How I Went From Graduate School Student to Amazon Warehouse Janitor

A black female janitor at an Amazon warehouse

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images and AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

“Sorry, they said we’ve got everyone we need for today.” The security guard smiled sympathetically, holding my driver’s license card out to me. I had woken at 6 that morning—took a shower, packed my lunch, and downed my coffee—before arriving at the gate of the Amazon warehouse. Now I had to turn around, walk to the nearest bus stop, and figure out how I was going to make up $100 in missed work this week.

It had never happened to me before, but I knew that this was the downside of being a temporary employee. The powers that be could change their mind at any moment, and you could be stuck without a check.

When the temp agency called to tell me that there was a full-time custodial position open over at a 24-hour facility in San Marcos, Texas, I was both relieved and, to be honest, a little bit indignant. I was going to be able to eat this week, but after having spent the past 14 years of my life getting a bachelor’s degree in English, getting a master’s degree in creative writing, and starting my own entertainment company, I was going to be a janitor.

Amazon workers call the taped-off walking paths that wrap around the building “the Green Mile.” I thought it was a joke at first.

I must have missed the memo: A 2014 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research revealed that an incredible 55.9 percent of black recent college graduates were “underemployed” and working in a position that didn’t require a four-year college degree. Hence my new position pushing Gaylord boxes back-and-forth in an Amazon warehouse for $10 an hour, 10 hours a day, three days a week. But thanks to this job, I was going to be able to cover my portion of the rent and buy four whole rolls of toilet tissue.

The reality is that in April of this year, I was so far behind on rent that I had to host a 12-hour poetry reading to raise money on GoFundMe. I was embarrassed. After I’d eagerly shared posts on social media about the work I’d been doing with my business, I was now admitting publicly that if I couldn’t raise the money, I would be homeless.

I had pushed for a college education, believing that with it came job security and the freedom to pursue my writing without the burden of poverty. Without familial wealth or a serendipitous set of circumstances, I would need at least a degree to be competitive if I wanted to move up and over the poverty line. But here I was teetering on it.

Amazon workers call the taped-off and safe walking paths that wrap around the building “the Green Mile.” I thought it was a joke at first, comparing the facility to a prison like the one in the movie made famous by Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan. But I had to admit that the joke was in some ways disturbingly close to the truth about the working conditions I found there. The space, which stretches out across several football fields and up four flights of stairs, does give the illusion of forced servitude. Hundreds of women and men work the line, stowing or picking products and flirting through the metal windows of their stations, checking out all the new hires and the staff personnel who strut back-and-forth, running the floor.

My roommate was hired as a “picker,” someone who pulls items purchased on and dumps them in a container for packaging. He also has a master’s degree in creative writing but was unable to find a job in his field after graduation. Always the funny guy, he lives for memes and regularly refers to me by my pet name, Rent. When I told him I’d be working in the warehouse with the cleanup crew, he told me that I’d work with the people who are commonly referred to as the laziest and most unnecessary in the building. “You guys just don’t do anything,” he cracked.

I picked up discarded plastic wraps, pulled Gaylords from one side of the floor to the other, emptied the 6-foot-tall boxes, and cleaned out the yellow bins the packers used ceaselessly. We cleaned toilets, wiped down rails, swept, and moved anything that would slow down the employees with “real jobs” out of the way. Every day I had the same thought: I have no idea how I got here.

I grew up in a military family, moving from state to state until my parents divorced and my mom moved us kids to Austin, Texas. I spent my high school years in at-risk programs for low-income families, living in Section 8 housing and waiting on our monthly food-stamps deposit. I promised my family, my teachers, and myself that I would find a way to be more than just another black statistic, and that an education was going to help me do that.

I had pushed for a college education, believing that with it came job security and the freedom to pursue my writing without the burden of poverty.

Today, black women are among the most-educated groups in the country. We’re the only demographic of women who own more businesses than our male peers. But of course that does not always mean we are more successful. A 2016 survey from Consumer Finances shows that degrees for black women are not translating into wealth within our communities. Too many factors outside of higher education are leaving black women jobless and in debt. Upward mobility, a common desire among millennials, is still often thwarted by discrimination in the labor market.

