With thanks to the author for sending us this fascinating piece about his experience as a call centre worker in the United States

imagesby Laurence Peterson

After several periods of chronic underemployment, I thought I’d come across all the major variants in temporary labor in this country.  As a Phi Beta Kappa liberal-arts graduate with two years of graduate study in philosophy, but no significant professional qualifications, I had stitched together a life, after a fashion, in fields as diverse as unclaimed property, accounts-payable, financial publishing, and even a miserable stint in
debt collections, moving in and out of formal and temporary employment increasingly Docless seamlessly since joining the labor force in my twenties.  At the point of departure for this story, I had just—out of sheer lack of an alternative–shelled out some of the little cash I still had and got licensed to sell insurance for Aflac on 100% commission.

Despite spending six months working more-or-less forty-hour weeks, I had earned a whopping $700.00 (which works out to almost $4.00/day, about three times the World Bank’s definition of absolute global poverty), and potential clients were defecting at an alarming rate.  Seeking refuge from the swelled ranks of the post-industrial reserve army via an increasingly popular lateral (i.e. while endowed with exceptionally minimal capital resources) movement into a micro-entrepreneurial one had clearly failed.  So I decided to make yet another foray into the traditional, albeit seemingly rather pointless, job search.

Surely enough, after two months of this, I had nothing to show except three interviews (one successful, but leading to employment for only a week).  But, with only a handful of weeks remaining regarding my eligibility to collect unemployment, I finally received a call from someone who worked for the huge, multinational Randstad employment agency.  At this time I did not even know or recall submitting a resume or application with them (I sent out so many that I could hardly keep up with the tally).  It seemed that a call center in far-away Canton (I lived in East Boston, 20 miles away, and had no car), Massachusetts wanted to talk to me about interviewing for a temp-to-perm position.

Implausible commutes

When I heard how far away it was, my heart sank: why was it that a city with almost one-hundred thousand businesses like Boston never seemed to provide job opportunities, while suburbs on the outskirts that did required clearly implausible commutes?  But I was reassured on this score: there was a shuttle bus from Mattapan at Boston’s edge to Canton, and a number of employees of the firm took the shuttle every day.  So I penciled in a date and was told I’d have to call a special phone number and read a script, take a test, and fill out an application online before my tentative interview.  Going through this much time-consuming, sometimes humiliating rigmarole for a mere stab at a temp job (on top of responding to the job advertisement, often with a sniveling cover letter) always infuriates me, but what choice do I have?

When I finally retraced my steps and found the advertisement for the job, I noticed two things: first, the company, Computershare, was one I had daily contact with in my unclaimed property job, which lasted from 2002 to 2007.  Second, the advert promised a great opportunity to establish a foothold in the financial services industry (not that I seemed to need that, after at least 10 years in this kind of business, but promising-sounding nevertheless).  So I thought this place might provide an at-least temporary ace to cheat the underwater plunge once more.  I took the test, left the message, and waited for a go-ahead.

On the day of my interview, I timed the commute.  Since I was being conservative and careful, I discounted the 2 hours it took me to get there to at least an hour and a half.  When I arrived, I was met by a taller, intense-looking young man, Patrick, who seemed to have a distinct edge about him, and carried himself like a wannabe marine or something, complete with the stick up the rear end.  He then took me to a little room, and introduced himself as the onsite representative of Randstad at Computershare.

So they actually had a temp agency embedded in this place?  Why?  How many temps could they possibly employ here?  It was a pretty big office building, but, surely, most of the personnel were permanent employees. . .  I recalled the daily transfer packages I sent to Computershare years before.  There was no sign of the rapid turnover that provides the hallmark of the predominantly temp workplace there: I sent the packages to the same people every day.  So what was going on?

Interview

The interview with the young man, however, was, if anything, even more unusual.  After a very brief discussion of my past (in which I mentioned my previous connection with Computershare and an important line of its business, unclaimed property, both of which the young man seemed completely uninterested in), the Randstad on-site agent started telling me what the next interviewer would want to hear.  I was to take notes on what he told me, memorize it all while he scared up the other interviewer, and trot it all out during the actual interview.  If I didn’t do what Patrick said, I simply wouldn’t make the cut. My own experience of twenty-five years would not qualify me in the least.

The main thing I was supposed to impress the next interviewer with concerned my ability to navigate multiple computer screens and interfaces rapidly.  I had worked with various computer applications for years, of course, but really did not feel like I was experienced in the sort of operations the young man detailed to me.  But what choice did I have?  I needed the job desperately; I was a rapid, enthusiastic, and thoroughgoing learner; I was very well-educated; and it really didn’t seem to matter what was true,  as long as I provided the requisite, completely-coached answers.

A very young, heavy-set woman then entered and proceeded with the real interview.  She looked no older than 23 or so.  Her expression was empty from the moment she sat down with me to the time she left.  I reproduced to the best of my ability what Patrick had conditioned me to provide in the Pavlovian speed-date type session I had undergone.  The interview was over in another five minutes, and the woman left me worrying that I had not impressed her at all.  But the Patrick quickly returned with the somewhat surprising news that I was in.

Well, not quite: they would have to commission criminal and employment searches on me, and I would have to provide a drug-test sample.  And before I left I was photographed and fingerprinted.  Pay was a shade above average for temp work requiring simple levels of exertion/possession of skills (but certainly not great, or even adequate in Boston, consistently rated one of the most expensive cities in the country) $13.00 per hour.  I was to work a 40-hour week, and tardiness or failure to report would simply not be tolerated (at least one person I knew, a single mother, was fired during the period I was employed at Computershare, because of a child-care conflict issue), regardless of circumstances or where I was coming from.

