Our Brand Is Uselessness part 5

Posted: June 26, 2017 by Admin in Alienation, capitalist crisis, Economics, Life, Unemployment, United States - economy, Workers' rights, World economy

A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

Part 5: Yuletide Epiphanies

The author experiences a mildly excruciating revelation regarding his employer’s client’s attitude towards him

Toward the latter part of last year, conditions for most CDS advisors took a turn for the worse. Marc had left, and was replaced by Ashley, who had worked alongside us as a senior advisor for a long time. This move was very popular with just about all of us, especially inasmuch as CDS practice tended towards bringing in someone from outside via the corporate office when there was a management change. I really liked Ashley: she was always respectful and eager to help every one of us, and seemed more likely to take our side in the state of permanent war with Costco management than Marc had been. For a few months things went better than they ever had done in my time with CDS.

Two things happened in late summer require comment: CDS was forced by the Massachusetts Attorney General to pay those of us who had worked Sundays time-and-a-half for those days, rather than at our normal rate, for a period going back three years. We had been classified as food service workers (meaning fast food workers), who do not receive the extra Sunday pay, but the Massachusetts AG, who investigated the case seemingly without a specific complaint being lodged, found that we were more accurately classified as retail workers. Along with plain old wage theft, which, according to the Economic Policy Institute, cost US employees a cool $50 billion in a 2015 study, American workers are also underpaid due to these attempts to creatively classify them, and the CDS case seems to provide a good illustrative case. We were also recipients of a pay rise, from $11.50/hour to $12.20, which came as other low-wage employers were being forced by other states to raise their minimum payouts. In our case, however, the pay rise came with a warning that sales simply must increase.

Late summer was one of the busiest times for CDS, but as summer turned to autumn, the availability of shifts was drastically reduced for nearly all of us, and that reversed any positive impact of the wage rise altogether for just about everyone. In spite of this, Ashley continued to hire advisors, which reduced the supply of shifts even more. When I asked her about this some weeks later, she insisted that Corporate Office pressured her to continue hiring, and the warning issued at the time of the wage rate rise supports her here. But some of those hired were friends or acquaintances of Ashley’s, which, needless to say, led many of us to doubt Ashley’s version of the story to varying degrees. She also said that she had to be sure she had enough advisors for the holiday season, but, as I’ve mentioned before, there were already at least 40 people on the Avon payroll as it was, and most of the advisors I knew wanted as many shifts as they could get, and we had just finished a season in which a good number of us had tried to show as much flexibility as possible; so Ashley’s stated concern that she simply could not count on many of us to make ourselves available to a degree sufficient to prevent further hiring took on a hollow air.

This “flexibility” business became a sick joke at CDS: there is no set schedule, and advisors simply cannot count on anything approximating a regularity that might allow one to plan many activities outside of work, never mind try to find a second job to fill in the loss of income when shifts were cut back. Marc and Ashley tried to introduce some degree of regularity for many of us regarding the specific days we tended to work, but it was ALWAYS subject to change (and maybe this constituted a reason CDS paid a little more than most retail-related employers, to prevent workers from jumping ship in spite of the constantly changing schedule?): with 40+ people to schedule, it was inevitable that holes would open up that would require rapid adjustment.

This was all the more so because they had to keep us all as far away from thirty hours a week as they could, for at thirty hours employers had to provide benefits like paid holidays and health insurance, and CDS’ most aggressive policy, as I mentioned earlier, seemed to involve doing everything in their power to avoid this with some cushion to spare. And demands for greater flexibility just kept accumulating: far from being rewarded for showing greater malleability during a busy time, every subsequent slow period tended to give way to yet fewer shifts even when business started to pick up again, if only because employees were constantly being added to the payroll, and tended, at Avon, to outpace quits by a good margin. “Flexibility,” in short is very much a one-way street, and for ordinary shift workers, leads to nowhere. Of course, CDS always claimed to make a virtue of this, with flexibility promoted as offering students the ability to study and work, and parents the means to work whilst primarily engaged in childcare; but the low wage, limit on hours, constant expansion of employees on the payroll and lack of any stability in scheduling ensured that few CDS employees, if any, actually worked there because of this presumed virtue.

