Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Money Is More Important than People

I have been working for the past 15 months at a not-for-profit fitness center.  The pay has been one notch above minimum wage.  The hours have been random, sometimes very early, sometimes very late, sometimes 3 hours a day, sometimes 13.  But I have had great people to work with, and I have really appreciated the site manager and the several directors who have responsibility over our panoply of programs.  My task has been to man the front desk, answer all questions, deal with all issues, and essentially be the cheerful face of our organization.  These things I have done with increasing competence as the year has gone by.

I didn’t have much of a choice in terms of employment when I returned to the US in May of 2013 on what I thought was a short furlough.  No one was interested in giving me a job in my area of academic expertise (um, that would be Early Modern British History) or professional experience (instructor at the undergraduate and graduate level in Christian theology and history).  And even when I lowered my sites to any job (grocery store stock guy, landscaping companies, ditch digging, etc.), nobody was hiring.  Eventually, the county certified me to substitute teach.  But I quickly discovered that I only knew how to teach students who wanted to learn, and had no idea how to cope with students who could care less.  So when this organization offered me part-time work with the option to pick up additional hours as a sub, I jumped at it.  And here I am, 15 months later, towards the end of what will be my last week on the job.

I found out this past Monday that I am being downsized.  I do not blame the organization for the employment model it has adopted or the policy choices it has made.  It looks to me like they are following so-called ‘best practice’ – doing what such organizations think they must in order to survive.  But while such ‘practice’ may allow the organization as such to survive, and may allow the people at the top of the food chain in that organization to continue to do their thing and draw their salary, it feels like the rest of us are viewed as expendable.  I guess this proves that we are.

My first clue about this utilitarian stance towards employees came early.  None of us hourly employees are allowed to work so much as to obligate the organization to pay us benefits.  Evidently, more than 30 hours a week throws the benefits switch.  As a result, there are about 10 of us part-time employees, some of whom are students, others of whom are part-time by choice, and others of us who would like to be full-time if we could.  Because I could not work full-time hours even if I wanted to, and because I’ve been paid an hourly wage (I got a raise at the beginning of summer from $8.50 to $11/hour because I was given a ‘management’ portfolio) without benefits, I was forced to find my own insurance.  If the Affordable Care Act had not been in place, I would have been numbered among the nation’s uninsured.  The policy I did find cost nearly $500/month.  Given that I make maybe $1100-$1300/month aggregate from my several part-time jobs, I think you can see why insurance would have been untenable for me without help.  A $390/month subsidy from the ACA has saved me from that debacle.

So I’ve been in a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not provide benefits, a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not pay a living wage.  I’ve watched news reports on TV about fast-food employees going on strike to demand wages that would enable someone who works full-time to actually live off their wages without having to resort to food stamps or Obamacare or so-many other supplemental jobs that they do nothing but work so their kids can go to school or have something to eat or, in my case, so I can pay off my daughter’s university loans so she can start her life not saddled by immense debt.  I now have considerable empathy for all those distressed fast-food workers.  I am them.

And now, because our mother organization has racked up a sizeable amount of debt (though our branch actually turned a profit this past year), the directors have decided that everybody (not just them but us as well) must make draconian cuts in their budget.  One of our program directors saw her entire position done away with (and since she was the director of our fitness programs, it seems to me an odd move for a fitness center to get rid of their fitness director, but who am I?).  Our own director, trying to blunt the force of such mandated-from-above ‘cost-saving measures’, is moving the former fitness director into the job that I now hold, that of front desk manager.  And since she will now be filling a 40 hour week at the front desk, and since there are 9 other part-time front-desk staff, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that there are not enough hours to go around.

I am not being forced out, or fired, or relieved.  But as a ‘part-time’ employee, my hours are being reduced from about 40 hours/week to maybe 5.  So the reason I took this job – make enough money so that I can survive until I can hopefully return to my ‘real’ job in Kenya – is no longer viable.  I handed in my resignation on Tuesday so as to give my successor a free hand in creating a front desk schedule that will keep as many of my other colleagues at least as they have been in terms of hours.  Because I, at least, have the hope of a potential new position that will enable me to return to my teaching life overseas, I’ve not been freaking out.  But should that potential position not work out, I’m in trouble.

This is a very small drama in a very small organization.  But I’ve been back in the US long enough to realize that there are a lot of people in my circumstances, who are trying as hard as they can to ‘make it’, at least according to the standards of our society, and who are constantly teetering on the edge.  Because we are not numbered among the unemployed, because we are not among those lining up for government help, because we are not among those grateful for a shelter or for a soup kitchen, our society seems to think that we are all ok.  But the very fact that we exist, that we are working hard to contribute, are trying to support our families or meet our obligations, the very fact that we are trying so hard and not making it is a symptom that should tell anyone with any sense that something fundamental is not right with our system.  This is the economy that ‘trickle down’ Reaganomics and its subsequent avatars has produced.  And it has worked very well for a few of us, and not so well for the vast majority of us who may not have access to millions of dollars to invest in stocks or companies or real estate.

Best practice might be saving our organization a few thousand dollars every month, according to their own business models.  But it is costing them some of their best employees, the very people who make this organization what it says it wants to be.  I know it seems like a hard choice from a business standpoint – money or people?  Do we try to maximize profits for the sake of a few  at the expense of the workers who generate the services or products that make those profits possible?  Is it not possible to find some median place, where we make a modest amount of money and we take care of the people who make the organization work?

But what do I know?  I don’t sit in the boardroom, nor is my desk in the director’s office.  I do know what it is like to spend a lot of hours of my life every week working at a front desk, trying to make people feel welcome and happy, processing their applications, solving their problems and answering their questions.  I do know what it is like to do all of this while making a cut above minimum wage.  And I do know what it is like to be subject to the whims of management who seem to feel more obligated to manage their money well than to demonstrate any sense of obligation to their people.  Having experienced this personally now, I am in a position to say that this isn’t working so well, at least for us people.

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