When I left my full-time sales job at a call center last year, several months before graduating from my master’s program, I felt invincible. I thought to myself, I’ll just finish up my master’s degree and start my own company doing what I love: writing and creating opportunities for other artists. I wanted to create a space where emerging visual and performing artists could receive professional development and education, network with local companies and potential clients, and expand their portfolios with themed exhibitions and performance opportunities.

I threw myself into a business plan, applied to art grants and startup-accelerator programs, and even joined an innovative female-owned co-working space, Splash Coworking. I created an artist-in-residence program, facilitating the artist-development initiative through a monthly event series I curated. Those first three months were a crash course in organization, self-care, branding, paperwork filing, and functioning on minimal sleep. I took all the knowledge I had gained throughout my college career and threw it into my business. But while the U.S. Census Bureau states that black-owned businesses like mine are on the rise—an estimated 34.5 percent increase from 2007–12—the rate of success overall for black-owned small businesses in their first two years is still debilitatingly low. It felt like I was losing before I even got started.

In October of 2017, the stress and calls from unpaid creditors forced me to finally give in and file for personal bankruptcy. By January, I had lost my car and cleared my nonacademic debts. I defended my thesis the same month and graduated—happy to have finally attained my life jacket of a degree.

I searched for teaching opportunities that would give me the income and flexibility needed to keep my business going. I applied for jobs in every market in my area. Teaching jobs, specifically for creative writing or English, were virtually nonexistent in my city, and the other positions required Ph.D.s and prior teaching experience. Awesome, I thought. Teaching was out of the question for now. I decided to look for acting jobs or writing jobs in the area. The closest one was in Austin, 30 miles away from me. Without a car, that didn’t seem possible.

“Oh! I see you have a degree!” the interviewer proclaimed.

“Yes, I do.” He nodded slowly.

“Oh. I see you have two degrees.” He peered up over his steamed-up glasses and briefly glanced down at my carefully constructed cleavage. I nodded. I knew that tone. I struggled to keep my face relaxed. It was important that this meeting went well. Rent. Phone. Electricity. Food.

“So, tell me why you want to be a team member here instead of writing or getting a job teaching?” I smiled. Of course I didn’t want to work at the local chicken shack. He knew that. How do I explain this?

The chairs are sticky, the air conditioner is always broken, and the same music plays 24/7 here, but at least there’s food and I don’t have to wait for a paycheck now. If the people I serve like me, they just drop a $5 bill on my table before they drive off to do whatever it is people who can afford restaurants like this do. Buy fancy teacups. I don’t know. If they don’t like me, they rip open their sugar packets and dump them on the table for me to wipe up once they’re gone. And I will wipe it up. Because I’m still hoping the next customer will like me just a little bit better and the rules say I can’t tell customers when they’re being rude.

It’s been three months since Amazon’s “need for temp employees changed,” and I’ve found a job working at a restaurant as a server for $2.13 an hour plus tips. I average anywhere from $250 to $375 a week. The uniform is stiff but the other employees at least try to keep the mood light with gossip about their children or new boyfriends.

Their conversations remind me that real people are working the jobs no one else wants to work. Real people with real bills and medical issues, real hopes and desires. I listen in and try not to think about my degree or my company too much. I’ve worked more doubles in the past few months than I ever have in my life and I’m starting to think I may have busted some important vein in my left foot hustling back-and-forth between the many, many tables of the main room. But despite everything, I’ve found that I actually like my new job. It’s simple and straightforward and I’m surrounded by windows that let me see the sun all I want.

After I got over the physical exhaustion from working at Amazon and got the hang of my new job, I started having more time to pick up my creative work again. The book of poetry I’ve been working on for over 10 years finally found a home with a publisher. I’ve started editing it in between guests and daydreaming about my next book, a memoir about giving my daughter up for adoption. I’ve even started reimagining how my small business could work in a different city when I move after my lease is up.

I’m humbled by the job. It reminds me that no one who has ever accomplished anything of significant value accomplished it easily. Some of my favorite artists were servers. If anything, I’m just following in their footsteps. They were construction workers and truck drivers; they worked at fast-food restaurants and were telemarketers. A few were even janitors. Maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe I’m just getting started.