In the early '90s, recently out of college, I got my first job working as a receptionist in a home health care agency. I worked in a large room with my supervisor and five Coordinators. On my first day - and I really should have paid attention to this flashing neon sign - one of the coordinators got into a heated argument with the supervisor and quit, storming out of the office. Over the next couple of weeks, I watched as the relationship between another coordinator (S.) and the supervisor became more and more strained. S. began to look for another job. One day, S. came in and began searching through her desk: her log of all her interactions with her bosses was gone. (The supervisor later told me that she routinely went through our desks. She told me this in a matter-of-fact way, as if, of course, all supervisors regularly search their employees' belongings.) Soon, S. was fired.
I applied for and got her job, and I was told by the Big Boss that they were making me a very special offer by giving me $16,500 (about a thousand more than I had been making as a secretary). I later learned that this was about four or five thousand dollars less than all of the other coordinators were making.
I have to say that I enjoyed the work, though the work environment itself was horrible. As I said, we all worked in one big room. We could all hear every conversation that anyone else was having. The minute anyone left the room, everyone else would talk about her. It was gossip central. And everyone knew everything.
We went through a couple of receptionists, mostly because they showed up late for work or didn't show up at all.
The Big Boss would make a point of walking through or calling down at 9am on the dot to see if we were all at our desks. Then there were the desk searches (which no one knew about). I was told when I was hired that "no one really takes a lunch, but if you want to, you can go upstairs and sit in this empty room for half an hour." But the problem was that if one of us went to lunch, someone else would have to cover our cases, so we'd be making work for someone else to do. As a result, no one took a lunch break.
We were also discouraged from using comp time, but we were not paid for it, either. Those 9am phone calls and walk-throughs I mentioned? I used to use my comp time to come in at 10 instead of 9, but I would always get disapproving looks - from everyone - even though I cleared it in advance. And the reason I had so much comp time was that I worked long hours on a regular basis. If I didn't get my cases staffed, someone would not be able to have a shower and get dressed and have breakfast in the morning. So we were expected to stay at our desks until all of our cases were staffed. And, on a regular basis, people would cancel - they'd miss the bus, they'd get sick, they'd decide that they didn't want to give a racist woman in a cockroach-infested, smelly apartment a bath for $6/hour.
I had a stress headache every single day by 3pm.
We did try to unionize, in a way - we never contacted a union organizer, but we did collectively strategize and ask for a meeting with the management. I was one of the instigators of this, but perhaps because I was young (and apparently, given the size of my salary, stupid), they never questioned me about it. And we didn't get too far. We got our meeting, but as soon as we sat down, our strategy crumbled, no one stuck to the plan, and we ended up getting none of the things we asked for.
It was all pretty typical - in a rigid and oppressive hierarchy, we turn on each other. And that's what happened, from the desk searches to the gossiping to the inability to work collectively for better work conditions.
But it was certainly an interesting place to work, what with the firings here and there, and the occasional excitement. Once, when we got wind that we were going to be inspected, a few people were ordered to remove case files from the building and hide them in the trunk of a car in the parking lot. I'm not sure what that was about - insurance fraud, perhaps? - but it was my first real job, and I didn't know enough to find out to whom to report it, or even what it was I'd be reporting.
I started looking for other jobs, and as soon as I got one, I gave my two-week notice. I was called into the Big Boss's office - the same one, remember, who gave me that "special" salary. There, I was treated to a *lecture.* She had given me a chance; she had taken a risk on me even though I was so young; how could I be so ungrateful? Poor supervisor was on vacation, and she hadn't taken a vacation in all the years she's worked there, and now I was complicating poor supervisor's vacation because she would have to replace me. Why hadn't I at least let them know that I was looking for another job?
For what will probably be the only time in my career, I told off my boss, but not at all for the right reasons. I should have pointed out that, far from giving me a chance, she had in fact taken advantage of me from day one, saving herself several thousand dollars though I was doing the same work as everyone else. I should have said that her employment practices were unethical and illegal and that she should consider herself lucky that I wasn't reporting her for everything from punishing workers for union activity to hiding case files. But instead I cried, and yelled, and told her that I had watched too many people get fired to give more than a two-week notice. She looked at me with her big, unblinking eyes. She actually looked surprised.
And I felt guilty. I resolved that, next time, I'd be a team player - I'd let my bosses know when I was applying for another job.
You can see where this is going.
To be continued.