One other thing Ashley did made things even worse. Marc always said he assigned shifts strictly according to who “sold,” but, after Marc left, Ashley seemed to actually adhere to this policy more than Marc ever did. Again, this may have been due to some desire on her part to show Corporate that she was managerial material despite being drawn from the ranks. One advisor in particular was the beneficiary of this was a Brazilian woman named Eva. Eva was in late middle-age, but looked years younger, which probably played no small part in luring her boyfriend, who also worked with us.  Bob was an older man who looked like a cross between Donald Trump and the old-time comedian Henny Youngman, with more of a thinning, rather than fluffed, orange forehead. Eva had many of the traits of a classic neurotic personality: compulsiveness, a tendency to suspicion of others, self-centredness, inability to take the point of view of others, constant worrying, and so on; and her nagging of Bob reinforced the notion that Bob was in somewhat over his head where this relationship was concerned. Eva also had the most peculiar Brazilian accent I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been around a lot of them (in the last apartment building I lived in in East Boston, just about everyone there was Brazilian); she sounded like a kind of Brazilian Inspector Clousseau, and left many of us at CDS simply scratching our heads when, as she was prone to do, she raced by us en route to some appointment with destiny and made some sort of incomprehensible utterance about her anxieties.

Eva was probably the most aggressive seller I ever saw in my time with CDS, and she was always monitoring her sales and informing those of us who could understand anything of what she was saying about where she stood regarding her daily goal. Eventually she started pulling the best shifts, and more shifts than anyone else (and it wasn’t as though the rest of us were performing badly in this regard: Marc told us before he left that we were one of the top four units in the district, and the one that showed the best improvement), and this led her, entirely unprovoked, to actually come in early to assist Ashley in setting up the carts, which simply added to Eva’s—and very possibly Ashley’s–list of worries and hassles.

Now this stuff was more or less harmless; but Eva became so preoccupied with meeting her sales targets that she started to bend rules, like the time when she took items that had not been paid for off Costco’s shelves because otherwise she would have to wait for a manager to buy her more stock and thereby potentially lose sales. And this illustrates how, in a small, but palpable way, the exclusive emphasis on meeting sales targets could bring out the worst in CDS personnel, rather than something positive.   Eva was also constantly haranguing passerby in a way, I’m positive, that many shoppers found off-putting: those of us who were stuck near her for a shift certainly found it so. She got into a lot of feuds with other advisors, some of which were probably justified and some not at all, but all of which might not have come to the fore but for the exclusive emphasis on sales targets in the allocation of shifts, which made just about everyone ready for a go at someone else.

I would also mention one other thing about Eva: like many other immigrants who worked for CDS Avon (the great majority of whom came from Latin America or the Caribbean, especially Haiti), Eva was an enthusiastic Evangelical Christian.

One of the peculiar things about the contemporary workplace where many immigrants is concerned consists in the fact that there are no unions, political machines or other ways for immigrants to integrate themselves into their new communities besides churches which do almost nothing to create and sustain feelings of solidarity with their homelands or adopted country beyond fostering a kind of decidedly abstract, faceless patriotism. And Evangelical Christianity, from what I observe of it, tends to focus devotion on one’s relationship with the Deity and extended family to the active exclusion of political or other social engagement or commitment (in the States, what bonds do form tend to be forged within Evangelical parishes consisting of one ethnic group exclusively, where new immigrants remain surrounded by their own people); and this will no doubt lead to effects which will differ radically from those which were present during the incorporation of especially foreign workers in the first sixty years of the last century in America. 

