Saturday, March 30, 2019

Banged Up and Battered By Bluestem Brands: Part 4 - A Ship Without a Rudder

The Dawning of a New Age

So to recap my previous post: We were merged into an unrelated department, given a new supervisor, lost the most profitable position that we had, and were now devoted to full-time hard labor. Are you all caught up? Good, because here is the most stressful part of my story.

Almost all of our senior crew (that is to say, the people who were there longer than I was) were essentially gone at this point. Most of them were a little on the older side and realized that they couldn't kill themselves with what was now expected of us. They mostly fled to other departments, sometimes in other buildings, but I still saw them occasionally. Most would brag about how their pay had gone up significantly in the first weeks after leaving as the other departments demanded about half the work an paid out much more in incentive. But I didn't want to go to a different department: I chose receiving because it was the only job I actually enjoyed doing during my first round of Blair back in the 1990s. I liked driving the pallet jacks, I liked getting some exercise, and I could not conceive of doing one of the other lighter, more boring jobs in the company. But this choice was getting hard to justify.

Our "busy season" normally ran from early October to early January. This was when the number of incoming trucks increased to get our winter stock for the upcoming holidays. This year (in 2018 that is), our "busy season" started in July, and as far as I know hasn't abated at all as of this writing. This meant mandatory overtime (usually two extra hours a day), which is not something you want when your job would tire out trained athletes on a normal day, and was especially bad when the trucks you are unloading by hand are over 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside.

It was during this time that our third shift receiving crew was retired. The ones that were still there were moved to other departments and they were disavowed from unloading any loads at night. Now, our third shift was always smaller and never did the volume that we did. However, not having them there meant that all of the volume would now be handled by first shift.

I should also point out here, that I was written up in August of that year because I refused to work a Saturday of overtime. We had already worked five 10 hour days during the Warren County Fair, and Saturday was the last day -- I was not going to miss it! I believe my actual words to management were something like, "You've already ruined my f***ing week, you're not going to ruin my f***ing Saturday as well!" This resulted in a first (and final) warning for insubordination. C'est la vie.

Most of my coworkers were burning out due to injury (rotator cuff tears were becoming more common due to the increased volume) or just from the stress of being written up because they couldn't meet the outrageous production goals at the time. My coworker Dan, a man I had grown up with and was at that point the longest remaining receiving employee, was becoming increasingly angry at the new crew due to their slowness and laissez-faire attitude towards the work we were doing. But really, who could blame them? They were being written up rather than worked with, they weren't earning enough money alone to make it worthwhile, and some of them (me included) were in near-constant pain from the sheer amount of work we were doing.

Also during this time, we started having issues with the pallet jacks. They were being run almost 24/7 at this point, and that meant that the batteries were no longer being charged properly. Even the rare days that they were being charged,

Alone, I break

In the middle of October, on one of our mandatory Saturdays, I woke up with an odd tightness in my left arm. I went to work, whereupon my arm got stiffer throughout the day until it became very uncomfortable, then it started swelling very noticeably. I asked my team leader if I could just haul for the day, and told my supervisor that I would be going to the walk-in clinic after work. No other information was relayed to me during this time.

At the clinic, the nurse practitioner was afraid that it was a burst blood vessel and that I was in danger of a clot-related stroke or heart attack. Because it was a Saturday, I had to go to the (considerably more expensive) emergency room at the Warren General Hospital. After being poked and prodded by the doctor on duty, I was told that it was just tissue inflammation, I was given a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medication, and told to take it easy for the weekend. I did, and the swelling went down.

When I went back to work on the following Monday, I was sent out to the warehouse to run the "cranes." These were massive order-picking trucks that went up to about 60 feet into the air. I hated running these things. It wasn't that I was bad at it, but it was just boring as hell; driving back and forth in a single aisle for a whole day isn't a lot of fun, and there wasn't a lot of movement either. Because of my arm, it wasn't too bad; at the very least, it was less work than being up front. By Thursday of that week, my arm was swelling again, this time even worse than the first time. 

Please note that it wasn't exactly painful, but rather like the muscles in my arm were as tight as making a tight fist... all the time.

This time, I couldn't continue working and reported to my supervisor. We called the triage help line the company had (because they were too cheap to pay for an on-site nurse anymore). I was told to go to the ER again, which I did, in the middle of the day. The doctor on duty finally diagnosed me with a severe case of lateral epicondylitis (more commonly known as "tennis elbow"). Most likely, this was due to the months of hard work I had put into the company catching up to me. I was ordered to put my arm in a sling and take over a week off of work. I would have to put in a workman's compensation claim.

