Tag Archives: U.S. economy

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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Downton Abyss

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Since 2010, “Downton Abbey” has been one of the most popular dramas on television.  It’s enjoyed high ratings here in the U.S., which surprised its British producers.  I’ll concede that the production values are extraordinary: the period costumes and set design are as appealing as the beautiful cinematography.  I also love seeing those vintage automobiles.  My parents are modest fans of the show, but I’m not.  In fact, I actually loathe it.  The concept of upper-class Britons spending their time delivering snarky comments to one another, while haggling over what attire to don for the latest high-society ball, bears no sense of originality or purpose in my view.  But, “Downton Abbey” actually serves a greater, if unintentional purpose: it represents what is wrong in the U.S. from a cultural and economic standpoint.

In one episode, I happened to overhear the character of Violet Crawley, portrayed by the exquisite Dame Maggie Smith, lament that life in England was pathetically different than it was before the “Great War,” a.k.a. World War I.  She desperately wants to see it return to “the way it was before.”  That’s how some White conservative Americans view this nation; they want to see it return to the way it was before the 1960s, when droves of Negroes, Hispanics, Indians, women and queers dared to demand equal treatment.  It’s one thing that makes Ronald Reagan so popular among White conservatives.  The “Gipper” (a failed, divorced actor) had always believed America was just fine before c. 1963.  Reagan’s British counterpart and political soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, apparently felt the same.  Aside from their subtle distaste for equality, both enacted legislation to crush unions and subsequently impede workers’ rights.  Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 for going on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.  Thatcher systematically destroyed coal miners’ unions; coming close to bringing in the military to help put an end to their relentless strikes.  Consequently, labor never viewed either Reagan or Thatcher with much adoration.

It’s these latter antics that brought both countries back to an earlier time when large companies could do what they wished to their workers with little regard for their health or safety.  And, it’s where “Downton Abbey” plays out – during a period in which the wealthiest citizens managed to insulate themselves from “The Rest of Us” and stay above the fray of everyday life.  “Downton Abbey,” with all its vivacious costumes and sumptuous furnishings, is emblematic of the very real and extraordinary economic disparity in the U.S.  We’re still suffering the ill effects of dramatic deregulation of the banking and housing industries that the Bush Administration enacted more than a decade ago; irresponsible actions that, along with two unfunded wars and disparate tax policies, almost completely destroyed the U.S. economy by the end of 2008.  It lingers as a financial hangover for us common folks.

Still, Peter Augustine Lawler, a conservative professor of government at Berry College, celebrated the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey” in an editorial in “Intercollegiate Review,” a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  ISI promotes limited government and free market economies – hallmarks of conservative ideology that leave no room for individual freedom, despite their claims to the contrary.

Wrote Lawler: “Everyone – aristocrat or servant – knows his place, his relational responsibilities. . . . The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. . . . Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. . . . The nobility of living in service to a lord. . . . What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

Notice how Lawler mentions the term “place.”  It’s a common designation the upper classes often bestow upon their lowly minions.  It’s a word many Whites in the U.S. have used in conjunction with non-Whites; what some men have often said to women.  Everyone supposedly has a “place” in the human food chain and they shouldn’t dare to undermine that structure; lest they be denounced as heretical and banished to social obscurity.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, though, Lawler coldly declares that the aristocracy of any nation should be able to preserve their right to a privileged state without impediments and damned the rest of us.  In other words, we’re supposed to accept such conditions without question; it’s just the way things are and too bad if we don’t like it.

There is no “nobility” in a life of servitude – whether to the lord of an antiquitous estate or a bully boss in a Fortune 500 company.  It’s one reason why I’m strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  Aside from the legality question, illegal immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous employers who force them to work in the worst of conditions and sometimes fail to pay them; they then threaten the individuals with deportation if they have the audacity to demand the promised compensation.

It’s somewhat similar to what’s occurring now in the American workplace, as the economy remains fragile.  Corporate executives threaten employees with layoffs or termination if the latter won’t accept harsh working conditions, low pay and / or cuts in benefits.  I was threatened with my job at an engineering company in 2010; at the height of the “Great Recession.”  It worked, as I kept quiet and searched earnestly for another job.  So were most of my colleagues.  Everyone seemed unhappy, but could do nothing about it.  Our supervisor once mentioned in a meeting, “I wish you could see the number of applications on my desk.”  As her boss sat there nodding, we all comprehended the subtle threat.  Despite working so hard, though, four of us were laid off that fall.  My only consolation is that the supervisor and manager ended up losing their jobs, too.