During the two-week period I waited for the results of the background checks and drug-testing I was contacted by Randstad several times.  They wanted a copy of my college degree, awarded decades ago; they wanted me to provide them with the names of people I worked for in cases in which my own references had left the particular business we worked in together; they wanted me to come up with the new parents of companies I had worked for that had been acquired.  I had never been through such a demanding process, not even at hard-core State Street Bank (where I was paid a whole lot more).  Every time they were on the line with what I was hoping would be a final ok, I had to endure more disappointment, anxiety and hassle.

Orientation

Finally I was told to report to Computershare for an orientation session to be held the day before Thanksgiving, 2013.  It was pouring that day, and I did not know at the time that the little shuttle bus stopped in front of the place.  So I got off at the nearest stop printed on the schedule, which was about a mile away, and waded back to the site.  The young man met me and a group of about ten others in the lobby and took us through the security gate.  We then went up a flight of stairs and were briefly shown where we’d end up working: it a very large room divided into cubicles, and agents with headsets sat either engaged in conversation or, in the seeming majority of cases, doing nothing.  We then were taken to a section of the building in which Randstad, which directly employed at least three people, occupied a clearly demarcated area, and Adecco, another temp agency, seemed to maintain a much larger staff.  So this place now sported two temp agencies on site, presumably competing against each other.  I would find out before I left that there was at least one other agency that maintained a permanent presence on site at Computershare as well.

Our orientation consisted of a quick pep talk by Patrick in which he told us that the main requirement for success consisted in being on time for everything: getting to work, logging on the computer and the phone, going to and coming back from breaks, and leaving, and we would be closely monitored on each score.  He then told us we would be trained in a classroom setting starting the next Monday morning for one whole month.  This was something I had never come across in all my decades of exposure to temporary work: a serious commitment to training undertaken by an employer for temps, in which the employer would pay for the temps to be properly instructed in a comprehensive review of the job.

My long experience had predominantly led me to expect, with heroic exceptions, patchwork instruction, often grudgingly given, by sometimes overworked full-timers, some of whom would, if allowed, punish temps for asking questions with bad reports to higher-ups, or even termination of assignment.  For all the hassles I had encountered applying for and getting to the place, this aspect of my new job made a powerfully positive impression on me.

This impression was dimmed somewhat when the young man informed us that Randstad did not offer a health insurance option that passed Massachusetts standards.  As someone whose health insurance would expire when my unemployment benefits would do upon taking up new employment, I had hoped for something better, but not to worry: in our wacky health insurance system, I would be more likely to obtain highly subsidized insurance if my new employer did not offer a plan that passed muster with the state.  Only in America, I thought.

The temps

We then trekked out of the conference room we had gathered in, over to the a-la-carte-looking temp agency section and met with the young man individually to sign what turned out to be a disturbingly large amount of documents: non-disclosure forms, contracts, information-use agreements, and so on.  While I waited my turn I spoke with two others who looked about my age.  One, Christine, had worked at Computershare before, and was being called back for another temporary assignment; the other, named Larry like me, was a 6-foot eight giant of a man who had worked in financial services in pretty serious positions, and with firms like Fidelity, but had come upon hard times: his attempt to establish his own financial consultancy had had the final stake nailed into it when Lehman Brothers blew the world economy to smithereens five years back.

As the three of us talked, I looked at the others in our group: mostly young kids, very predominantly black, Cape Verdean, Haitian or Latino (with many of these being single mothers), but with a rump of us older whites, all of whom had found themselves in decidedly downwardly mobile circumstances.  Then I was called to sign all the documents.  I noticed when I signed the first one that Randstad referred to each of us as a “talent.”  So in areas in which I was to sign, for example, the designation “Talent Signature” stood underneath.  What was this supposed to mean?

Was this some sort of super-patronizing attempt to flatter us (particularly given the lowly wage we were being offered)?  Or was it the product of a borderline-paranoid legal distinction that was supposed to differentiate Randstad workers from other agency workers somehow, like we were bundles of copyrighted business processes or something?  However that may have been, the forced, painfully arbitrary commandeering of a hitherto inherently vague concept to serve as a delineated designation with a legalistic aura really gave me the creeps.

But the orientation was over, and I took leave of Larry and Christine happy in the knowledge that I would be able to enjoy the holiday (and be able to tell my relatives, many of whom I only saw once a year, that I was employed) without having to worry about the lack of a job.

On the day after Thanksgiving, though, I received yet another call from Randstad.  What could it be this time?  Did they find something in my past they weren’t absolutely certain about?  Was my drug test sample tainted?  In fact, they were calling to inform me that I was not to report until a week after the original start date, and that the class would last three weeks instead of the four we were led to expect.  The Randstad person also confided in me that the reason for the delay consisted in the desire of some of the trainers to take a long holiday into December.  Well, that would be a problem: loss of a week’s pay.  But no disaster.  I’d just deal with it (which meant borrowing more money from my mother; at least I had that option, and I was sure that many of the others I met at orientation wouldn’t).  I must say, though, that Computershare gave all members of my class $25.00 gift certificates as a gesture of recognition of this sacrifice.