If you've never been deprived of using your dominant arm for over a week, let me tell you that it's no picnic. I couldn't type, I couldn't play video games, write, draw, or do much of anything else.

I will leave it here for now, but there will be more in part 5.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Banged Up and Battered By Bluestem Brands: Part 3 - The Incompetencing

Will the real supervisor please stand up?

Over the course of my time at Bluestem, there were a few questionable management choices made. After the shakeup, the department manager for the picking and return crews became our new "big boss." Our department at large was still managed by our old supervisor (although this was not to last forever), so we really didn't notice much of a difference in day-to-day operations, except when the big boss would (rarely) come to our morning start-up meetings, or to stand around and pretend like she had any say over the contained chaos of our department.

Then, slowly over the course of the following months, we began to notice a change. It was imperceptible at first; I was fairly new, but the old-timers explained that we were much busier than we used to be -- we had virtually no downtime anymore for doing our normal housecleaning and repair chores around the department. It was also becoming more and more difficult to earn that +110% rating, despite the fact that the work was flowing from us at the same pace. Like I said, it was lost on us (the newer members of the crew), as we had no frame of reference to "how it used to be." Slowly but surely, we saw our department's numbers (and our incentive benefits derived from them) slowly erode into effectively nothing.

But at least we had "Paperboy"

The biggest blow came when they started training the stock picking crew on "Paperboy." This was ostensibly done to help the receiving department, who were now inheriting a steady stream of work on the docks just as people began to leave the department; less people in the department meant the need for more trained help. Although it may sound cynical, I knew as soon as these people were brought in that they were going to take the "Paperboy" job away from us -- it was, after all, our highest paying job.

A bountiful gain (#sarcasm)

In April of 2018 there was a big announcement: Bluestem would be raising its starting wage from $9 an hour to $10.50. This meant that those of us starting at the bottom were getting an effective $1.50 an hour raise overnight! What a boon! But there were caveats...

The primary caveat was that we would be losing our off-standard incentive pay. This really didn't affect most departments. Unfortunately, it really affected my department, as about 80% of the work we did there was off-standard. Now we wouldn't be paid any incentive for that -- at all. Now, we never earned a whole lot from these jobs to begin with, but that money was there, and now it was gone, replaced by a raise that now seemed modest in comparison. But at least we had "Paperboy."

But at least we had "Paperboy" (#sarcasm)

So, just after this announcement, there was another announcement issued: Our long-time supervisor was going back to the "Finishing" department. A new supervisor would be picked. This meant that the "big boss" would be temporarily handling the supervisory role until the replacement was chosen. This also came with a bigger shakeup: The receiving and warehouse departments (who had been joined at the hip since the century began) were split apart; warehouse would now be associated with stock, receiving would be associated with the "prep" department, which was completely 100% unrelated in anything other than its proximity to the docks. This meant that morning meetings for the receiving department's 10-14 employees would now be folded into the prep department's 70-90 employees. 

Almost as soon as this was announced, it was determined (never made official) that the "Paperboy" job would now be handled by the stock picking crew instead of receiving. This immediately took that reliable income out of the receiving department's hands and gave it to more inexperienced, less driven people. Receiving was now banished entirely to the docks, to perform back-breaking labor every day with virtually no reprieve.

I know that it sounds strange to complain about a job that one was hired to do, but it's worth stressing that this was, in fact, no longer the job I was hired for, but was now slowly twisting into something unfair and unmanageable. 

That's when they hired our new department supervisor. He would oversee both the receiving and prep departments' functions. He was a shrewd fellow, not unfriendly, but also somewhat no-nonsense, not having the patience of our previous management. He came in at a time when we were unhappy, and for that I have regrets. He was also in charge of 70-90 prep department workers, and for that, I'm sure he had regrets. He was also the punching bag of the upper management, and that may have hastened his doom.

More in part 4.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Banged Up and Battered By Bluestem Brands: Part 2 - A Very Stable Company?

The workload thickens.

When we last left off, I was making a genuine effort to be smiling and courteous as I performed what could have been a monotonous job, but things weren't actually that bad for day labor: I was working the day shift for one of the rare times in my entire life, the job could be physically grueling, but it was also broken up by bouts of what the company called "Paperboy."

