Working hard for the money

A couple of hours ago, I walked home from my cashier job. I stand in a kiosk, a little booth in an extremely busy gas station, taking money for gas and cigarettes. (We have the lowest prices around for both of these.) I realized on my way home that I had not sat down once in the previous 8 hours.

Technically, my job does not offer any breaks in eight hours. But, on one of my first full shifts after my training, I had a little fit with my boss Mark about this. He had just gotten all snarky with me because I had hit the “Credit” button for a transaction that actually involved a check. He said, “You just can’t be doing this.” I kind of lost it. “Mark, I have been standing here for six hours, handling transaction after transaction after transaction with barely a chance to breathe. I have had no breaks – no lunch break, nothing. I don’t even think that’s legal. I can’t see straight any more. So before you give me a hard time because I hit a wrong damn key, you had better factor all that in.”

I came to realize shortly after starting this job, a few weeks ago, that I can get away with letting Mark have it when I need to. They have had a terribly hard time keeping people in this job, and Mark is down to me as the cashier. When he doesn’t have a cashier, he has to do that work and falls way behind on his manager tasks.

Even in job-challenged Asheville – which has lost many of its factory jobs, where so many people have moved without jobs for the lifestyle, and where its primary tourist business goes dead in the winter – not many people are willing to do this job. The pay ($6.50 an hour) sucks, even by Asheville standards. The hours are lousy – you either open at 7 a.m. or close at 11 p.m. You work way too hard for this kind of money: there is almost always at least one person at the window, frequently a little line – and they all want to get their change already, get back in their warm cars and go to work or wherever they are going. About the best you can do is to not piss them off, and frequently even this is impossible.

So Mark really needs me more than I need him. I could pretty easily find another retail job paying $6.50 or more, even in the winter. I’m not really sure why I have stayed these several weeks. I tell myself that it’s spiritual discipline, managing the details of the cash register (which genuinely are fairly challenging for this non-detail person) and finding some way to have genuine human interactions with the people in front of me, even if they are there for well less than a minute.

And I’m waiting to be called back on another, much better cashier job.

Mark has now gotten used to the idea that I insist on having at least one break during my 8-hour shift. I’ll say, “Mark, I’ve been standing here for four hours now – I need to get out of this booth. I’m going to do it sometime in the next half hour. I’ll hang up the ‘Bathroom break’ sign if I need to. If you want to take over the register while I’m gone, you need to let me know what time is best for you.”

Mark begrudges all this. His understanding of the job is that you don’t get a break during your shift. You nibble as you need to during your shift and smoke when you get off. But he lives with it because he has no choice, because he doesn’t want me to quit. So I get out of the booth for ten minutes and hang out in the parking lot next door, smoking a cigarette.

The other reason that so many people have quit this job after a day or so is that Mark is a lousy manager. He is in some ways a pretty nice guy, but he has two big failings as a manager:

  1. He has really no systems in place for this job and doesn’t know how to teach.

    Very little is written down and most of your training comes from you asking Mark how to do something. He explains it once and thinks that you should then know it. He doesn’t quite get it that something he has explained to you once, with several impatient people in front of you, on a day when you have had to ask dozens of similar questions, is probably not going to stick. But he gets very impatient when you ask the same question a second time.

    My manager at my other part-time cashier job is an ex-college teacher. Even though he has very little turnover in this relatively cushy job in a hotel gift shop, and though you do dramatically less volume than at my gas station job and the cash-out process is much simpler, he has written a “Procedure Manual” for new employees, in which he outlines the steps for cashing out in a very clear way.

    At my gas station job, I handle about ten times as much money in a shift, can have upwards of 350 face-to-face transactions in 8 hours, and the cash-out process is fairly complicated. About my third day of attempting this, Mark said, “I’m going to leave you on your own to do that today – you should know it by now.” Well, I didn’t. I still had to ask him lots of questions and he was clearly irritated by each of them. He finally said, “The company is only supposed to pay you for 15 minutes to do your cash-out. It’s been taking you 30-40 minutes – you just can’t keep doing that.”

    Again, I allowed myself to lose it. “Mark, all of this should be written down. Because it’s not, I have to keep asking you questions – that takes a long time.” Mark was unapologetic. “I’ve got no time to be writing some manual, you’ve just got to pick it up.”

    The next day when it was time to cash out, I was ready. I said, “Mark, you seem to think there is no need to have this stuff written down. Apparently you are willing to watch each new person struggle with this process, asking you questions that just piss you off. Well, I don’t think I’m any stupider than the next person who will take this job, and this just isn’t working for me. So today I’m going to write the procedure manual that you aren’t willing to write. That means that I’m going to ask you questions about everything I don’t understand, write it all down and, obviously, argue with you. So this is going to take kind of a long time.” And that’s exactly what I did.