The class

The big day finally came, and I made it to Computershare in about one hour and three-quarters.  My commute involved a ten-minute walk to the subway, once on which I was required to change lines twice, before boarding a streetcar trolley, which finally brought me to the shuttle-bus for a fifteen-minute ride to Canton, when there was no traffic (when traffic was bad, the ride could easily take three-quarters of an hour or longer).  Once there, I was directed to a large classroom, complete with projector screens, in which no less than forty people were gathered.  So Computershare was prepared to pay (both wages and not inconsiderable fees to the temp companies) to train forty people for three or four weeks in a classroom, and then, we discovered, we’d receive proper initiation in what was known as “The Academy” for another week or so.  My sense of optimism returned.  Maybe the business about Computershare being a great stepping stone wasn’t just boilerplate, degraded “talent” status or no.

The class would meet for eight hours a day, less lunches, breaks, and an unofficial premature dismissal about fifteen minutes to a half-hour early on many days.  Even with the week after Thanksgiving deducted, the course would involve somewhere between 100-150 hours of instruction, which is much more than an average college course meets over a semester.  There would be a midterm and final exam, and promotion to the “Academy” would require passing the final with a grade of 80%.  In addition, there would be more than twenty “e learning” sessions, which contained quizzes at the end that had to be passed by the time the course was finished (you could re-take the quizzes, but not the exams).  The exams were to be open-book, but no collaboration was allowed.  The e learning sessions were generally limited to one hour or so each.

There were two lecturers who shared full-time teaching duties, with one or two others on standby, and a couple of guest appearances by Computershare notables.  Almost all the teaching time was dedicated to the baroque ins and outs of two computer interfaces.  The first, called Contact, contained a truly vast amount of information on individual shareholder accounts.  The second, Cosmos Company, held company data regarding shareholder relations: everything from dividend payments to corporate actions and on to the specifics of fees charged for sales and more.  All the information required to navigate these interfaces was, it was emphasized, contained in a third essential reference, called the Desktop Operating Procedure, or DOP.  So the trick was to become very familiar with the DOP so as to be able to go from there to Cosmos or Contact and navigate for the specific information account holders (as well as interested third parties like lawyers and brokers) would call in looking for.

We would also be responsible for preventing the occasional fraudster from gaining access to the same.  The DOP itself was a mammoth document, with over one hundred major subdivisions.  I calculated that, at an average of three pages per subdivision (and some subdivisions were much longer, up to forty pages or so), the printed version of the DOP would run to some three hundred pages at least, and much of the DOP consisted of pages of rather fine print.

We were told that we  would be joining some four or five previous classes in fielding calls during what Computershare expected to be a very busy tax season, with legions of frustrated taxpayers would call in looking for the forms or data they would need to file their taxes.  After tax season ended in May or June, some of us could expect to be kept on and occupied with other tasks.  Computershare employed several teams dedicated to specific clients, and much of this work lasted year-round.  In addition, the possibility existed to be sent to other departments of Computershare, and, with luck and hard work (not to mention perfect attendance), made permanent there.  With my background I thought I might end up in escheatment (processing unclaimed property claims), or possibly in correspondence, given my writing skills (which seemed sorely lacking at Computershare; more on that in due course).  But we forty were joining some hundred or so other newcomers for a tax season that could last only three months or so.  Once again something didn’t seem to add up in a salubrious fashion.

I did better than almost everyone on the midterm, but still managed only a score a whisker above passing (81).  By the time the final came round, I was in the middle-to-lower ranks with an 84.  It was clear that I was getting lost in the vast amount of material we were gaining exposure to, while many of the others were becoming more adept in navigation as time went on. Still, I was passing with respectable marks.  By the end of the course ten members of our class had dropped out.  And I had perfect scores where the all-important attendance was concerned, though it cost me some $40.00 to get to Computershare by cab one frigid December morning when the Mattapan trolley’s wheels froze on the track.  So on January 2nd, 2014, I moved with twenty-nine others up to the “Academy.”

The Academy was little more than a section of cubicles that was demarcated from the large room mentioned earlier.  Each cubicle was equipped with a monitor and computer, and each of us was assigned a partner and directed to one of the cubicles.  Some had to triple- and even quadruple-up, but the basic pattern involved the cube’s occupants sharing a cord that would connect them and roving supervisory personnel who would be assigned to each team, roughly speaking.  The supervisor would watch and take over the computer mouse if the academician strayed in navigation, or jump in if the student began to mis-speak somehow.  The calls were to be live.

It was not long before we came to recognize two other peculiarities about the Computershare training setup.  First, we found out that several, indeed the large majority, of training personnel were themselves temps, and that some of them had only worked at Computershare a few months.  Some, in fact, were members of the classes that had just preceded ours.  In addition, despite being told that we would be taking upwards of 80 calls a day in very short order, calls during my week in the Academy trickled in at about ten a day, tops.  Some classmates who ended up on other teams told me they received more calls (maybe twenty), but most others reported that they, like me, spent almost all their time chatting amongst themselves or with the supervisors.  I don’t think I personally took more than four or five calls a day during my near-week in the Academy.

Largely due to the fact that incoming calls were so few, I experienced no major problems in the Academy.  During the rare calls, the supervisor would inevitably take the mouse and I’d follow along.  But I was worried: I wasn’t recalling much during these calls from class, and felt I continued to lapse in regard to my highly uncertain grasp of the great portion of the material that wasn’t treated in any of the few calls I took part in or heard.  When time really began to drag, the supervisors would quiz us on the DOP, or answer our questions, but the effort seemed derisory, and I certainly didn’t ask for more review sessions.  But, I thought, how hard could it be?  It seemed like just about all the other newcomers felt comfortable, and, as a final consideration, we were, after all, just temps getting paid basically a subsistence wage, with no benefits.  It couldn’t be that bad.

