Tag Archives: labor

Circling

Yesterday, April 30, marked a unique anniversary for me.  It’s been 30 years since I started working for a major banking corporation in Dallas.  I remained there – laboring over hot computer keyboards and angrier customers – for 11 years before I got laid off in April 2001.  But, I just realized: 30 years since that first day!  Wow!  The year 1990 still sounds relatively recent; attributed mainly to the 1990s being the best decade of my life.  A lifetime ago.

And, it’s amazing how much has changed since then.  Both society and me.  I’m more confident and self-assured now than I was in 1990.  I came of age in that final decade of the 20th century and I’ve improved myself in the many years since.  I’m not holding onto the past – not anymore.  I’m just reflecting.  I’m at the age where I find myself comparing life between then and now more often.  I’ve packed enough years into my life to do that.

It makes me recall how my parents often did the same.  ‘It’s been how long?!’  I heard that so many times; from when I was in grade school to the weeks before my father died in 2016.  Now, I find myself doing the same.

I’m certainly not upset about it.  I’ve experienced all of the good and bad life has to offer in various shapes, sizes and colors.  That happens, of course, as one navigates the rivers of our individual worlds.  It’s inevitable and unavoidable.  Making it to the half-century point of my life was a major milestone.  The alternative is not as attractive.

After the funeral of my Aunt Margo in 1989, we gathered at her house in suburban Dallas where she’d lived for over 20 years.  Sipping on beverages and eating food Margo’s neighbors had prepared, my mother and her two surviving siblings began regaling the group with tales of long ago.  My mother recounted one quaint moment at a church with her niece, Yvonne, one of Margo’s daughters.  After the priest had led the congregation in recitation of the ‘Hail Mary’, Yvonne – about 2 years of age – loudly asked my mother, “Aunt Lupe, what’s a womb?”

Startled, my mother mumbled, “Uh…I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on Aunt Lupe, yes you do!”

Behind them, she said, much of the fellow worshippers chuckled.  Even the priest laughed, she told us.

My father, sitting on a couch beside me, smiled broadly and uttered, “See, she remembers those little things.”

For me, those “little things” have added up.

A few years ago, at a gym I patronized, I got into a discussion with some young men about work.  They weren’t just friends; they were colleagues at a major financial institution.  I mentioned I’d labored at the bank for over a decade and found myself regaling them with tales of answering phones and mailing out scores of paper documents to clients and colleagues.  One of them told me that they all used their cell phones to stay in touch with people – clients and colleagues – and were connected all the time.  Little paper, he noted, almost 100% digital or electronic.  I laughed.  It didn’t make me feel old.  I realized immediately it was just progress.  But they enjoyed my description of such oddities at the time as telecommuting and video conference calls – along with reels of digital tape for recording phone calls and people trying to figure out how to refill the copier with toner.  I recall vividly a number of people with hands coated in the small-grain black powder and seeing toner EVERYWHERE.  I finally figured out how to insert the powder – using latex gloves I brought from home, with a bundle of dampened paper towels from the men’s room.  Curious gazes sprouted onto the faces of those young men at the gym; perhaps uncertain whether to laugh or express wonder.  I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “That’s how life was like in corporate America many moons ago.”  And, in turn, they collectively burst out laughing.

In my 20s, my father advised me to work as hard as possible during that period of my life; making small sacrifices along the way to ensure a solid future for myself.

“Work as much as you can while you’re young and save as much as you can,” he pointedly said, almost as if warning me.  “You’ll be damn glad you did when you get to be our age,” referring to him and my mother.

Last autumn one of my cousins, Laura, held a Thanksgiving gathering at her house, with her two daughters and the young son of one of them.  Her mother (my mother’s younger sister) lives with her.  Both women sat at the dining room table talking after the meal, while Laura and I stood in the den conversing.  Also present was one of her nephews, Andy (on her ex-husband’s side of the family).  My parents had first met Andy around the turn of the century, before he even entered kindergarten.  He grew to like them, especially my father.  I didn’t meet him until the summer of 2005, after a lengthy stint working in Oklahoma for the engineering company.  On that particular Saturday, my cousin had come to visit my parents with her daughters and Andy who was visiting for the weekend.