    (Clearly, one really good aspect of this job is that I can get away with blowing off steam like this, without being fired. Very few people in jobs like this actually have that luxury.)

  1. Mark has no idea how to give a compliment for a job well done.

He’s all over any “coaching opportunities”. These range from a genuinely helpful “Let me show you an easier way to do that” to a whole variety of challenges and criticisms:

    1. “What’s that doing there?”

    2. “Haven’t you started to do that yet?”

    3. “When you hit that wrong button, it causes all kinds of problems.”

    4. Etc., etc., etc.

I do and have done lots of things right. I actually have mastered most of the details of the job pretty quickly, I’m totally reliable and I have a pretty strong work ethic. I can’t remember even one time in five weeks that Mark has given me a genuine compliment.

Thinking about these two glaring weaknesses in Mark’s managing style, I sometimes think, “No wonder they can’t keep people longer than a day.” But then I think, there are an awful lot of other managers out there who are this bad or worse. Mark is at least basically a nice guy – I know how many managers out there are genuine assholes.

My two current cashier jobs are jobs nine and ten for me in 15 months in Asheville. Some of these jobs I have liked. A couple I liked a whole lot.

My second Asheville job was as a restaurant server. This restaurant is part of a little Southeast chain that describe themselves as “the top end of casual dining”. It’s a genuinely pretty, bright environment with very good food. The managers do a relatively good job of training people and then mostly turn you loose to find your own style and hopefully have fun. And most of the servers do have fun – they work very much as a team and stay in the job, even though the restaurant is often slow and the tips not very good, because they are having a good time.

I had for years wanted to try restaurant serving and was excited about this opportunity. In this job, I was mostly able to genuinely charm my customers, had a lot of fun with my co-workers, and loved the challenge of learning to master the details of serving. But I never got very good at them. Never have I so clearly seen the difficulty of “multi-tasking” or realized how genuinely bad I am at it. I would do a tremendous job with one table and completely forget the other – or not even notice that another party had been seated. When I forgot to bring people their salads or bungled the details of their order, the whole charm thing would wear off in a hurry.

New servers are given just two tables to work with until they get the swing of things. You have to work with more tables than that to make any real tip money (added on to your whopping $2.13 hourly rate). But I never much got the swing of things. It was obvious to everybody that I was just barely holding it together with two tables and that, when I was given a third, I just began to unravel. Management let me stay on – the infamous “Mr. Two Tables” – because I did mostly learn how to take care of those two tables, because I was positive and cheerful and most everyone liked me and could see how hard I was trying, and because the company could afford to pay me the $2.13 an hour.

But finally I started to really wear out from the difficulty of the work, an old shoulder injury got inflamed from the physical challenges, and I just couldn’t afford to work for the $6 an hour or so that I was bringing in. So I quit.

My next favorite job, which I started part-time at the same time as my part-time restaurant job, was as a temporary holiday cashier at a really very neat “General Store”. It was one of several of these stores spread through the Carolinas, with great history, historic department store buildings and cool stock. Their distinguishing market niche involves very personal customer service and “an alternative to standard retail chains”.

This was in some ways a perfect job for me. I loved interacting with the customers, really helped them have a good time shopping – and this often led to them buying more. And there were, overall, lots fewer details to manage than at the restaurant. You did have to try to manage the “dance floor” – to simultaneously stay in touch with various shoppers – but you at least didn’t have to keep track of how they wanted their meat cooked.

I was great at this work. Though this company really does not expect its retail associates to follow a script, Ellen, the general manager of this store, is a fairly cautious, over-controlling person and her staff have tended to also adopt a fairly low-key, cautious approach to customer service. I did not. I had a ball with my customers and they with me. When I had a customer who just did not get my sense of humor and seemed taken aback by it all, I would just flash them a big shit-eating grin and they would decide that I was OK, not a problem, maybe just a little goofy.

My colleagues started to tell me that I was an inspiration to them, that I was showing them that they could be more real and have more fun in this work. One woman said, “I told my husband last night that you are teaching us to give better customer service.” She actually told me that a few minutes after I had been fired.

Ellen had grown progressively more nervous about my “spontaneous” style, about the risky humor I used with customers (and got away with – there was never a complaint from my customers). One day she told me, “Today I want you to only work the cash register – don’t talk with people.” “Don’t talk at all?” “No.” “Not even while we are waiting for their credit card to run?” “No.” I followed her instructions that day, when she was around.