Starting at the call centre

In spite of the paucity of calls directed into the Academy, our start date on the floor fielding calls without direct supervision was upped a day or so, and I, along with four of my classmates, was dispatched to our new team leader and assistant team leader.  Sandie, the team leader, was a flamboyantly buxom woman who seemed to be putting off the consolidation of the various ravages of middle-age by whatever means available.  By the end of my time at Computershare, I had heard many rumors about her: that she used to be a stripper; that she had just received breast-implant surgery; and last (and most credibly, as far as I could tell, given her performance as a supervisor), that she owed her job as supervisor to the floor-manager Jim’s brother’s romantic relationship with her.

She was not a bad person, and she seemed to try to get along with everyone, but the overwhelming impression I got from her was one of utter underlying indifference: she really just didn’t care about me (or any of the other members of her team, new or older) in the least.  Apart from small talk with the two women seated across and to the left of her (the right side was a corridor), one of whom was saddled with the extremely improbable first name “Vanidy,” virtually all of which was work-related, she did not associate with any of her team members at all; she did not even say “good morning” to anyone when she came in.  Many supervisors came over to talk to her, however, and she was often away from her cube, at meetings and so on.

But Sandie did care about the performance metrics of members of her team, which she kept track of on a dashboard on her computer at all times.  She could tell when one of her team members was on a call for a period deemed too long, or when an account-holder or interested party was put on hold (not to be done except as a last resort), and then she would invariably call over to the agent to find out what was going on as soon as some indicator went off.  All teams were evaluated according to these metrics, and team status itself at Computershare seemed to exist only for the ultimate purpose of making individual performance evaluations (I didn’t even know the names of most of the members of my team, and had no other contact with any of them, except for the ones sitting next to me, along with ones who took the shuttle bus to and from Mattapan): it certainly didn’t involve anything approximating cooperation.

Sandie repeatedly sent memos around to the new members of her team, encouraging us to “use our recources [sic],” and that pretty much summed up her team development strategy: you were to look thoroughly through the DOP before even asking her for guidance.  But Computershare was insistent that agents avoid putting callers on hold, and I, anyway, found it exceedingly difficult to concentrate on accessing often-times multiple citations from the DOP, categorized under different headings, to respond to a caller’s diverse concerns.  Agents were encouraged to make conversation with callers while engaging in this data mining—or data fracking, more like—but were also warned to keep to the least controversial and most banal topics.  Failure to do so would result in a performance markdown for being unprofessional (I loved this: why are temps these days always urged to act “professionally” in positions in which they are precisely not being viewed—or compensated—as professionals?).

So I, anyway, found it very hard to engage in small talk while racking my brain trying to remember if I’d gone to all the relevant parts of the DOP in response to an often-times ill-articulated question (or series of questions).  Hence, I couldn’t but spend an inordinate amount of time in silence, or mumbling, or ah-ing, or whatever, which, besides invariably making my interlocutor dubious regarding my competence, was also forbidden.  And this, in turn, increased the temptation to put the caller on hold,, and this would set off Sandie’s bells and whistles within two minutes.

When I finally went to Sandie, I always wasted yet more time because she’d ask me whether or not I’d “used my recources,”—making it clear in the process that she would not be enthusiastic about serving as one of them–and we’d argue about that while the caller languished on the line.  And such interrogations had another deleterious effect: when helpful advice was finally forthcoming, I was often so stressed out that I’d stumble through the rest of the call without consolidating the memory of the procedure I’d asked about in the first place.  To cap it all off, Sandie would simply ignore me when I—at wits end—walked over to her cube and knocked—several times—before being reluctantly and grudgingly acknowledged.  This drama would take another several seconds to play out.

By the time we’d even gotten to the “recources” issue Sandie’s hold meter would usually be flashing red.  When I told my former classmates about this, many told me that their team leaders were very helpful and urged me to go to Patrick at Randstad and complain.   I was also advised to apply for a transfer to “Proxy,” a department employing temps to simply read off scripts rather than answering enquiries.  Within the first few weeks on the floor, at least five to ten more of my classmates had been so transferred, including my closest friend from class, Mary, who had scored 92 on the final.  It seemed that some of my classmates—a large number certainly, if not a majority, were finding the going rough as well.  Especially for $13.00 an hour.

Our Assistant Team Leader, Sam, was a tad — a tad, mind—more gregarious and helpful, but he moved on to some other department within maybe a fortnight of our being assigned to the team.   With Sandie shut away in her magnificent isolation, and Sam departed, we newcomers had to rely on what were known by the nearly-obscene sounding designation “floor walkers:” veterans occasionally corralled from the floor and dedicated to a roving supervisory capacity.  Sometimes we had one available, sometimes not.  When they—and Sandie–were not available, which happened often enough, we’d just have to wait (which would show on the stupid hold time metric again…).  Once again, we found out from the floor walkers that almost all of them were temps, too.

The floor walkers were almost always happy to help, but it must be remembered that, as temps, they sometimes didn’t really know what to do in certain situations.  And when they couldn’t provide answers, you could find yourself in a situation in which you had a distressed, recently-bereaved or even angry shareholder on the line, demanding answers about something as nerve-racking as the administration of an estate, while two other temps were engaged in an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin theological debate on the proper interpretation of the DOP in the background.  It was after one such experience, perhaps during my third week on the floor, that I decided to go to Patrick to see about a transfer.  I couldn’t take any more of this.

