Up the river

Would you like to play a game? It's an interesting game. I call it the grown-up game.

Let's assume for a moment that you actually need the job you hold—that you pay rent or house payments, that you eat food, that periodically you like to purchase and wear clothing, that now and then you avail yourself of the services of doctors and dentists, that bills for phone and ISP and cable and so forth are more than mere rumors to you. Let's assume you are, in brief, a grown-up. Now, grown-up, here comes your boss. He has a choice for you. Would you rather...

Take an unpaid 30-, 60-, or 90-day leave?

Begin a one-week-on, one-week-off work schedule, with the week "off" being (again) unpaid?

Work a 30-hour week?

Choose wisely; some of these options may look appealing (you there in the corner, I see you thinking "three-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia." You must be new to the grown-up game. I have two words for you, missy: STUDENT LOANS) but might well endanger your benefits and stock options. Besides, says the boss, you need to stick close to home. Your supervisor could call you back to work at anytime when things pick up.

When sales pick up.

When profits pick up.

When . . . profits . . .?

(Did she say stock options?)

(Oh, crap, she's talking about Amazon again.)

Informed sources say that grown-ups there on the hill are attempting to make the Bezos of a bad choice, as Amazon.com struggles to avoid layoffs. Layoffs, to use a less than grown-up term, suck. Not only are layoffs hard on the staff (both those who leave and those who remain), they're hard on public opinion. Dot-coms and unemployment benefits aren't ideas that fit together in our minds, not yet.

Amazon, meanwhile, is no stranger to funky employee manipulations. Internally, things have been dag-nasty in several departments lately. In particular Human Resources comes to mind—HR, where even acting heads of the department flee the company in disgust and major layoffs have been part of the landscape for months. Hard times. No one who earlier this year saw freshly fired Amazon staffers standing at the bus stop holding boxes of personal belongings and crying thinks that life on the hill is currently beer and Skittles and stock options.

But the latest cuts—for cuts they be—are from the customer-service staff. With apologies to HR, customer service is a frontline job and the kind of understaffing customers notice immediately. It's also one of the things Amazon does well and of which Amazon can be justifiably proud. It is not the kind of thing a happy company cuts back on.

It's also not the sort of thing management likes to see in the papers. The word "layoffs" is ugly in ink, and not because stockholders shudder at the thought of good rank-and-file workers losing their jobs; if you honestly think that's the problem, you obviously slept through the '90s. (Remind me to explain this Internet thing to you one of these days. And day trading. And—oh, it's really all just too complicated to get into; back to sleep with you.) Heck no—tell them this is the new "lean and mean" Amazon laying folks off and all is forgiven. This solution is different; perhaps better, perhaps completely untenable. Which I suppose makes it not unlike Amazon itself.

I've heard about no-layoff cuts like this before. Unfortunately, I've heard about them in (oh, how unfashionable!) discount retail, where local or regional department stores attempting to compete with behemoth Wal-Mart cut hours severely after the holidays, sometimes dropping clerks and warehouse staff from the schedule for days or weeks at a time. Such stores count on local job scarcity to let them get away with playing with people's grown-up money like that. Over time, such stores end up with staff self-selected from the fringes of the workforce: high-school kids earning gas money, retirees looking to get out of the house, two-parent-family moms working to make the ends of lower-middle-class budgets meet, low-paid staff from other stores (including, yes, Wal-Mart) looking to pick up a few extra dollars and the employee discount.

Is this the new face of Amazon? Have you got a better idea that doesn't involve a time machine? I'll bet Jeff Bezos would like to hear it right about now.

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