By the beginning of December most of us, except for Eva and the new hires, who continued to be taken on, were down to two shifts a week, less than two shifts, or nothing at all. We had all been hoping that the Christmas season would provide more work for us, as it had in prior years, but at Avon opportunities not only failed to materialise, but actually continued to decline. I resolved to begin another work search in earnest as soon as my 84-yer old mother’s situation stabilised (she was sent to hospital in late November, and committed to a rehabilitation centre until mid-January of the present year, so I was constantly going back-and-forth from these places) and she was safe at home, but was getting desperate about financing Christmas shopping in light of the lack of shifts at Costco Avon.

So I tried to apply for a holiday season-only stocking position at the retailer Sears in mid-December (I had worked for 4 years at Sears when I was a young man in high school and college), but the application procedure, I was told, would last at least an hour, and I didn’t want to leave my mother waiting that long on that particular day. Just think: an hour long application for a job requiring no education or experience that would last, at most, three more weeks. I understood that finding a new position would, in all likelihood, involve more absurdities than even the last ridiculous job search I had conducted, and I decided that financing Christmas presents just wasn’t worth the hassle: I’d skip this year, which, since my mum wasn’t at home anyway, and I am not close with any of my relatives around here, meant that I almost certainly wouldn’t be missed—or that my absence would even be noticed.

But then, CDS Avon received a request from the Waltham, Massachusetts CDS unit at the Costco there. Waltham is a close suburb of Boston, about ten miles from downtown, and was host to a much more affluent (as one could see from their clothing alone: in Waltham, professionals favoured gear embossed with their corporate employer’s logos, whilst at Avon patrons showed allegiance, if at all, via patriotic patterns featuring grotesque eagles or outsized American flags and ridiculous looking military baseball caps with medals pinned on them, or, with Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots gear) clientele than Costco Avon.

The Waltham Costco faced a peculiar problem, however: there was no effective public transport to the site, which was part of a long series of office parks along a major motorway, and the Waltham site could not retain employees who would endure long and convoluted commutes for this kind of job and this kind of pay/hours. For some time the Waltham CDS squared the circle by arranging to bus special needs personnel in from some facility designed for them, but CDS Waltham had scheduled a number of “road shows” for peak holiday season and did not feel comfortable assigning these demonstrations—which involved more complicated food preparation along with a greater emphasis on meeting sales targets than demos of the ordinary sort—to advisors with special needs.

Luckily for them, advisors without special needs were in great oversupply in Avon, a thirty-minute drive away under good conditions, and a handful of us devoured all the extra shifts immediately when they were made available. We were to spend the entire week before Christmas at Waltham, working double-shifts every day, which was unheard of under ordinary CDS procedures. Far from salvaging the Christmas holiday, we would not see any of the proceeds in our pay cheques until the new year. But it was something.

The first day of the week, Monday, was the coldest day of the winter that had just arrived, featuring a temperature of about minus four degrees, and I was due at the Costco Avon car park to meet Jean, another CDS advisor, who was, by arrangement by Ashley, to bring us both to Waltham at 8.45 am; we were due in Waltham at 10.00. Boston is known for its congested motorways, but by 9.00 the worst of the commute is usually over, and I thought, as I hurried to the Avon site just a tad late that we’d encounter no problem on that score. I drove in at 8.48, but did not see Jean in the empty car park. I waited until 9.15 in the cold before calling Ashley, who said she hadn’t heard from Jean, but gave me his phone number. When I called that number a female answered, and I had to speak to her in my rather poor French (Jean and his wife were Haitian), to get her to try to call him on a different line and find out what happened. Finally I was led to understand that Jean himself, who had left at 8.45 sharp, was now in Waltham, shivering in the car park there as I was in Avon, with a good half hour at least to wait before anyone would let him in to the Waltham store.

