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Standing in Line at the Bottom

I've seen the underbelly of the American employment picture and it ain't pretty.
Sheen Brenkuss

Issue #42, March 1999

Surprisingly enough, for most of my life I've been proud to be both an American and a baby boomer, but over the last ten to fifteen years that's changed. I've noticed a subtle transition. By my age, I expected to be a hard worker, working among other successful hard workers. Instead I find myself standing in line waiting for the next minuscule paycheck from the next temporary position beside a group made up of the working poor, undocumented workers and others fighting hard to live hand to mouth. Who would have thought I would one day end up feeling like an illegal alien in my own country? Who would have thought I would one day be forced to wander along my own country's economic margins?

If you believed the recent headlines, you'd never know an experience like mine was possible in America. These headlines tell us what a bustling economy we have. "American Unemployment Down!" "Inflation in a Coma." "More and More Americans Invest in the Stock Market for a Secure Future!" Everyday the headlines bring more and more good news for us lucky Americans. But is it really so good?

I certainly don't feel like running out and spending freely in this supposedly booming economy filled with low-priced goods. Maybe it's just me, but I don't feel enough ahead of the game to securely sock away the required investment dollars that, according to the experts, will insure the million dollars needed to retire. Nope. I'm scrimping.

Like many I know, I'm just happy that the rent or house payment is paid. I'm content that there will still be electricity and water because that, too, has been paid. Many times I have found myself literally thanking God that there was enough left over for the phone, food and basic cable. Heaven help us all if anyone should become sick or get injured.

I have now spent many years exploring this insecure side of America. I remember once there were lots of jobs available. These jobs didn't pay a lot but they were steady 40-hour-a-week employment that after a set time entitled the faithful employee to certain employment benefits, like a vacation, sick leave, even health care and a chance at retirement. It seemed pretty good. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough.

Things have changed. The face of the American work force has been re-arranged. Many of us are working part time now, because employers have realized that they don't have to pay for health care or other benefits if all of your workers are part time. What a deal! More and more companies have downsized, outsourced and part-timed. For unionized companies required to hire full-time employees, the easiest solution has been to close down, lay off, and slip out of the country. So much for those bothersome unions. It's been great for profits. If you can't get cheap labor one way, you get it another. Viva American ingenuity. Piss on the work force. Today's part-time minimum wage job offers no sick leave, no health benefits, no vacation time, and maybe a good old 401K, which will help you toward retirement if you can afford even a dime to put toward it. Most employers match a percentage of your contribution. What's 10% of a dime?

On my tour of America's economic margins, I've met many examples of the new American employer. At one job, the employer offered full benefits if an employee worked 30 hours a week for three straight months. A deal. That same employer turned around and scheduled everyone at 27 hours, except during the holidays when for two whole months everyone had to work 40 hours a week, no exceptions. After the holiday rush passed everyone was back down to 27 hours a week. Right back to the beginning. Back to waiting and hoping there might be another chance to work the magical 3 months in a row and win the benefit prize. I worked there for one full year and saw not one benefit. None. Nada. Just as I gave up and started planning to strike out for another job, I was finally offered a chance at that yummy 401K. I left anyway.

Today, many people in American consider themselves lucky to have one steady job where they work 30 hours a week and tremble on the edge of benefits. Many others have one job at 14 hours, another at 12, another at 8 and so on. Such a string of jobs offers no benefits, but hopefully enough money to supply your own needs. The most insidious kind of part time job is the on-call job. On these jobs the employers insist they need you -- just not all the time. Thereafter, if you wish to stay hired, you had better be available whenever they call. Having another part-time job is no excuse. They call, you come running. Some people don't know any better than to accept this type of enforced slavery. The siren promise of "you are hired, if I need you" traps them in a never ending cycle of employment-dependent poverty. They think that the employer will call, sometime soon. I myself made the mistake of taking one of these positions and I high-tailed it out of there after a single month. There was too much apathy, too much pathetic, desperate poverty. My fellow workers consisted of single mothers, illegal immigrants and displaced workers. I wish every one of them has the chance at real work.

I wish they could have the work I once had: the steady full-time job with benefits. I happily helped store owners solve problems day in and day out. It made me feel good to know I could find items supplied to the wrong state or replace merchandise smashed to smithereens by delinquent shippers. The stores trusted me and I worked hard for them. I worked there over ten years.

big money But even this wasn't paradise. Each year I watched what benefits I had erode. Health plans changed, offering less with each change. Bonuses grew so small they finally imploded and became pot luck dinners. Vacation time was no longer accumulated at anything but a snail's pace. In the end, only sick leave remained. (It wasn't that big a deal to begin with.) If employees grumbled, the answer was always "You want this business to survive or what?" Eventually the business also imploded, having been drained of its profits over the years by the owner's personal airplane, the salaries paid to his school age children and other important business expenses.

