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.

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