No problems please, we’re team leaders

Until this Point, Patrick had treated me courteously.  But as soon as I registered my concerns to him, he switched gears and became aggressive and curt.  He first asked me if my difficulties might cause Computershare to lose money.  At this time, I didn’t think this was necessarily the case, though I saw where this questioning was headed and, again, was brought back to the reality that I needed the job.  So I said no.  Patrick then shifted the problem squarely on to my shoulders: what was it that I was doing that prevented me from feeling confident in my position?  But the absurd experience of that morning gave me courage, and I instead told him not only about Sandie’s clear resistance to answering questions or providing guidance, but of the clear foolishness of relying, in Sandie’s effective and often actual absence, on temps who did not agree on what to do in certain situations, either.

He scribbled down notes and asked me if I wanted to lodge a formal complaint.  I said, no; I’d rather do what I’d heard others were doing, switching to another department, like Proxy.  Patrick replied, somewhat testily, in my opinion, that Proxy was only accepting transfers for the night shift (my shuttle bus didn’t run beyond 7.00 pm), and that transferees would have to go right back to unemployment at the end of a month’s work or so.  So that option was effectively closed to me.  Would I still like to lodge a complaint?  That’s all I need, I figured: I was already on Sandie’s shit list, and it was rumored that Sandie had a big in with the boss, the aforementioned Jim who spent his time poring over the metrics or wandering the floor looking miserable.  A complaint didn’t seem like the best way to work my way back into her default indifference setting, if not good graces.  So we agreed that I’d simply email Patrick in a week with any relevant update.

At this point I recalled that the Proxy folks made the same amount as we did, though they were told that their positions would not lead potentially to turnover to Computershare employee status.  Could it also be the case that Randstad charged Computershare a premium for the far, far more difficult work we were doing compared to Proxy and pocketed the difference?  Was this the reason for Patrick’s seeming resistance to my bringing up the issue of a transfer?

Patrick had also reiterated something else I already knew, that agents were given 2 months “grace period” on the floor before their calls were monitored and scored with an eye toward potential turnover to Computershare employee status.  But these metrics, again, were not ones Sandie seemed to prioritize; and the stream of appallingly crafted emails (“it is your reasonability” instead of “It is your responsibility”…) from her continued to emphasize only the need to get call time down and hold time virtually eliminated, regardless of how long an agent had been on the floor, or how little support and supervision the agent had received.

So I went back to my cube and tried to start afresh; I resolved to spend much more of my downtime (actual incoming calls continued to register at a very low level) brushing up on the DOP and attempting somehow to consolidate my alarmingly sketchy—and seemingly deteriorating–command of Contact and Cosmos Company.  But no matter how many times I went over specific procedures (and the DOP contained lots of helpful screenshots), I would always get tripped up on certain confusions that I could never seem to resolve.  For example, Computershare had large lists of clients who required the special attention of dedicated teams.  Some of these, according to the DOP, were to be transferred immediately to the team without further ado, and some we ordinary agents were supposed to help as much as we could before transferring.

So, even before doing anything else, we’d have to plumb the DOP to find out if we could even engage with most callers, at least at first.  But there was an added complication: in cases involving what was known as a “warm transfer,” the exact procedure was never shown to us in the Academy, as we had no access to phones in class.  The DOP mentioned merely which companies were to be transferred, and did not give an adequate description of the transfer mechanism itself (at least to my satisfaction).  So, for cases involving “warm transfers,” I would follow the cold transfer procedure, which was as simple as pressing a button, rather than risking losing the caller in a warm transfer that had never been demonstrated before me in the first place.  But I knew I would be caught eventually, and the thought of that caused me yet more stress every time I received one of these calls, which was often enough.

There were a number of similar confusions I could mention, but the point I want to emphasize is this: the DOP was not merely vast and unwieldy; in places it was incomplete, badly written (lots of grammatical and other errors here, too) and poorly organized, and this gave rise, at least in me, to an overall lack of confidence that I’d covered all my bases when I’d found, sometimes after long searches, some reference to what I thought I was looking for.

Ambiguities

But ambiguities were precisely the things that people calling with questions about their money did not want to hear about.  And they could often detect my discomfort from the very beginning of a call.  But this was only the start: once I’d set on a (usually highly tentative) course of action by consulting the DOP, I still had to deal with Contact and Cosmos, and stagger back and forth between these and the DOP again, effectively traversing cascading lacunae of bewilderment.  And the topics we had to deal with: everything from providing (and recognizing the formidable complexity of) certain tax forms to doing research on the intricacies of corporate actions from long ago, to addressing issues involving account-holder passwords failing to access the online resource, and on to calculating fees for trades and finding out if and when companies allowed certain purchases or sales.  Both Contact and Cosmos employed their own data trees that offered hundreds of options.  It wasn’t for nothing that the DOP was hundreds of pages long.

I suppose that many readers by now must be asking themselves whether or not I was simply unqualified for this kind of work.  It was a question I asked myself constantly.  But a few considerations not only make my case for staying, but in fact provided me with much (my hopeless financial situation and complete lack of other job options did the rest) of the motivation to avoid doing what I heard some did at Computershare, namely, to simply remove my headset after a stressful call and walk out, never to return.

First and foremost, the number of transferees to Proxy from my class continued to grow, and many of the ones I spoke to (or heard about)—even those who had excellent grades in class–voiced concerns similar to mine (and none of these people had Sandie as a team leader); secondly, I had discovered that I was one of the very few college graduates in my class (making the whole diploma-hunt incident I underwent when I was being vetted by Randstad somewhat beside the point), and only one of two (a friend of mine from the shuttle bus, Emil, was the other) with graduate-school experience: I thought I should be able eventually to handle any cognitive challenge that was being mastered by peers who were operating with predominantly high school levels of education.

