Up until mid-March, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility with a major financial institution. I won’t name the company or the staffing firm that found me the job, but I will emphasize that it was one of the worst places I’ve ever worked. I took the position as a filler job amidst my freelance writing gigs. In a way, I’m glad I did, though, because it gave me a clearer view of just how bad things are in the U.S. right now. If our elected officials could experience such drudgery, matters would change in no time.
A lock-box is an intermediary between a company and the bank that handles their accounts. You might notice a post office box listed as the mailing address on bills for telephone and water utilities. That box number simply steers the payments to a separate facility where they’re processed on behalf of the bank. It’s beneficial for the bank from a time efficiency standpoint. But, they’re also breeding grounds for fraud. The workers – many of them contract or temporary – handle countless personal checks and documents with sensitive information that can then be purloined or photocopied.
The place where I worked handles immigration applications on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. My specific job was to analyze packets of applications and ensure they contained the proper documentation. Security procedures are tight. Every employee – even temporaries – must wear a slave tag, or what they call “badges.” The badge bears the individual’s picture; tiny image that make driver’s license photos look like glamour shots. The badges also have digital codes that would trigger doors to open. To enter the actual location where the documentation was handled, associates had to swipe their badges and then apply an index fingertip to a scanner beneath the electronic locks. For some reason, the lock always had trouble identifying my fingertip. No, I wasn’t using my middle finger – although seems more appropriate now. But, I’d often stand in front of that stupid lock pressing my finger down like a rogue political leader reaching for a nuke button.
The job was monotonous and dull. I get bored easily anyway, so it was difficult for me to stay interested. But, I noticed a number of things. Most of the associates were female and / or non-White. Yet, the bulk of the supervisors and managers were composed of the usual suspects: older White males. None of that really surprised me. Women, non-Whites, the disabled and immigrants now hold the bulk of temporary and part-time jobs in the U.S. These groups have always resided at the lower rungs of the American work force. But, the 2007 – 08 financial crisis intensified those numbers. But, gender and race only tell part of the story.
Between 2007 and 2009, the American labor force lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1% of all employment. Since then, most of the newly-created jobs have been temporary or contract. Last year the U.S. added 2.8 million temporary or contract employees to the national payroll. After the previous two recessions, American companies increased employment by adding temporary workers. In fact, an increase in temporary and contract work generally signifies overall economic improvement. But, this recession is something new; most of the good-paying jobs that delineated the American middle class have been replaced with low-wage positions. Temporary jobs aren’t a sign of better times ahead; they’re a sign of the new (pathetically, dismal) normal.
In early 1990, I had a temporary position at a lock-box facility in Dallas. Back then, as now, the bulk of the workforce was female and non-White, while most of the managers and supervisors were White males. My immediate supervisor, however, was a Panamanian-born woman who once made an employee remove 37 seconds from her time card because she said the latter had been late that much when returning from break. Her manager was an older White male who had a quirky Napoleonic complex, but whom I liked much better. He didn’t work well under pressure; something that made observing him the highlight of the day. But, that was almost a quarter-century ago. And, from a workforce standpoint, not much has changed.
When I told my parents the paltry pay rate I earned at this last job, they were shocked. It was the same amount my father had earned as a contract employee of a printing shop in the early 1990s. He had worked for the company for nearly 30 years before he got laid off in 1989; he was then, rehired as a contractor.
The issue of salaries and pay rates has been staring the slow economic recovery square in its ugly face. Mid-wage jobs – those averaging between $13 and $22 hourly –made up about 60% of the jobs lost during the recession. But, those same mid-wage jobs comprised about 27% of the jobs created since 2010. However, lower-paying jobs have dominated the job recovery – roughly 58%. Nearly 40%, or 1.7 million of the jobs gained during the recovery, are in three of the lowest-paying categories: food services, retail and employment services (e.g. office clerks, customer service representatives). All of this has not only decimated the American middle class, but has pushed the U.S. below Canada regarding middle class affluence.
Graph courtesy U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A few other things bothered me about the facility where I worked. Because of the number of documents that arrive on a daily basis, the amount of paper is overwhelming. Should a fire break out, I thought, it could be catastrophic – and mainly because of one simple device: cell phones. People aren’t allowed to bring cell phones into the main production area. The reason is obvious: most cell phones now have camera features, and it would be easy for someone to snap a picture of classified documents. Therefore, anyone who enters the production area has to leave their cell phone in their vehicle, in a designated locker in the same building, or with security. But, along with the odd juxtaposition of desks, I also noticed fire exits weren’t clearly marked. People would be safe in the building should a tornado descend upon the property. But, if a fire erupted, I’m certain many people would head towards their lockers to grab their cell phones. Such a scenario reminds me of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 people (mostly women and immigrants) perished.
I arrived home from work one Friday to find a voice mail message on my cell phone from the staffing agency, telling me to call them immediately. The lock-box firm had pulled the job from me. The unit manager had accused me of being consistently late. His idea of “late” apparently is one or two minutes past the hour. I pointed that out to the staffing agency; emphasizing, though, that I made up the one, two or three minutes I arrived late. Moreover, I said, I’d already attained a 100% accuracy rate on the job. None of that seemed to matter. The agency was in a bind; they couldn’t refute whatever chicken-shit opinion the manager had of me.
It’s no great personal loss. I won’t exactly be seeking therapy because of it. Some things just aren’t worth the trouble. As this May Day comes to a close, it’s important to remember that people usually work too damn hard for their money. As the wealth gap in the U.S. widens, I don’t know how much longer this, or any truly democratic society, can deem itself civilized.
Image courtesy Compare Business Products.