The day before Ellen fired me, I had, in fact, taken a real risk in the way I sassed one of my customers. I would not have recommended this kind of interaction to another colleague with, honestly, less charm than I. But I knew that this customer liked me and would totally get the humor – which he did. But Ellen did not.

I was a temporary holiday associate and was only scheduled to work until right after New Year’s. But the next day, Christmas Eve morning, Ellen met me at the door at 9 a.m. and told me I was fired. Although some part of me was not surprised, other parts of me were shocked, especially by the timing and the abruptness. I chose to avoid any conflict there, on Christmas eve, and stumbled back out into the street a couple of minutes later.

(I did, a week later, ask Ellen for an “exit interview”, at which I gave her feedback about the dynamics I have described above. I felt a responsibility to at least try to help pry her loose from her need to over-control – and to kind of suffocate her workers. I don’t know that she was really able to hear any of this, but it felt good to at least try.)

A couple of my ten jobs I quit in just a couple of days, because I got a “better” job or because they were somehow intolerable. My very first job in Asheville was as a restaurant server at a Cracker Barrel store. The really very nice training manager told me that this chain honestly does have what he called a “Nazi style” of restaurant management. All of your interactions with customers are very tightly scripted and there is definitely the “Cracker Barrel way” to do everything. There is such a problem of staff shoplifting from the retail store that no staff member is allowed to bring in a backpack or even a purse – you are issued a transparent little plastic bag for carrying in any items that you want to put in your locker. I never went back after my first day of training.

One of the seven temporary agencies with which I have registered placed me in a “permanent part-time” job “helping out in the golf pro shop” at a big local resort. “Part-time” meant 7-10 a.m. Monday through Friday and “helping out” turned out to mean janitor work – sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing and mopping in the men’s and women’s locker rooms. My boss (the golf pro) was pretty nice, but my shoulder injury acted up again – and I basically couldn’t handle the humiliation of it all. I quit after three days and I had the impression that neither my boss nor the temp. agency were surprised.

At the same time as this job, I walked into a local Sears store and immediately got hired as a sales associate in the electronics department. I mostly like all these kinds of gadgets and thought I would have fun learning about them and helping people find what is right for them. It took me about three days to learn that there is really no way to stay current with all the new items coming out on your shelves, that you need to bluff like you know a whole lot more than you do, and that the bottom line – duh! – is to sell. Not “serve customers”, but “sell”. And the experienced salespeople, my mentors, mostly started feeling a little slimy to me. Oh, and yeah, I hate shopping malls.

One thing these jobs all had in common was that they paid very little – none more than $8 an hour. Barely enough to make living expenses, even living as simply as I currently am. Definitely no money for discretionary purposes.

I haven’t always done this kind of work. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from a wonderful university. After about twenty years of work as a psychologist, I shifted into organizational development consulting with large companies and government agencies. I never acknowledged being “burned out” by my work as a psychologist – and I still don’t really know if I was or not. My story was that I wanted to try to help systems and organizations change, not just individuals. And I got pretty good at this consulting work, also – in some ways I had a fairly illustrious fifteen-year career, before the combination of the Enron scandal and a national economic downturn made it very difficult to get consulting work. And this time there was no question that I was also burned out.

When I moved to Asheville 15 months ago, I was kind of desperately in need of a fresh start – I wanted to “re-invent myself”. I grew up working class. I decided to take my finely honed customer service skills into “front-line customer service jobs” – to “become the working-class hero I was always meant to be”.

I have received so many blessings from doing this work, even though my other jobs here have included:

  • Working in a telephone call center – sitting in a cubicle all day, taking one call after another (the target is to complete them in three minutes or less) from angry customers calling to cancel their service. Very grim and stressful.

  • Driving shuttle vans for the county “Mobility” service – taking handicapped, elderly and poor people to doctor appointments, etc. I loved serving our clients, but the pace was, again, tremendously pressured – often the computer spit out a schedule that required you to get to the other side of town in about two minutes. I was constantly negotiating with the dispatcher about who else could cover a pick-up that I was not going to make on time.

  • Temping as a receptionist in a little accounting office. The work here was easy – they weren’t going to train a temp on how to use their company systems – but the commute was hellacious. It took about 90 minutes each way and you were always at risk of missing your connecting bus.

  • My hotel gift shop job. The best thing about this job has been getting to know the behind-the-scenes life of working in a hotel. There is a genuine camaraderie among all the employees, in all the different departments – front desk, back office, bellhops, restaurant and room service, housekeeping, maintenance, etc. And I love kibitzing with my customers.

