At my very first job decades ago in a long since vanished barbecue joint making $2.50/hour, I learned a valuable lesson that served me for three decades: stamina. I found out on the first day of my very first job, I could work my peers into the ground, hell I could work my bosses into the ground! I don’t know where it came from, it was innate and I was blessed — for lack of a better word — to have it. For years that one characteristic was all that was required for me to make a decent living. If I was smarter here and there or had some latent talent in a random situation, it was just icing really. Stamina and stamina alone was all it took for me to succeed at every entry level job held and move up, fast. Stamina, along with its kissing cousin persistence, even went on to define my personal life as an athlete in high school and college, a dedicated rock climber as a yuppy, and now as a middle-aged guy getting into serious physical shape after three-year lapse on the heels of a life changing health issue.
Now I’m forced to face a new reality, one I may be unequipped to survive in: stamina and persistence don’t matter much any more.
A few weeks ago my entire quite large department was rounded up and sat down for an annual awards ceremony where a dozen or so names were called. There is one particular award that is considered the prize, like the last few categories called on Oscar night after the fluff and riffraff have been handed out. When it came time to announce that person at the end of the ritual, it was my name that was called and it was me that walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. It’s our equivalent of employee of the year, it’s based mostly on productivity, but there are some other performance bogeys that have to be met. And I won it. Yay.
At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it’s fucking meaningless to me. For starters it carries no value, not even a $25.00 Visa gift card, no raise, no promotion of any kind. It’s galling the award was handed to me by people who are nice enough, but who also on average, have a tenth of my experience, half my education, and almost no track record of professional success, certainly nothing that compares with mine, who I and many others in my department could literally run rings around in every way, and who are somehow still my boss’s boss making a comfortable 80 or 90 grand. Maybe it was just projection, but the feeling of “Yeah we know we’re not worthy to be in charge of winners like you and make five times what you struggle to get by on, so here’s a fake award that carries no value to help us feel better about how bad you and hundreds more are being fucked over,” seemed palpable to me. When I shook hands with the bosses I looked one of them — a guy I actually get along with and like as much as raw envy will allow – square in the eye, leaned in and whispered quietly, “I’m coming for you.” That was the real and only pay off for me.
It’s not that I’m lazy, to coin a phrase from Office Space, it’s that I just don’t care. I’ve been here going on three years now and I make twelve dollars an hour, there is no viable path beyond that dismal rate. The company I work for is the undisputed leader in our niche, we have reported record earnings every year and almost every quarter through the worst recession since 1929, gifts, perks and ISO’s aren’t restricted to the senior execs, they’re lavished on scads of people. Just not low end replaceable people like me. We start as temps at 11 bucks an hour for network and end-user support of what might be called the most complex software creation to ever animate silicon – a job that would have paid 40 or 50 grand a few years ago. The benefits are decent, but they’re being systematically eroded in a big, big way. About one in ten of us are offered FTR slots after a few months, the rest aren’t even fired, they’re just not renewed. I had to work my way up to be allowed to work full time.
We are nickel and dimed all the time, it’s unending. For example, we used to get year end raises at the end of the year, this year that was changed, now they don’t happen until April, boom, money lifted right out of empty pockets and that’s just one of many, many ways we are being systematically robbed. Between the changes in copays for insurance and meds and routine increases in cost of living alone, if I max out my year-end raise and get another 30 to 40 cents an hour, I’ll be about fifty bucks in the hole every month compared to last year even after it kicks in. The only thing that keeps me from leaving is I haven’t found a solid offer that significantly beats what I’m doing now, and the work itself is really interesting and sometimes a lot of fun — if you are a workaholic geeked out born science and tech nerd.
Whenever I tried to politely point out we are profoundly underpaid, the shiftless response was usually along the lines of “This is what the market will bear in a recession and we have stockholders.” I guess I could have pointed out that I’m a retired stock broker who had a thriving practice, with a reasonably good feel for what stockholders want. And while I’m pretty sure my company couldn’t get anyone in America to do what I do for half my pay, I’m equally certain the line to replace my boss’s boss for half of what he makes would stretch around the building because of the same recession. If stockholders want to crank down on wasted labor costs, there they are baby. But I didn’t say that. It wouldn’t make any difference outside of probably getting me fired.
A few months ago my team was all ushered into a conference room where we were subjected to a creepy video in which a highly paid outside consultant explained he had performed an exhaustive scientific study and discovered, much to management’s delight and surprise no doubt, that we were actually paid above the industry average and should be thankful. It flirted with a modern day corporate version right out of Orwell’s imagination.
Here’s the truth in America in 2012 for millions and millions of educated, hard working men and women: it’s ten o’clock here on a Sunday morning of Thanksgiving Week, I’ve run three miles and did a wicked squat workout starting at dawn. Now I’m at my workstation many hours before my shift begins, getting updated on the problems that cropped up overnight, I’ll be here well past midnight. I’ll do this right through the week and through Christmas and through New Year’s Day.
Hey, I’m employee of the year, a natural hard worker at one of the biggest success stories in the tech world … living in a filthy cracker box apartment counting pennies and choosing which bill or medication I can delay paying the longest without losing service or getting sick. The award doesn’t matter when it comes to making a living wage. It doesn’t count for anything.