Now I don’t want to play fast and loose with ethnic stereotyping here; it’s a despicable practice, plain and simple. But I must state the following: I have had far more intimate friends and acquaintances amongst the local Haitian community in Boston than the average American, and was in fact invited to a wedding in which at least nine of ten attendees were Haitian. I have even visited the country, as a guest of the bride at the aforementioned wedding, in which none of the Haitians turned up until one-half hour after the service was scheduled to start, and my friend the bride, as well as her fiancé, did not show until two hours after the start time, earning them both a stern lecture in view of everyone from the American priest. And I could not but ruefully meditate on the seeming fact that the only neurotically punctual Haitian I for one had ever met had just stranded me in a frozen car park after I missed our pre-arranged rendezvous by a whole three minutes, and this with nearly an hour to spare before we had to be at the desired location.

Luckily Ashley allowed herself to be torn from baking Christmas treats with her kids to drive me all the way into Waltham, so I got to the site only ten minutes late, still rather frozen and, about half way through the ride, the recipient of a toothache that became exceptionally severe as my double shift progressed. I also developed debilitating gas pains, and the store was much colder than we were accustomed to in Avon, where the doors weren’t opened nearly as much. And if that weren’t enough, my mother’s doctor was ringing me because my mother, in a rehab setting, had fallen that morning (Costco and CDS prohibited taking phone calls during shifts very strictly, and I had to hide behind the scaffold-like bins full of merchandise to take the calls). So I was suffering from pain, cold and emotional uncertainty all during the first ten hour day in Waltham.

By Tuesday I had added a sleepless night’s fatigue and some sort of respiratory infection—perfect for double-shifts preparing food–to my list of ailments (the gas pains did diminish, thankfully, and my mother was no longer in danger), but Dan, who had arranged to take me in that day, was hell bent on playing hooky and going to the movies all day. I finally managed to get him to drop me at the Waltham location after we both got lost in the greater Waltham area, and he continued off, presumably committed to his little adventure, whilst I clocked in only ten minutes late. Dan experienced a change of heart and turned up for work maybe fifteen minutes later, which was nice because I had no way of getting home otherwise.

On Wednesday, my friend Billy was supposed to go in with me in the driver’s seat to get to Costco Avon, but he wasn’t in front of his house at the arranged time, and I spent another fifteen minutes searching for him on that still-frozen morning. Thursday I went with Jean again, and we got to the Costco Waltham without incident, but Jean—who was a very cool guy otherwise–was gone again when I finally clocked out to leave with him. I finally found him in the car park (he didn’t have the same phone he was carrying on Monday, and I did not know the number), far down at the end for some reason, not near the now empty front (where one might perhaps be excused for thinking he might be if his aim was to pick me up and continue on the journey home).

We got home only half hour later than we should have, which was better than Wednesday night, when the police had shut down two lanes of the motorway on one of the busiest shopping nights of the Christmas season and caused a traffic jam that was backed up several miles, which I endured for a good hour in the cold and at the height of my pain and illnesses driving home with my friends Chelsea and her sister Sydney, who thankfully didn’t themselves add to my torments when I rode with them.

I should mention that calling in sick during all this wasn’t an option (Dan’s nonchalance regarding absenteeism perhaps being a sign of his singular temperament and general lack of concern for consequences), and if I had done so, I could expect to lose many, indeed perhaps all, the shifts I still had on the books in AvonFor the Waltham people were so desperate for non-special-needs people to man the demos on the week before Christmas, with many of the Costco managers’ bonuses in play, and this brings us to the real problem I had with my experience at Costco Waltham.

I had assumed for some time that Costco Avon management’s hatred of CDS workers was something of a mildly self-destructive aberration peculiar to that one store, but found out in short order that Costco Waltham’s management were even more contemptuous of us than Avon Costco’s were, which was something I simply did not think was possible until I worked there a few days. Moreover, Costco Avon’s management emphasised keeping us out of sight and mind, aside from the odd pointless “sanitary” inspection; Costco Waltham’s management, on the other hand, constantly hassled us and interfered with our operations—often times in contradictory ways—such that they really impeded us from performing our jobs coherently.