I had my dog, Wolfgang, corralled in a back bedroom and finally brought him into the den to meet everyone – whereupon the little monster I identified as a miniature wolf vocally unleashed his suspicion of the newcomers.

“Why’s he barking so loud?” Andy asked with a laugh.

“He’s just not used to seeing this many people,” I told him.

While the rest of us continued talking, Andy and Wolfgang were more focused on each other.  Andy eventually dropped to his knees, as Wolfgang sat and cocked his head back and forth; the way dogs do when they’re still trying to figure out something or decide if they like you or not.  I told Andy to let Wolfgang sniff the back of his hand, before petting him, which he did.  Within no more than a moment, the two were playing.  Yes, a little boy and a little dog make good playmates!  They got along very well.

At that Thanksgiving gathering last year, Andy was 23 and had grown into a strikingly handsome young man with a deep voice and a full beard.  He said he worked for a trucking company north of Dallas and had earned a sizeable income in 2018.  I immediately congratulated him and then told him to save as much of that money as he could.

“Don’t go out buying cars and motorcycles and drinks for everyone in your crew when you go out partying,” I advised.  As a very young man, I knew Andy was almost naturally prone to getting the best products life has to offer.  I truly did not want to see him work so hard, only to end up destitute at 50-something.  “Work hard and play hard, yes.  You’re young.  There’s no harm in going out with your buddies and partying and meeting women.  Just don’t do that too much and waste all that money eating and drinking.  You don’t want to turn into an angry old fucker like me or Laura.”

Both Andy and Laura burst out laughing.  But I feel Andy understood how serious I was.  I then asked him if he remembered Wolfgang and I recounted that day I first met him and how he had played with the dog.  He had to think for a moment, before he finally did.  “Little gray dog with big brown eyes, right?”

“Yes!”

He asked me what had become of him.  I had to explain how the dog’s health had begun to fail at the start of 2016 and the stroke-like episodes he’d started to experience were a heart murmur gradually worsening.  I then detailed how Wolfgang acted on the day my father died and how he himself passed away less than five months later.

Andy stared at me blankly for a few seconds – and I thought briefly he was going to cry.  His eyes seemed to quiver, before he muttered, “Oh, man.  Sorry to hear that.  I guess that was kind of unexpected, huh?”

“No,” I answered.  “Dogs get old and sick – just like people.”  No, Wolfgang’s death wasn’t unexpected.  When he turned 10 in 2012, I told my parents we needed to brace ourselves for his eventually demise.  It seemed they didn’t want to talk about it.  I could understand.  We never discussed how and when our German shepherd, Joshua, would die – until the day we had to carry him into the vet’s office.

Another thing my parents had advised me to do many years ago was to complete my higher education.  I promised them I would and even after I started working for the bank, I maintained at some point I would return.  I didn’t fulfill that promise until 2007.

About 10 years ago I attended a dinner party with some close friends and met a young woman who had dropped out of college because she was having so much trouble at that time.  She was now gainfully employed, but still longed for completion of that collegiate endeavor.  I strongly suggested she make the effort because it would be worth the trouble.  “You’ll find life gets busier as you get older,” I said.  “It just does.  You realize you want to do more things.”  I emphasized I wasn’t chastising her or telling her what to do with her life.

Someone else asked, if I felt at that point in my life, it was proper to give advice to younger people.

“I don’t like to say I give advice,” I replied, “because that’s almost condescending.”  But I was entering the phase of my life where, if I know or meet someone who’s making the same mistakes I made when I was young, I feel the obligation to relay my own experience with that issue and how I dealt with it.  As the adage goes, hindsight is 20-20.  Education had grown to become more important to me as I reached my 40s – and, as with my creative writing, it’s not so much that life kept getting in the way.  I let life keep getting in the way.

It’s a curious sensation, though.  Life is now coming full circle.  And it actually feels pretty good.

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My Time in a Locked Box

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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.

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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.

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Happy May Day 2014!

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“True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

May Day.

Image courtesy Lucyria.

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