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...

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