They also poked their noses into CDS’s internal business, and took advantage of the intimidation they exerted over senior CDS Waltham personnel to extort extra work out of us. Regarding the first accusation, I would point to my experience serving cake the last three days of that horrible week I worked in Waltham. Cakes were baked on-site by the bakery, and we had to take orders from both the Costco store manager and the bakery manager, and these two not only contradicted each other, but even themselves every once in a while. So we were often instructed to change cake displays (which are messy and difficult to store) on a dime, only for that order to be rescinded by someone else a little while later. And since we had little space and equipment with us, and no access to water, cleaning the knives and platters could be quite difficult, especially during Christmas week with people shoppers shouting orders in all directions. Since these managers’ annual bonuses were due in a week or so, they directed their anxieties on this score fully on us, who had been sent from a store half an hour’s drive away, pulling double shifts with no break in between, some of us sick as dogs, without ever expressing any thanks, at least in my—or any of my friends’–hearing.

Costco Waltham were so contemptuous of us that they never even communicated with us directly, but only via CDS Waltham stooges who wouldn’t stand up to them.   In my case, I was assigned to the cake display with Elaine, who was one of those people who glorified her position at CDS by constantly referring to her second, catering job, attempting thereby to attach some sort of status as a food-service “professional” into the extremely limited leeway granted us by CDS to say anything about products other than the pointers CDS provided. So she was prone to shouting long riffs suggesting pairings for items we sold, all in a language drenched in clichés and idiosyncratic abbreviations, which got really taxing to listen to after a while. But the real issue with Elaine concerned her willingness to do whatever any of the managers told her to do, even when the manager’s instructions didn’t make any sense. This pliability reached troublesome levels on Thursday.

On Wednesday night my friend Billy was never relieved by a CDS Waltham person and so missed his second 15-minute break (in a normal 6-hour shift, we got one 15 minute break and one half-hour break; in the double shift, we got another fifteen minute break, which Billy never received). When this sort of thing happened in Avon, we were told to break down our demos fifteen minutes early and avoid punching out so the manager could approve of and adjust for the omission in a way that we did not breach the sacred six-hour-and-six-hour only shift length. As Billy was breaking up his demo, he was approached by the store manager and asked why he was acting as he did. Billy explained as I have recounted. Instead of taking the time to enquire into CDS policies, however, the Costco Waltham manager simply assumed Billy was trying to pull a fast one and ordered him to remain in place. Billy, a Vietnam navy veteran and grandfather, refused and continued to break down the display.

Next day, the Waltham CDS manager, a woman named Clarissa, who was nice on the surface but made it clear she didn’t want to hear anything from those of us who had travelled all the way from Avon to save her arse that holiday week, was in a lousy mood because the store manager had a go at her about Billy. And she made it clear to Elaine that all of us had to be on our best behaviour, even though Clarissa of course agreed that what Billy did was completely appropriate according to CDS procedures. Elaine, in turn, interpreted this to mean that she and I, anyway, would make up for the time stolen by Billy by remaining at our posts beyond our time, even if that meant we’d be super-rushed in the attempt to clean up and punch out before our dual shift expired. Accordingly, when I started breaking down the demo fifteen minutes before we had left the floor all the rest of that week, Elaine meekly bade me to stay at my post, and we remained there even as I reminded her of the dire consequences of punching out late. Luckily my friends from Avon, some of whom had already punched out, pitched in and Elaine and I clocked out on time.