But I wasn’t getting it like the others who stayed, or at least they weren’t as freaked out about being as unprepared as I felt I was in the position.  Finally, the scores I was pulling in on the mock (remember, they didn’t count until after two months) performance screenings I got back were completely acceptable, if not of standout variety.

Hours cut

So I toughed it out.  But then another complication arose: the hours of all the newly-hired temps, and even some of the ones hired long before us, were cut from 40 to 32, without notice.  When we were hired, we were told by our temp agencies that we would be hired for 40-hour weeks.  But call volume remained very low even after six weeks of being on the floor, and most of us spent our days alternately talking to neighbors, surfing the internet (Computershare had no problem with this, as long as agents were not on a call), daydreaming, or even sleeping or illicitly (phones were strictly forbidden on the floor) texting or calling friends.

I was once censured for reading a newspaper because, I was told, Jim didn’t like to see agents doing something so unrelated to work in plain view.  The only thing you really couldn’t do at all was leave your workplace while you were scheduled to be there.  You had ½ hour for lunch, one fifteen minute break, and bathroom time of 7 minutes to be used through the day.  There was a cafeteria, but once you got down there and had ordered, your time was almost up.  Why they couldn’t allot more than ½ hour was beyond me.  And the 7 minutes of bathroom break time seemed arbitrary and potentially cruel, though I’m sure the metrics people had a complicated non-human centered rationale for it.

In spite of the cut in hours, which hit a lot of us hard, and even induced a lucky handful to begin looking for work again and land another job, the number of calls coming in remained very low.  For me, there was another, largely psychological effect that amplified that of the earnings blow.  It seemed that I would alternate between long periods of inactivity that could last several hours, or even a whole morning or afternoon.  Then I would take call after call for maybe an hour or so.  So the sense of lethargy produced by the downtime would be ended suddenly and replaced with a shorter, but continuous stretch of time in which stresses and hassles accumulated, and I simply could not shut it off to regroup, or even take in what I was supposed to be learning or remembering.  And it was after one of these lunatic intervals that I decided to go back to Randstad.

This time I told Patrick that I wanted to go to another department even if that meant I would forfeit any chance of being made permanent.  Patrick heard me out, and told me that such transfers were highly unusual (although a number of members of my own class had been involved in them), and employed only as a kind of last resort.  He said they weren’t automatically granted, and that I should continue doing my job to the best of my ability while my request was mooted.  I agreed to this, and responded enthusiastically when Patrick told me he’d email Sandie to request extra help for me while I remained a member of her department (though a similar extra-help arrangement with Sam, created at the time I made my first visit to Patrick, was simply allowed to lapse without further comment when he left).  All this was fine with me: I was crying out for help, and if I got it, I was more than willing to keep trying, even though, by this time, I was beginning to doubt I could ever do the job well enough to be made permanent.  I was also beginning to think, along with most of the other temps from my class, that we could be facing a mass layoff if things stayed as they were anyway.

Shivering

I continued to go to Computershare each day, often shivering in near-zero temperatures that exceptionally cold winter, for periods up to one half hour.  I would be wearing a coat with no buttons and shoes with holes in them at the open Mattapan station, waiting for the shuttle bus that was very often quite late (and I’d have to factor this in when calculating the time required to make my shift on time).  One night, during a major snowstorm that had been raging all day, and had shut down virtually every other business in Boston, never mind Canton, I ended my shift after a full day at five-thirty and proceeded to wait for over three hours for the shuttle back to Boston to finally show up (it was supposed to arrive on the hour until seven).

At one point I made enquiries about whether or not we would be allowed to stay at Computershare overnight if the bus didn’t arrive.  The security guard didn’t know; and the higher-ups never seemed to consider the possibility that this sort of thing might happen in the first place.  They obviously didn’t do the metrics on getting their (well, not their people: most of us taking the bus were temps) people home safe and sound.  I didn’t get home until after 10 that night, but was still expected back bright and early next morning without even so much as an apology or thank you (they did buy pizza on the two other big snow days, probably because the cafeteria never opened on these days in the first place).

Another two weeks went by, and I was beginning to think Patrick had simply blown off both my request for a transfer and any commitment to providing me with help.  During this time the same patterns I mentioned earlier persisted, while the call volume went up a not inconsiderable bit.  And I suppose it’s time to mention one other weird thing about Computershare: Computershare does not like to describe itself as a financial firm; it prefers to call itself a technology company.  Well, for a technology company, the technology they employ seems horrendous, at least what I could see of it: from the time I started till I left, I and many other agents I was in contact with saw our systems crash before or even during calls on innumerable occasions.  And another disturbing piece of news came to my attention: Computershare had at least one new class come up to join us, even though call volumes were very low since the time my class had made it on the floor.  But another class, that was still meeting, was dissolved en masse one Friday after returning from lunch.

Supervising temps

But then I made the biggest discovery of all.  You guessed it: I also found out that Sandie and most of the other supervisors (including the young woman who interviewed me for the job) who were clearly designated to oversee activity full-time were temps.  Computershare not only relied on temps to do the ordinary, if to me, anyway, highly challenging and extremely stressful work, for an a far-below median wage  with no benefits; indeed, they relied on temps to supervise such work at the same rate of pay and again, with no benefits, or even the most basic workplace protections.  Meanwhile, the State of Massachusetts would pick up much of the tab, WalMart style, for the mandatory purchase of health insurance.