I need to explain "Paperboy" to you, as it was my specialty:

When we were tasked with paperboy, we would load up a pallet or two of stock that the warehouse had pulled from their shelves, and deliver it to various locations around the building. This was fun for me, as we were encouraged to drive the trucks as fast as could safely been managed, and you got to see the entire building and various people as you went. Not to mention that attempting to find the right package at a paperboy drop was fun in its own right; I loved zipping to a drop zone, hopping off the truck, quickly finding the right package, expertly throwing it into the zone (I had practiced so that I could pitch the boxes on top of other stacks, usually without a re-adjustment), jumping back up on the truck and zipping to the next location. 

Paperboy wasn't just the most fun job that I had, either: It was also the most lucrative. If you could score high at Paperboy (and I almost always did), you usually had a whole day's worth of work at a high score, which meant an extra $40-$60 in your paycheck at the end of the week. I won't say that it never got monotonous, but it was a nice break to unloading the trucks every day.

Oh yeah, I should probably mention my regular workload in the receiving department was, well... receiving things. This usually involved one of four jobs:

  1. Throwing = By far the most physically brutal job in the building. When you throw a trailer you are literally in a tractor trailer container throwing hundreds (if not thousands) of ten to forty pound boxes onto a conveyor belt. Most boxes that we threw had bar codes on one side that we needed to scan in order to get them into inventory.
  2. Sorting = The second most physically brutal job in the building. There were traditionally two sorters on every receiving line, one on each side of the conveyor belt. Their job was to pick the boxes off the conveyor, scan the bar code, and then sort it to a pallet depending on where it was supposed to go. For example, one box might go to warehouse 3, while the next one might have to go to the Quality Control (QC) area. Manageable, until you have several boxes in a row going to very different areas, because different areas can't share the same pallet.
  3. Pallet-to-tally = This person's job was to wait for a pallet to fill up, and once it was full to count the number of boxes and take it to the tally clerks for checking. This person was also responsible for setting down fresh pallets once the old ones were removed. Probably the easiest of the three jobs, but it takes a certain amount of skill to know which pallets to pull to prevent the sorters from running out of space and shutting the line down.
  4. Hauling = The person(s) who were doing the hauling would take the finished pallets to their ultimate destination. The incentive pay for this job was never really there -- it was almost impossible to get the required 100% performance, even before the eventual events that I will describe.
These jobs were somewhat difficult, but we typically rotated positions so that one person wasn't stuck doing the same job every time. They also weren't nearly as long as "Paperboy," so the chance for extreme financial gain wasn't there.

We also had a host of other off-standard jobs that we had to perform, which the system would give us compensation for. All in all it wasn't too bad; we had a hearty crew of long-timers who knew the job, knew what to do and when to do it. I struggled to keep up with them, but I managed.

So typically, we would do a day of receiving, a day of "Paperboy," another day of receiving, and so on and so forth. In an eight hour day it was quite consistent, and even the occasional mandatory overtime wasn't entirely unwelcome.

All's all at the town hall

Every month Bluestem would host a town hall meeting, were we would be told the company's plans, how the company was doing, our performance, and it always ended with a prize drawing. It was nice, and it gave us something to shoot for.

Additionally, they hosted an employee safety committee, and even had continuous improvement meetings to get the people on the floor to suggest ways to improve efficiency (these were also followed by a pizza luncheon).

On top of that, every Thursday the vending machine company that stocked our break rooms would cook a hot lunch that was affordable for a very reasonable price, it was something to look forward to nearly every week.

I dare say, that Bluestem's Irvine Distribution Center (IDC) was an okay place to work, despite the low starting wage.

Shake-up, rattle and death-roll

So, if I had to pick a moment when things started to go bad, it was right around the time that my department's supervisor was terminated.

Now, don't get me wrong: I never really spoke to the guy. Heck, I hardly ever even saw him in the few months that we were both there. As near as I could tell, he didn't really "do" anything but wander around. Still, it was a bit of a shock to the other people who had been there longer (this will become a running theme). His duties fell to the assistant supervisor, who was a genuinely nice guy who did try to get things done effectively. 

Shortly thereafter other department heads started to roll. Soon, power was consolidated among a disturbing few people at the IDC, and later still they began to move the remaining assistants and supervisors around like some bizarre shell game, including a new supervisor for our department. This caused a bit of turmoil, and I think that it's the primary driver for what was to come, but that will have to wait until next time...

Friday, March 15, 2019

Banged-up and Battered By Bluestem Brands: Part 1 - The Interview

Hello again, everyone!