The primary blessing from all this work has been the opportunity to really identify with my working-class brothers and sisters. I will never look at any of these kinds of jobs – restaurant sever, retail, cashier, gas station, hotel, admin/receptionist, janitor, driver, call center – in the ways I did before.

I have for my whole life carried a deep identification with my blue-collar roots. I was in the first generation of my family to go to college. When I got my Ph.D., being called “Doctor” always felt weird. When a friend brought me to his upscale health club, I felt that, walking through the men’s locker room with only a towel, I had the words “blue-collar – doesn’t belong here” tattooed on my forehead.

When I got my first corporate job, I realized that one reason I was compelled to try this work was that I had been conditioned in my family to believe that the business world was someplace we didn’t belong. I expected people in this company to be on to me immediately and to somehow force me back out. It took me a while to get it that these were mostly just people like me. (And, fortunately for me, that first company was AT&T, which at least then had lots of managers who had started out very working class and had risen through the ranks.)

But my experiences of the last year and a half have really nailed down for me again my identity as a working-class guy. I feel so much kinship with all the other people around me doing blue-collar and/or subsistence wage work. Not that I ever much did this before, but I will never again hassle a cashier, a call center CSR (customer service rep.), a restaurant server, etc. My work in the gas station kiosk feels just one step up from taking tolls in one of those little booths on the toll road – I now feel identified with those folks, too.

Another key similarity in all of these jobs, besides the amazingly low wages, is that you work way too hard for the pitiful pay. In the back of my head, I frequently hear the Donna Summer disco song “She Works Hard for the Money”. When I sit on the bus on the way to work, most of my fellow riders are going to minimum wage (or slightly above), dead-end jobs like the one I am going to.

(In Chicago, people from all economic strata ride busses and el’s. Not here in Asheville – if you have any kind of money, you drive your car to work. The busses have limited routes, mostly run only every hour and not after 6:30 p.m. And, if you have any money, you just don’t take busses. Busses are for poor people.)

Even my hotel gift shop job, which truly is mostly pleasant and not very hard, is ripping you off by paying $6.50 an hour. My boss there, again mostly a nice guy, likes to say, “This job is very easy – it’s a $6.50 an hour job.” Well, maybe for a high school student – maybe. But he doesn’t want a high school student in this job – he wants an adult, and one who is comfortable conversing, sometimes at length, with all the varied guests who stay in the hotel. I often think, “If you need an adult in this job, pay a rate that is not so disrespectful to an adult.”

One evening, my friend Bob reached me at my gas station job. It was after nine p.m. and – having started at three p.m. – the steady stream of people at my kiosk window, paying for their gas and cigarettes, was finally starting to slow down. Not dead, by any means, but slower – I finally got some chances to breathe. I attached my earbud headset to my cell phone and Bob and I had a great, long conversation. Bob did not mind all the little brief interruptions to our call as I dealt with customers. He had grown up in a professional family and had never done anything but professional work – accounting and then management consulting. This was a window unlike he had ever had into the work of a cashier. He said it was “like a documentary”.

For many of my friends, staying in touch with me over the last many months has similarly been the closest they have come to real blue-collar work. My psychologist friend MaryEllen told me recently that talking to me has completely changed her perception of gas station cashiers. Even if, in Chicago, most of them speak limited English, she has an entirely new understanding of and compassion for what their days are like.

I think, sometimes, that if more of the decision makers in our society and government had spent a year like my last one, many of the conversations about various issues in our society might have a different tone – at least about things like the minimum wage and all the “illegal” immigrants working in our restaurants, factories, etc.

But so many of us do not have this perspective. Even growing up blue-collar and carrying a strong identity with this class, my working life has, until recently, been sheltered from any direct experience with this kind of “menial” work.

So what insights have I gleaned from all this recent work experience? Most clearly, just what I have named above: the pay sucks (it typically is not really enough to scrape out any kind of a life), the work is often very hard, if not humiliating – and most of the customers you deal with just don’t understand. I am continually amazed at how many people, apparently irritated and frustrated from the stresses of their day, seem to feel that the gas station attendant is expendable. They can vent their frustration at new policies like paying in advance for your gas, as if this person in front of you truly were a robot, not needing or deserving of any human respect.

If I ever did have any shred of this kind of attitude, I sure don’t now. But what can I do with these new insights, aside from treating my fellow humans who do this work with respect and even a little kindness? I’m not sure. I guess I can tell these new realizations to anyone who is open to hear. And write these words – maybe they will make some kind of difference.

2 thoughts on “Working hard for the money

  1. Pingback: Earth Fare Colleagues – Real life in the checkout line

  2. Pingback: Confessions of a lousy cashier – Real life in the checkout line

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