I also found out that many of the temps who had been retained had been with Computershare for very long periods, endlessly waiting to be turned over to regular status, and some of these had experienced mass layoffs and been called back, again as temps.  One of the floorwalkers I got to know had been at Computershare for four years, was still making $13.00 an hour and was spending much of her time doing work that could not but be designated as supervisory.  Moreover, neither she, Sandie nor any other “real” supervisor could simply be turned over to full time employment: such persons, no matter what prior experience, had to submit fresh applications for ordinary, nonsupervisory agent positions as they became available, and work their way back up to become Computershare-minted supervisors.  Then again, maybe this was why there didn’t seem to be many such supervisors in the first place.  This, to me, was the truly obnoxious thing about Computershare: I found it shocking that those who succeeded through the undeniably challenging training process and were tapped to become supervisors would receive no reward whatsoever, except a possibility that they might be made permanent, maybe after a few years, and maybe after a layoff or two.

Mind-numbingly repetitive

True, the work would get easier and become, within months, or maybe a year, mind-numbingly repetitive; but call-center work like this, regardless of how stressful or difficult it may be at first, is among the most to prone to replacement via outsourcing or possibly through technological change [see Derek Thompson, The Fastest-Growing Jobs of this Decade (and The Robots That Will Steal Them), Atlantic Monthly, January 2014], although Computershare’s technical difficulties may mitigate this for a while): and those laboring for years at Computershare, even in supervisory positions, will almost certainly not be able to use their time or intensive experience at Computershare as leverage when switching to another job.  It will more likely be seen by potential employers as a plain-vanilla customer service stint, and as an excuse to push subsequent wages down even more.

For it’s almost certainly the case that this kind of work is a low-margin fringe of Computershare’s business, and they offer these services as a conduit to attract potential customers to other, more profitable areas of activity.  Accordingly, they can only provide the service because there are hordes of desperate people who will take this work because there is no alternative.  And this is where the Computershare story becomes emblematic of the important and increasing role of temp work in the country today.

Computershare, as a “job creator” provides capital to fund employment in an area of business it does not seem to think is important, but is afraid to pull out of; so it will only continue “creating jobs” if it can do so with what can perhaps playfully be called an “exploiter’s surplus,” or if it can exercise its entrepreneurial spirit in devising ways to screw workers more than the next firm can [provide link to Workers On The Edge, American Prospect, http://prospect.org/article/workers-edge here], for example by recruiting temps to provide supervisory services at a big discount.  And here’s where all the training would pay off: you train 30 people for a month, but possibly get years of added work and even performance of extra duties from maybe five of them, all at the reduced price.

Whinging bosses

I get pretty angry when I read about employers moaning again and again about a presumed structural lack of skills possessed by workers today, especially when I see high school level workers doing jobs that clearly require college level skills, and receiving nothing for it except for a promise that they might actually get health insurance and a dollar or two more an hour (and little if any hope of advancement or wage-rises beyond that) if they ever get made permanent sometime in the undefined future.  To me, there is clearly as much of a problem with the providers of capital: unless they are provided with a near-assurance of enhanced profits, often realizable either in rigged markets, or by the application of super-exploitation, or both, many will not invest in the first place, regardless of the quality of the potential workforce – even if many of the larger ones (like Computershare) enjoy costless access to capital courtesy of a historically long period featuring rock-bottom interest rates.

As long as the ranks of the underemployed and unemployed remain quite elevated, and the cost of labor-saving technology stays extremely low, existing workforces can continue to be squeezed to meet demand, especially as workplace protections continue to stagnate and quality employment opportunities to shrink.

There is, in turn, an awareness on the part of many employers that the outlook for consumer demand remains severely restrained, precisely because they pay their workers so little.  And a separate emphasis on meeting short-term earnings targets demanded by investors and distributing greater payouts to them (or, alternately, buying back and retiring outstanding stock to enhance share prices), rather than making investment commitments over longer periods [link to “Companies Choose Profits over Productivity, Bloomberg http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-15/us-productivity-stalls-as-companies-invest-in-buybacks-dividends#r=hp-ls ] completes the picture.

So, in Computershare’s case, the bottom line seems to be as follows: Computershare provide a low-margin service, but only on condition that the service, which most would agree requires a premium where confidentiality and sensitivity is concerned, is not only manned by, but largely supervised by non-professionals, regardless of whether some of them inevitably won’t really know what they were doing, as I did not; and what would account holders and shareholders (never mind any regulators) think if they knew about that?

Warning

By the beginning of March I had been at Computershare for three months, and on the floor for two.  We were informed beforehand that we would not be working that Friday (thus keeping our workweek at thirty-two hours), and on that Thursday I came back from lunch with a peculiar entry booked on my schedule: I was to be given training of some sort that afternoon.  When I saw this, I felt I had been unfair to Patrick; it now appeared that Patrick had finally come through and arranged a special training session for me.  But at 2.30 pm Sandie collected me and took me to a private meeting room.

What was categorized as a training, however, turned out to be a disciplinary proceeding: Quality Control had screened one of my calls, and, during one of the sort of mutually reinforcing fevers of cluelessness and nervousness, I had blurted out to an account-holder that her holding “was not that large.”  In Computershare’s view, what I had done was dangerously unprofessional, and I was written up and forced to sign a warning.  Other than this, Sandie actually complimented me for, yes, “using my recources” properly during the call.  After this I returned to my desk to field calls for the rest of the day.  Patrick still had not come through, after all; both my request for transfer and appeal for help remained unaddressed.

