On Jan. 18, 2013, as the sun went down, Jeff Lockhart Jr. got ready for work. He slipped a T-shirt over his burly frame and hung his white work badge over his broad chest. His wife, Di-Key, was in the bathroom fixing her hair in micro-braids and preparing for another evening alone with her three sons. Jeff had been putting in long hours lately, and so the couple planned a breakfast date at Shoney’s for when his shift ended around dawn. “You better have your hair done by then,” he teased her.
As he headed out the door, Jeff, who was 29, said goodbye to the boys. He told Jeffrey, the most rambunctious, not to give his mom a hard time; Kelton, the oldest, handed his father his iPod for the ride. Then Jeff climbed into his Chevy Suburban, cranked the bass on the stereo system he’d customized himself, and headed for the Amazon fulfillment center in nearby Chester, Virginia, just south of Richmond.
When the warehouse opened its doors in 2012, there were about 37,000 unemployed people living within a 30-minute drive; in nearby Richmond, more than a quarter of residents were living in poverty. The warehouse only provided positions for a fraction of the local jobless: It currently has around 3,000 full-time workers. But it also enlists hundreds, possibly thousands, of temporary workers to fill orders during the holiday shopping frenzy, known in Amazon parlance as “peak.” Since full-timers and temps perform the same duties, the only way to tell them apart is their badges. Full-time workers wear blue. Temps wear white.
That meant Jeff wore white. He’d started working at the warehouse in November 2012, not long after it opened. It was the first job he’d been able to find in months, ever since he’d been laid off from his last steady gig at a building supply store. By January, peak season had come and gone, and hundreds of Jeff’s fellow temps had been let go. But he was still there, two months after he'd started, wearing his white badge. What he wanted was to earn a blue one.