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Dispatch from the work shift from hell

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The job I lost June 20, 2014, which I’m about to detail below, was truly like herpes, a “gift that keeps on giving.” For five weeks now after the loss of that job I still continue to have the leg pains that job engendered, requiring me to take 1600 mg. of ibuprofen daily just to be able to walk and stand without pain; but as of now the only thing that’s substantially changed is that while the pain has attenuated, it only reduced my need for ibuprofen from 1600 mg. daily to a “mere” 800! Ah, such a lasting “gift” from a job that was a lived descent into the lower rungs of Dante’s hell!

As was typical of the “employment opportunities” in Central Indiana, the job I worked was yet another unskilled warehouse temp job through a temp agency, another in a seemingly endless cycle of only temporary employment—where, as usual, the “opportunity” of “temp to hire,” i.e., the job turning into a permanent, full-time position as, if one’s considered “good” enough, the company hiring one through the temp agency will take the temp on as one of its own. But reality is, though the dangling of “temp to hire” is ubiquitous, it actually occurs only 27% of the time, according to statistics. It’s bait dangled, and as such, is a lot like bait-and-switch, where, at the end of the assignment, one still lacks permanent, reliable employment and must instead scrounge around for more strictly temporary “temp work opportunities” through the various temp agencies.

Yet I was grateful for this job when it first occurred, coming as it did after a month unemployed and not qualifying for unemployment compensation. That followed my loss of employment at the Amazon.com warehouse in Whitestown on April 5 where I had been for nearly six months—which was long as such jobs usually go. The new job was at another warehouse run by a major national corporation, this one the book publisher and distributor RR Donnelley in Plainfield, another significant commute from my residence in Indianapolis. Both jobs shared the trait that they were physically demanding; and I’ve written notably before on examiner.com on just how difficult work is at Amazon. (See “Amazon.com’s Whitestown, Indiana warehouse is a hell of a place to work,” January 20, 2013, http://www.examiner.com/article/amazon-com-s-whitestown-indiana-warehouse-is-a-hell-of-a-place-to-work; and “Work, fatigue, frustration, and—finally!—creativity again,” May 28, 2014, http://www.examiner.com/article/work-fatigue-frustration-and-finally-creativity-again.) However, while Amazon is a horrendously demanding place to work, at least it pays a fairly decent wage as far as temp warehouse employment in Central Indiana goes, $11.50 an hour for the day shift, and $12.50 an hour for the night shift. Further, the temp agency that hires for Amazon, Integrity Staffing Solutions, has perks available for its employees at Amazon that are unheard-of with other temp agencies, perks such as the ability to acquire penalty-free time off work.

The temp agency that employed me at RR Donnelley, Employment Plus, provided no perks; instead it had, and enforced, a penalty point system for being absent or late for one’s work shift no matter what the reason. In fact, I had been burned twice by Employment Plus before, in late 2011 and late 2012, but had no place else to go when it offered me employment again in May 2014. Employment Plus does like to brag on its website, http://www.employmentplus.com, how well it services its industry clients and how many awards it’s received from employer organizations, but that’s because it’s quite willing to cater to whatever the employer demands, even (or especially?) at the expense of the employees it provides! But I don’t write this out of any invidious desire to single out Employment Plus: as a temp employee ever since September 2001 who’s worked for several temp agencies, I can honestly say that there are no “good” temp agencies to work for, only a Hobson’s choice between more tolerable and less tolerable, which is either exacerbated or mitigated by the type of work actually available at any given time. Or in other words, only what amounts to a practical choice between what’s bad and what’s worse!

I worked at RR Donnelley from May 7 until about an hour-and-a-half before my shift was scheduled to end on June 20, being summarily fired and escorted from the building by the officious manager who, due to his goatee and shaved head, reminded me of a bearded version of Saturday Night Live’s Coneheads in appearance, and Godzilla in temperament.