Nothing much happened until after four, and then I received a flurry of those nerve-racking, Alice-in-Wonderland calls, one after another, till after 5.30, the time I was supposed to leave.  One of the calls involved a shareholder who wanted me to promise him he’d received his proceeds check the next day.  I knew how to find out if a package was assigned a tracking number, but had no clue how to find out if the thing was sent out by the mailroom.  I searched the DOP in vain, Sandie was unavailable, and my three nearest neighbors, friends, and classmates, Florette, Yusra and Veronica, didn’t know what to do, either.  The account holder was adamant: I had to promise him he’d receive his check the next day.  What I saw was consistent with this assumption, but I was not certain at all.  Just to get the man off the phone (remember, the clock on the Computershare’s dashboard was ticking), I was almost prepared to promise him just about anything, so, finally, I just gave the man the word.  He added he’d be calling in raising hell the next day if the check didn’t arrive.  I told him to do just that; I had bigger problems to deal with, like the next call.

That call came from a distraught woman who tearfully (seriously) made me promise her upfront I wouldn’t put her on hold again.  She was an account holder with one of our dedicated clients, so I thought I was supposed to assist her as best I could until I saw the need to transfer her.  It was not long before I realized I could not help the woman at all, and she recognized my befuddlement and insisted that she speak to my supervisor.  Sandie had returned by this point, but was more incensed that I was trying to help a dedicated client shareholder in the first place.  She sensibly told me I was not in a position to help such people, so I never should have promised the woman I would try.  However that may have been, I was by this time a wreck and somehow muddled through the remaining two calls or so before I left my station at about 5.45.  My bus had departed at 5.35 or so, and I’d have to wait another half hour at least for another one, that went to farther-off Quincy as opposed to Mattapan.

In the lobby I tried to calm down, and at about six one of the refugees who went to Proxy, Pat, came in from her break.  By this time only 15 of the 30 of my class who graduated from the Academy remained as Transfer Agents.  Pat good-naturedly complimented me: “You still here, Larry?  We thought you’d be one of the first to be gone!”  Her good humor, and a small injection of pride in the fact that I had in fact made it to this point, shook me out of the anxiety fit that had remained from the workday.  I could relax; things might work out after all.

Terminated

After about ten minutes on the bus, I received a call from Patrick.  I was being terminated for something that had happened the day before.  I had been trying to generate a statement for an account holder, and, for some maddening reason, could not do so when I followed the procedure.  This was one of the simplest procedures, and I couldn’t get it to operate.  Completely freaked out at this, I muttered an obscenity in utter frustration.  The account holder heard it and had called in the next day specifically to complain.  Yep, this woman actually took the time to make sure I was punished with loss of my pathetic livelihood because, tearing my hair out (literally: ask the above-mentioned Veronica), I broke protocol and cursed under my breath, all because I was trying my best to carry out her request, but couldn’t.  Not because I copped an attitude; not because I neglected her needs.  Of course, she didn’t know this; of course, she didn’t care, either.  The consumer is king and executioner, but as I mentioned earlier, if this woman knew that temps were in full charge of the intimate details of her account, perhaps she would survey her regal domains in a different manner.

Patrick told me in closing that he thought I was a nice guy and because, in his words, I had hung in there and remained in a situation in which I was extremely uncomfortable, he was going to provide me with the phone number of the Randstad office in Boston, where he was well known, and they might be able to help me find new work.  When I called the next day, the Randstad Boston people made it clear that throwing Patrick’s name out meant nothing at all to them: don’t call us, we’ll call you, was the clear message, and Patrick’s special recommendation was meaningless to them, as was the fact that I had spent three miserable, anxiety-ridden, poorly-remunerated months doing my very best to make money for Randstad.

For the next several weeks I found no work, until I myself answered a call for convention personnel Randstad sent out to everybody.  The work ended in two days, but on the second day, right as we were about to close down, one of my classmates from Computershare, a guy named Peter, bumped into me, and I asked him what he was doing there; he seemed to be coming along very nicely as at Computershare.  He and about sixty others, including both all the newcomers as well as folks who had been at Computershare for some time, had been the victims of one of their mass-layoffs.  This must have happened the week after I had been let go.  They had been informed by email at the weekend.  Because almost all of us had not been employed by Computershare for 6 months, we could not apply for unemployment benefits.  As I mentioned before, many were single mothers.

As for me, I agonized over the loss of this job, even though I knew it was predictable, and welcome in the sense that I did not think I could handle the stress much longer (I have very high blood pressure, and, as I’m sure I don’t need to emphasize at this point, had discontinued taking my meds due to lack of insurance).   I also knew that I had done all I could to try to prevent it by begging for help or a transfer, while others had (including an instructor we had in class, who told us as much) committed similar offenses, and had not been dismissed.  But finding out that I would have been sacked anyway if I had made it a week longer seemed to summarize the whole Computershare experience perfectly: neither my performance, nor the account-holder’s experience, neither efficiency nor time management, nothing mattered much as long as Computershare kept its costs down, with Randstad getting its take.  Such is the lot of a “Talent” these days.

Further reading:
Bending over backwards: NZ’s temp economy and capital’s growing need for flexible labour
Information technology and the rise of NZ’s modern servant class
The political economy of low wage labour

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Comments
  1. Andy says:

    reminischent of the excellent “Nickel and Dimed”

  2. […] Source: Where “Talents” Go To Die: diary of a US call centre worker […]