Leaving the vast world of steady underemployment behind, I entered a new world: the world of unsteady underemployment. Part-time, of course. No benefits at all, of course. What I found was a work world far worse than I could have imagined in my cushy 40 hour a week, benefited, low-paying job. Part-time means calling in each night to see if the next day is a work day. Seven days a week, any day might potentially be a work day. Potentially, not necessarily, nothing guaranteed, not hours, not days--nothing. I take that back. There was one guarantee. It was guaranteed that if you failed to call in one night and they had by chance actually scheduled you for the next day, they would never put your name on the list again. Your employer could be unreliable, but you damn well better not be. This setup assured the employer that the faithful employees would take whatever they were given; it ensured the most desperate and work-hungry labor force available. A labor force that might get four four-hour days in a row followed by a month of no work at all. Or it might mean ninety-nine hours in two weeks, of which only two hours were considered overtime. In this particularly degrading job experience, I learned Americans can be worked 16 ten-hour days in a row, have one day off, and then be worked another 10 ten-hour days. And they can be worked for pauper's wages, with no benefits and almost zero overtime. I saw people falling asleep on their feet. This mad schedule was followed by the sudden cessation of all work. Nothing. Just a never-ending recording (you had to call in to find out if you were working) that mumbled, "No work today."

Believe me, this type of employment is highly detrimental to the human psyche.

While working for the same obnoxious employer, I was also astounded to learn that lunch breaks for part-time workers were given at the employer's discretion. I was told that my crew did not have lunch breaks, even when we worked a 12-hour shift. They informed me that they weren't truly denying us lunch, but if a worker was in dire need of a lunch break that worker was going to have to place a special request each and every day with the supervisor. It was very strongly implied that if a person was so weak-willed as to require a half hour off during a ten- to twelve-hour day they just might not be on the recording in the morning. Needless to say very few of us ever asked for a lunch. That need was fulfilled during one of our few 10-minute breaks. Of course, breaks were not guaranteed, and the most breaks I personally ever experienced in a "part-time" ten-hour work day was three. I considered that day miraculous. Most days the quickly-devoured meal burned in my stomach while I slugged back to my station.

It wasn't just lunch breaks that had to be scheduled by special request. Bathroom breaks were handled much the same way. During your couple of short breaks, you rushed to the john. There was only one, so if you didn't get there pretty quick you could have a pretty long line to wait in for some relief. And you had better hope that the wait didn't take longer than 10 minutes. It was a long time until your next break. I finally gave up liquids. If I could avoid the bathroom, then I had a better chance of gulping down some food.

This part of the American work force--I hesitate to claim it as my own, although it has certainly claimed me--is rapidly stumbling into the third world. Reasonable working conditions and overtime are a myth for us. In time, companies won't have to move, they'll have ruined and degraded, ahem, created the labor force they need at home. And I see more and more workers willing, if not eager, for this kind of abuse. No benefits, no overtime, no security. No hope. A rosy report for the future of the American businessman, and an uneasy sense of doom spreading among once-proud workers.

No one gets laid off anymore. Yet no one really has a job. It's all just part-time and temporary and for little pay. My most recent stop along the low-wage road was a company that didn't even bother hiring part-timers. They just hired temps. We were told that no one was hired right away. Instead future employees would be hired from the pool of temps. Temps got six bucks an hour for their trouble. The work load was ten to eighteen hours a day. Tired workers were yelled at, even though there was more work than they could humanly accomplish. Crew bosses threatened us constantly with dismissal. Employees generally lasted just long enough to pass the probationary period. Most quit. They couldn't stand it any more. Others were fired because they weren't up to snuff for this kind of constant belittling. Only a handful ever lasted into permanent work. But as they dropped like flies, they were easily replaced by other temporarily innocent workers. I have wondered, what will they do when they run out of potential workers? Perhaps they'll simply move the warehouse to another urban center and start ruining another labor pool. I think about those damn headlines. "American Unemployment Down." Workers aren't unemployed, they're just not being paid.

Faced with today's job market I feel as insecure and trampled upon as an undocumented worker. I feel like I'm standing at the corner with a bunch of dissolutes like myself. We're all hoping, wishing, praying that someone will drive up and say, "Hey, you want to work today?" At night I drink and watch TV and wonder what the hell I am doing with my life. But I'm an American, and I haven't given up. I still believe in that elusive American dream. I grew up on it. I'll do what any honest, upright person would do to fulfill that dream, even migrate. Migrate until I find somewhere that still respects an honest worker who has fulfilled the minimum educational requirements (two years of college in my case), is articulate, can add, subtract, multiply and divide, has learned more than one now-extinct computer language and is willing to learn another.

As for those headlines, I've seen the underbelly of the American employment picture and it ain't pretty. I've watched prices soar at what I consider an out-of-control rate in relation to the median pocket book. None of it is pretty. Gambling on the stock market is no way to insure a secure old age. It's a zero sum game. Who wants to bet what isn't even secure now, when somebody has to lose. My bet is, if you aren't secure now, you won't be when you're feeble. But as I've pointed out, American business doesn't care what happens to those of us standing in line at the bottom because we don't fit into the bottom line of profit, profits, profits.

Sheen lives in Golden Valley, Arizona with her husband, Rob, and her two dogs, Pepper and Charlie. As well as redesigning her home, she is an artist and a writer. Email directed to will be sent on to her.

Copyright © 1999 by Sheen Brenkuss. All rights reserved.