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I Couldn’t Afford to Go to Work Today

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It’s crazy, but it’s true: I could not afford to go to work today.

I have a 45-minute commute to and from work, which costs me about ten dollars in gas each day. I’m down to six whole dollars, after paying what bills I could with my last paycheck. There are still unpaid bills, but there’s nothing I can do about them right now. I’m mostly worried about how the hell I’m going to feed my daughter until my next check on Friday.

This is not a position I ever expected to find myself in. I have a full-time job at a distribution center for a well-known retailer. The company has weathered the Great Recession pretty well, all things considered: overall sales are off by only 1%, a variance which until recently would have been seen as a business hiccup. But I find that the recession itself has given the Powers That Be at my job an excuse to do whatever they damn well please to their full-time employees.

The infuriating details are below the squiggle.

What frustrates me the most is that I shouldn’t even be in this position. I’m employed full-time, and I’ve been with this company for over five years–yet I cannot get ahead, no matter what I do. The reason why has much to do with the company’s recently-adopted position that full-time employees aren’t really an essential part; that is, they’ve come to believe that only salaried employees really matter. They don’t even call us non-salaried workers “associates” any more. Now they refer to us as “unskilled labor.”

About a year ago, my company announced a pay freeze for all full-time employees. This was done, we were told, in response to the economic dowturn. The reasons made sense at the time, and we took the news in stride. But lately, it’s starting to seem like something else. It seems there is money to be had…but not by most of us.

The pay freeze occurred at about the same time that the outgoing CEO was receiving a million-dollar severance package. Salaried employees–supervisors, managers, and such–were ostensibly included in the pay freeze, although they would continue receiving their monthly bonuses, typically three to five hundred extra dollars per paycheck. The Director of Operations (enjoying a salaried position, of course) actually joked out loud, “Whew! I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to buy that new car!” Ha-fuckin’-ha, asshole. Turned out, it wasn’t just a joke: two months later, he was coming to work in a shiny new Lexus convertible.

The average worker on the floor makes $8 or $9 an hour, which is barely enough to support any size family. Supervisors, meanwhile, start out at the equivalent of $25 an hour (with bonuses and other perks on top of that); managers and up are pulling six-figure salaries, at least. Now, on the face of it, I don’t mind that they make more. It’s how they go out of their way to make sure they get most of what’s left as well, to hell with everybody else, that has me and my co-workers silently enraged and visibly demoralized.

Following the pay freeze, management has raised the productivity bar on us twice: that is, we must do more work in less time to avoid getting disciplined or fired. How much we produce beyond the 100% “standard” determines our “incentive” pay. Whenever they raise the productivity bar, our incentive payouts go down. Those who can’t keep up are let go; those who do keep up are bringing home chump change. And few of us want to work very much harder than necessary to keep our jobs, since working at 200% production yields a paltry $45 (not much of an “incentive” there). So they’ve fired several people and not hired replacements, leaving the rest of us to double-up–and in some cases, triple-up–on the workload and attendant responsibilities. From 150 people a year and a half ago, we’re now down to fifty; those of us left are still doing the work of 150. In the end, the reduced staff just further fills their pockets.

After that, they eliminated sick time for all non-salaried employees, telling us it was because the old sick-time policy was being “abused” (abused how–by people getting sick?!) It’s all to “save some money,” we’re told…even though the company, as I said, isn’t doing much worse than years past. And over the last couple of months, it’s become clear where all that “saved” money is going: directly into the pockets of the supervisors and managers.

We’re no strangers to this company’s cold calculations, and how little they care for anyone but the precious few who belong to the Salaried Class. They use this state’s “right to work” status to do whatever the hell they want and get away with it. For example: they fired an epileptic for being “unreliable.” They fired another woman for trying to get our insurance to cover infertility treatments. The company has been sued many times, but, unbelievably, has yet to lose a case.

And that’s not the half of it. But for now, let’s just say that management and HR routinely cover each others’ asses, so they can do whatever they want and get away with it. It’s a comfy little clique they’ve made for themselves, and apparently all that matters is their special little group.

So while most of us have spent the last year trying to keep up with inflation, our bills and the crazy cost of gasoline, supervisors and managers have continued receiving hefty monthly bonuses. The rest of us get to enter a raffle for a chance to win a $25 “in-house” gift card for all our hard work–just enough to get one piece of merchandise. Gee, thanks. Some of my coworkers could barely cover monthly expenses in December, much less afford Christmas gifts. At least a lucky few of us had gift cards, though. Now we can take home the same crap we push out the door all day. It’s nice to know they care.

But here comes the real smack in the face: just before the holidays, the supervisors and managers had themselves a big party at work. They tried to keep it secret by calling it a “closed-door, high-level meeting,” but we “nobodys” have eyes and ears everywhere and it wasn’t long before we learned the truth. It was a catered lunch, at which the holiday bonuses were handed out. These were thousand-dollar checks, mind you, and separate from their usual monthly bonuses. On top of that, they were given not-inexpensive gifts like fancy heated car-seat covers and custom-embroidered coats (which they now wear around like status symbols). And after that, they had an “everybody wins” raffle in which MORE monetary prizes were handed out, ranging from $500 to $2000.

Must be nice. Tell us again…why can’t we have annual cost-of-living raises? Oh, right: because the company’s strapped for cash, and reinstating our raises might drive down the stock value. Can’t have that, now, can we?

A week after the higher-ups had their big shindig, management announced that this year’s annual holiday party was cancelled…”Because the company can’t afford it.” Gee, I wonder where all that money went?

So here I sit, at home, with six bucks to my name and no way to afford both a Chef Boyardee dinner for my daughter and the commute to the job that used to support me. I’m left to wonder how I’m going to afford gasoline, power, the car payment and and the house payment while they can somehow afford new motorcycles and sportscars.

It’s the same old “Austerity for thee, but not for me” mentality. It’s twisted, and it’s wrong.

I see in this the 99% vs the 1% in microcosm: those who labor the least literally get almost everything there is to be had, while those who actually DO THE WORK get exactly jack-shit. Management can operate with complete impunity, doing whatever the hell they want with no consequences, while the rest of us work in fear that the next cut might include our jobs. There are two sets of rules: one for them, and another for the rest of us (salaried people, for example, can show up late and leave early without penalty). There is no place for those who get ill, because they simply “cost too much.” The working class is worthy only of mockery, because if they were “somebody,” they’d already be part of the Salaried Class. In this environment, $25 gift cards are metaphorical slaps in the face.

We need something we can LIVE ON. I need a wage that allows me, at the very least, to afford to go to work! Many of us, myself included, are looking for another job; some fortunate ones have left already, but I don’t need to describe how tough it is to find something else. And there’s no guarantee that we won’t find the same kind of bullshit still going on, wherever we might end up.

No…it seems that we blue-collar Joes and Jills won’t ever get what we need–what’s FAIR–until those who mind the coffers–in both business and government–stop enriching themselves at the expense of everyone else.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on February 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.


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