At the end of Friday, the four of us Avon CDSers were leaving the Waltham Costco at 8.30 pm (the store closed at 8.00), having worked since 10.00 am. The store manager, Jim, passed us and, as an afterthought, raised one arm and reluctantly said “Good night,” well after passing us. There was no thank you; there was no “how are you feeling?”; indeed, Jim didn’t even bother to look back at us. I shouted after the bastard “You’re Welcome!” rather lamely.   Elaine and I had sold out of just about all of the cakes we were supposed to flog; from all appearances, Jim could feel confident in getting his bonus, at least if our efforts had anything to do with it. All I could look forward to was trying to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in a week, even with the persistent toothache, respiratory problem and aching fatigue from five straight ten-hour days, standing for the whole time, and this with no food from Monday to Thursday (due to my toothache and lack of appetite associated with the respiratory problem). I was scheduled to come back to this place on Saturday, Christmas Eve, but I told Ashley I would never come back here again after the Billy incident on Thursday, and she arranged for me to forget about Saturday. Billy, Chelsea, Sydney and other Avon CDS advisors continue to report there, as shift opportunities at Avon continue to stagnate, but as recruitment of new advisors is, to this day, maintained. Some reward for bailing out Waltham when they had nowhere else to turn.

When we were finally paid for the long week’s work in Waltham, I had to lay out much of my windfall to the dentist who pulled two of the teeth that had kept me in agony during that awful week. Between that and catching up on other expenses, I had little to show for the overtime I put in, and the only Christmas present I bought for the year consisted of a box of sweets for my mum. In fact, I lost out in the sense that I still felt unwell for about a fortnight into the new year, and, virtually unheard of for me (I have been the recipient of several attendance rewards form employers in the past), requested two sick days, which meant losing the income from these shifts, which I covered with the extra Waltham pay. At least I could feel confident that Ashley wouldn’t retaliate against me for taking the sick time. But, in the end, all the drama, hassle and even pain of the week in Waltham had allowed me merely to tread water, certainly not to get a leg up anywhere.

And this brings me to the end of the story. On 12th January, my mother was released from rehab to our home, but her diagnosis now called for round-the-clock care, which meant that I would have to quit my job with CDS. I accordingly told Ashley, who, with all the others crying out for shifts, was all too happy to let me go with no notice whatever. Needless to say, I have not missed anything about my old job except my workmates and a few of the Costco people and shoppers, and I do find myself orders of magnitude more fulfilled providing vital services for my own mother than standing there essentially doing nothing for CDS, at least in an intellectual sense. I can’t however, help feeling that I’m not really working, and that sense of unease at not “doing anything” weighs heavily on me much of the time: testament to the unique power of an ideology to affect the psyche out of all proportion to one’s complete conscious and cognitive rejection of it.

I pretty much exercise power over the purse at my mother’s, and, at present, want for nothing, although I try to keep my purchases down to an absolute minimum, partially because I still feel in my bones that my officially unpaid labour should not be compensated for in any way. But heavy financial clouds are building on the horizon. For one, although my late father left my mother—and now me—very well provided for, with considerable real and financial assets, my mother’s condition is close to requiring the type of care that the US social security system will no longer cover, and serious expenses can accumulate exceptionally rapidly once Medicare ceases paying (and this before accounting for a possible assault on Medicare by the Trump administration).

In my own case, I am supposed to be in my so-called “peak earning years,” with my decades of experience allowing me to take advantage of wages and benefits higher than at any other point of my working life. But nothing of this story has come to pass in my life, and any working experience I do have serves more as a sign to employers that they can pay a younger person much less with little productive effect. In addition to this, my contributions to Social Security should be, following peak earnings, the highest I have ever paid into the system; but I am now contributing nothing at all, and can expect an accordingly diminished, rather than swelling payout when I chose to draw on Social Security, which means it will be difficult for me to plan to retire at all.

How I will be expected to work again after being outside the labour market for so long once my mother dies (especially as jobs continue being automated, digitised, casualised, outsourced and replaced altogether by artificial intelligence) is simply beyond me.  Still, I suppose I’m luckier than most people around here, whose net worth is probably not more than a few thousand dollars, if not negative, and who could be wiped out by one medical or other emergency. In my case, and my mother’s case, it’s probably two or maybe three emergencies that could finish us off, and that’s over the next generation—at least–for me.

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