The skewered viewpoint of the “Downton Abbey” gang is courtesy of principal writer Julian Fellowes, a private school graduate who holds a seat in England’s House of Lords.  Most writers compose what they know.  I’ve lived all my life to date in Texas; raised in a middle class household with two working parents in a good suburban home.  So, that’s who my characters are.  They may encounter some unusual events (since I have a fetish for the supernatural), but they’re generally working folks.  That’s my view of reality – and it’s a more accurate assessment than the world according to Fellowes.  He grew up in a golden bubble where his family obviously had privileges.  He never questioned the veracity of that lifestyle – why should anyone else?

Well I do – and I have no problems questioning it.  Violet Crawley (the name sounds as wretched as the character looks) reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Gulf Coast in August of 2005, Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, visited the Houston Astrodome where many New Orleans residents had been evacuated.  Observing the masses of people who had lost everything to floodwaters and high winds, Mrs. Bush quipped, “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.  And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Schlafly came to prominence in the 1970s when she vehemently opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have guaranteed complete and total equality to everyone in the U.S., regardless of gender.  Schlafly warned that women’s traditional roles were under threat from the proposed amendment: protective orders for sexual assault and alimony would be eliminated; women would no longer automatically be granted custody of their children in divorce cases; women would be drafted into the military; and unisex public restrooms would become mandatory.  With a law degree in her background, Schlafly often opened her speeches with gems like, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight.”

In the narrow prism through which Bush and Schlafly see the world, everyone has their proper place, and challenging it would simply disrupt the natural order of things.  Because of the near-total economic collapse, the U.S. now has the greatest wealth disparity since the 1920s.  It’s a trend that actually began years ago, but became more pronounced by the end of the previous decade.  A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that, between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income for the nation’s wealthiest 1% grew by 275%.  For the rest of the populace, it increased during the same period by an average of only 40%.  Although the “Great Recession” technically ended in 2010, unemployment remains stubbornly above 6%.  It’s been a “jobless recovery,” a term no one I know had ever heard until now.  It’s an oxymoron – how can an economy recover from a recession if so many people can’t find work?

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In January 1952, two young men, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, launched a road trip across South America on a motorcycle.  Their purpose was purely hedonistic; their youthful vigor infused with a craving for adventure and fun.  But, as they traveled from one town to another, Guevara in particular noted the gross economic disparities between the elite European-style upper classes and the downtrodden indigenous populations.  He became disillusioned with a world he thought was just and righteous.  He turned his anger to the written word in a chronicle he dubbed “The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey.”

“And then many things became very clear… we learned perfectly that the life of a single human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man on Earth,” wrote Guevara.  Later, the would-be medical student metamorphosed into the revolutionary Che Guevara – and would be murdered because he dared to challenge the elitist authority.

But, that happens when a country’s finances become skewered to favor the most affluent and their puppets in government.  People like Violet Crawley may feel safe and comfortable in their diamond-studded estates for a time.  But, we all die at some point – and whatever money and jewels we possess won’t go with us into that abyss of the next world.

Graph courtesy Congressional Budget Office.

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Oh yea, things really are looking up!

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Just wait and see.  Oh, of course.  Why shouldn’t the 10 to 20 million unemployed and under-employed in the U.S. be patient a little while longer?  Wall Street has just experienced an extraordinary boom and the jobless rate has ticked down to 7.7% with reports that employers added 236,000 jobs in February.  A tick is something I yank off my dog and throw down the disposal.  While our elected officials continue to behave like unsupervised grade schoolers, average Americans keep losing their homes, and my student loans keep accruing interest.

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Fuzzy Math

Well, the U.S. has always wanted to be number 1 in something.

Source.

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Cliff Diving

“Obama’s proposals are not strong enough, per se, to undo the very large inequality increase the U.S. has experienced since the 1970s, particularly when it comes to the incomes at the very top.  To really make a dent, you would need to consider more radical policies.”

– Emmanuel Saez, University of California at Berkeley economist, in the Washington Post.

At the rate we’re going, with the partisan bitchery in Congress, it’ll take a few eons before economic conditions even out.  But hey – maybe the Mayan apocalypse will sort it all out for us before then!

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Quote of the Day

“The president has never created a job.  He’s never even had a real job, for God’s sake.”

– U.S. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, stating that President Obama is poorly-equipped to handle the nation’s economic problems.

This, of course, comes from someone whose single career goal is to defeat Obama in this year’s presidential elections, as opposed to – you know – helping create jobs in America.

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Cartoon of the Day

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