Central Indiana warehouses tend to be rather badly managed, and in this RR Donnelley was the worst I’ve encountered. A morass of dysfunction, equipment malfunctions and breakdowns, a conveyer belt system for feeding products that was frequently overloaded with more product pulled and ready to ship than it could handle, and a management that, when it was on the floor and not in the office, simply strutted around and barked orders, despite not having any real idea of what was going on—but lack of knowledge was never allowed to interfere with barking orders and rendering summary judgment, no matter what! Such was integral to my being summarily fired for being upset and having shouted out my anger and frustration at almost having my fingers crushed due to an equipment malfunction that was a regular occurrence on the particular task I worked, but of which the big boss, the Conehead, was previously oblivious. So, yes, I was partially responsible for blurting out an angry obscenity, but who wouldn’t do such under such conditions? I was in an edgy and vulnerable emotional state of exhaustion at having worked over six hours virtually without respite, handling a nearly-impossible shift dealing with an extremely overloaded conveyor belt system. Just this hapless worker trying desperately to keep pace with a tyrannous ever-flowing conveyor belt! Then the taping machine, which taped the boxes in which I packed stuffing so that they were ready to ship, developed the regularly-recurring malfunction that prevented it from taping, and though I had never repaired the malfunction before, I did know what to do, having watched others do it repeatedly. And so I fixed the malfunction, no help whatsoever from my more experienced co-worker, who stood there staring at me, dumb and silent as a rock. But the machine started before I had expected it to, and only my quick reflexes prevented my fingers from being caught between two pieces of metal moving together to make a vise for holding the box—while my co-worker, who had contributed to the problem, stood there Sphinx-like; staring at me absolutely wordlessly as though she didn’t know how to talk or react! And so I blurted out an epithet that my immediate supervisor saw as “upsetting” to the other employees, and she escorted me to Mr. Conehead, who couldn’t have cared less about what I was upset about, and cared even less that I’d almost crushed the fingers of my left hand. All he knew was I was upset, and so he blurted out demands that I cease being upset. And when I couldn’t, the combination of ruefulness, anger at both my co-worker and at my near miss, plus extreme fatigue for being terribly overworked for a measly $9.50 an hour, $2.00 an hour less than what I’d received at Amazon despite actually working harder, he escorted me out the building; but before he completed the task of escorting, he reprimanded me once more as I stopped to put on my watch (we weren’t allowed to wear watches while on the job, as they were considered hazardous, something that could get caught in the rollers of the conveyor). One simple solution to my anguish does come to mind, and I’m sure the reader catches it—just let me sit down and become calm again after my trauma. Ah, but such is not allowed in the workplace of today. No, you aren’t allowed to simply sit down when the unexpected happens, you must either be working when it’s not scheduled break time, or be out of the building. No rest for the “wicked,” which means us, the very employees who make the business operate in the first place!

Truth is, up until that incident, my immediate supervisor had regarded me as an able employee, someone who actually did my job better than my two regular co-workers. But “upsetting the work environment” for any reason whatsoever, even a good one, is simply a Big No-No which is to be dealt with harshly. Production must flow, even in the case of a conveyor system that itself was inadequate to handle the volume placed on it, which was constantly breaking down, and where the ancillary equipment frequently malfunctioned—but with no actually certified maintenance person on duty to fix it, just supervisors who jerry-rigged as best they could, even when they didn’t really know what they were doing. Another reason why RR Donnelley gets an F for its management.

While I was rueful over having the paychecks stop so abruptly, I also regarded this loss as a mixed blessing. I had felt terribly used on this job, working my butt off for $9.50 an hour; and the day I was fired, Friday, was also a payday with my quarterly auto insurance bill due, leaving me essentially with nothing. $9.50 an hour is actually poverty wage, no way around it—a far cry from economic sustainability, which my job at Amazon had at least provided.

I’d been walking or standing on hard concrete since November 2013, something quite hard on one’s legs, especially for an older worker like me—one past his mid-sixties but with no choice but to work anyway. My legs had been consistently sore for a good half-year, and the leg cramping had actually been exacerbated by the statin for cholesterol my doctor had put me on at the end of May. But even when off the job for the next month, and also having been taken off the statin, which can cause muscle aches, the leg pain had only subsided, not disappeared; and I still needed ibuprofen to make it through. But on July 22 I started a new job with a different temp agency, one in which I get to sit down while working, and in which I am not subjected to the tyranny either of a computer-monitored quota system or the speed of a conveyor belt. So I actually have a job now I like, where the work pace is not ruthlessly demanding, and where I feel comfortable. And though I didn’t qualify for unemployment compensation this last time I was off, the combination of paychecks once again flowing and working at a job I actually like makes me optimistic for at least the near future; this even though my new job pays only the poverty-level $9.50 an hour, but which is supplemented by a monthly Social Security check. And my total time unemployed in 2014 has only been 65 days, so I’ve had it much worse. Simply put, I finally lucked out and am living a Life of Riley, with the proviso that my Riley has only modest expectations needing fulfillment.

But in the workplace of today, employees are regarded as expendable inputs and not persons; the notion of workers’ rights is nonexistent and considered a quaint throwback to an earlier time; and managerial fascism is the norm, not the exception. A far cry for the work environment I knew in the 1960s and 1970s. But that was back in a time when unions were strong, active, and even tolerated by management; so even if one worked in a non-union workplace, the norms of the union workplace still set the general work norm. No more. In our “leaner and meaner” business environment, work norms harkening back to the 19th Century have become the rule now in the 21st. Older workers like myself can still remember when it wasn’t this way, but virtually any worker under the age of 40 only knows workplaces in which managerial fascism is the norm, and is not only ubiquitous but seemingly unchangeable. Managerial fascism and low pay is now the new “normal,” and while some places can be far worse than others, there is now virtually no “good” job any more than there is a really “good” temp agency. Of course there is at least a theoretical solution to this problem, and it’s spelled U-N-I-O-N, but in this age of a much diminished union movement and the widespread use of temps instead of regular workers, more a theoretical than a practical solution for most workers, unfortunately. And that is why for so many of us the best that can come our way is a move from the lowest rungs of Dante’s hell to higher, less oppressive and onerous, rungs. We’ve lost the capacity to attain the good, and most of us can only hope to attain a lesser evil we can at least live with.

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