It has been quite awhile since I last graced my eponymous blog with my my presence. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the reason that I now have time to contribute to it again is because, as is so much the time in my life, I am once again unencumbered by gainful employment.

Well... My last employment wasn't exactly gainful, but we'll get to that. Allow me to regale you with tales of my life for the last year-and-a-half since my last stint of bitter worklessness.

I'm not sure where we left off; let's see... Was it when I was liberated from my nearly five year stint doing web maintenance for an online fireplace company? Was it my brief tenure as a graphic artist for an insane woman posing as a newspaper publisher? Yes, that last one seems to be a decent after-place to start my tales of woe.

After losing my part-time job at the less-than-prestigious "Gazette," (full name withheld to prevent any web-search, not that the lady who runs it necessarily knows how to use Google) I was without income, without unemployment insurance, and desperate for cash, so I went back to an old employer. 

Now, this isn't something I would normally do, but there aren't a lot of opportunities for someone as unpleasant as myself in Warren, Pennsylvania, so I decided to bite the bullet and do it for the paycheck (plus benefits). The place, Blair Corporation, a local clothing distributor that had changed corporate hands a few times over the last sixteen years since I had first worked there, and was now a subsidiary of Bluestem Brands, LLC. Bluestem Brands is the company that runs Fingerhut, as well as Gettington, and a few other predatory buy-on-credit companies. Still, when I walked in it was all rather familiar.

Into the belly of the beast

They were in the habit of giving "open interview" style hiring sessions -- lots of people, very little time. This involved a chat with the very pleasant and cherub-like human resources manager, a review of my resume, filling out the rote application form, taking a brief tour of the facilities, and then a mouth-swab drug test. I applied for the position of "Receiving Material Handler," for two reasons:

  1. When I had worked there before, it was the most fun job in the building.
  2. It looked to be physically active, and I really needed the exercise.
I was given a job, and started not long afterward. In those first few weeks I admired how the company had changed; some of the departments had moved, but the building's layout was still the same. The production was now much faster than my previous experience, and management seemed genuinely concerned with how workers were treated and listened to them. There was just one small problem at the start...

Incongruity of inflation

When I first worked at Blair, I was hired in the spring of 1994. Let me take you back to that time:

Big Macs cost about $1.50, but would occasionally go on sale for two for $2 (no, that is not a typo). Gas, at least locally, was about $1.25 a gallon (and that was considered high). Brand new (expensive) video games were $50, and there was no DLC or loot boxes to drain your wallet afterward. The starting wage at that time was $8.00, which was quite the step-up from the $4.75 minimum wage at the time. It was an opportunity for savings, investment, and consumption. 

Let's look at today by comparison:

Big Macs cost about $3.99 each unless there's a "two for $5" sale going on. Gas (again, locally in Warren, Pennsylvania), averages about $2.75 a gallon. Brand new (expensive) video games run $59 to start, but after loot boxes, DLC, and monthly online fees they can (and do) sometimes run upwards of $100. The starting wage at Bluestem Brands in 2017? $9.00 per hour.

You read that right, a whole DOLLAR more than the starting wage in 1994. That's $40 more per week, assuming you're working a 40 hour week.

But, Bluestem has a solution to that too: The "Incentive" program. The Incentive program works like this: There is a requirement of what you were expected to accomplish in a shift. Anything that you do that is above that requirement earns you additional pay. You need at least two hours every day working "on-standard," or ten hours per week total. If you worked at, let's say, 150% of what was expected of you, you could earn some additional dollars in your pay every week. This was a good program, assuming that you overlook the fact that what they pay one person for doing the work of 1.5 people is not equal to paying 1.5 people (doing the work of two people for example, would only net you about an extra $7 an hour, not a full $9). Still, it did the trick, and many employees in other departments would regularly make an extra $100 or so per week in their paychecks. Even some off-standard jobs were compensated with extra pay, because there was no real way to grade it otherwise. Additionally, they offered an extra $20 Walmart gift card every week for new employees who did better than expected for the first 10 weeks (not to brag, but I received every single one of these bonuses).

Working the receiving department was hard, especially for my "sits behind a computer desk for 10 hours a day" aging butt. But it felt good to do the exercise, to drive those pallet jacks as fast as I could through the nearly empty warehouses (it was, at times, like being paid to drive go-carts all day long). I made a genuine effort to be courteous, helpful, and to even smile.

That didn't last long. 

Stay tuned for Part 2.