place of safety. My middle school was located in the northeast side of Baltimore, which is the sixth poorest city in America and has a poverty rate of 25.1%. If we start distance teaching again once school resumes, I worry my students will fall farther and farther behind their peers in other parts of the country.

People who think online learning is a great equalizer need to consider the privileges necessary to complete assignments: a technological device and an internet connection. The reality is that nearly seven million school-age children don’t have home internet service. I can’t even begin to count how many school assignments were turned in since the start of the pandemic that looked like text conversations with friends; it’s clear the students were completing schoolwork on their cellphones.

I’d been hired by one of the largest companies in the world without ever having to speak to a single human being.

Distance learning is a new form of schooling that doesn’t work well for districts like mine. It pushes the act of teaching from the trained professionals and onto the students and their parents. In this model, teachers like myself become obsolete. After all, we can encourage but not mandate students to join our live sessions or watch our video tutorials.

Amazon was not my first choice for a summer job, but I wasn’t able to land a gig teaching in summer school, so I figured why not? The automated application process took no more than 30 minutes to complete. I was prompted to click a series of checkboxes and watch a video, and then suddenly, an email arrived in my inbox — I got the job. It took me a moment to realize I’d been hired by one of the largest companies in the world without ever having to speak to a single human being.

Returning to my previous summer jobs was no longer an option. With remote learning in place, there’s little demand for summer school teachers this year. Meanwhile, driving for Uber and Lyft continue to be huge risks for Covid-19 exposure. Ride-share driving was good money at busy times, and it led me to meet a lot of different people around the city, but it’s a precarious gig. If you’re not getting rides, you’re not getting paid. Working at an Amazon warehouse certainly comes with its own Covid-19 risks, not to mention its reputation for having unsafe or grueling conditions. But I know it could be a lot worse. At least now I’ll have a stable source of income, or at least $15 per hour in wages, before the start of the next school year.

I will confess my life has gotten significantly more relaxed without the chaos and intensity that often accompanies managing a traditional classroom. For now, I’m actually looking forward to my Amazon job; it brings me back to the summer I worked at Walmart. Still, I feel conflicted about reopening schools in the fall, and I can’t help but worry about my students. This present environment is not what’s best for them.

Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of “The Wire.” Email: Support me:

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