This Is America

22 04 2008

The following interesting quotes are from Worked Over and Overworked. You could find much to say about any or all of them:

In his job at a Wal-Mart in Texas, Mike Michell was responsible for catching shoplifters, and he was good at it, too, catching 180 in one two-year period.

But one afternoon things went wildly awry when he chased a thief — a woman using stolen checks — into the parking lot. She jumped into her car, and her accomplice gunned the accelerator, slamming the car into Michell and sending him to the hospital with a broken kneecap, a badly torn shoulder, and two herniated disks. Michell was so devoted to Wal-Mart that he somehow returned to work the next day, but a few weeks later he told his boss that he needed surgery on his knee. He was fired soon afterward, apparently as part of a strategy to dismiss workers whose injuries run up Wal-Mart’s workers’ comp bills.

At a Koch Foods poultry plant in Tennessee, the managers were so intent on keeping the line running all out that Antonia Lopez Paz and the other workers who carved off chicken tenders were ordered not to go to the bathroom except during their lunch and coffee breaks. When one desperate woman asked permission to go, her supervisor took off his hard hat and said, “You can go to the bathroom in this.” Some women ended up soiling themselves.

As part of her software company’s last-lap sprint to get new products out the door, Myra Bronstein sometimes had to work twenty-four hours straight testing for bugs. She felt great loyalty to the Seattle-area company because its executives had repeatedly promised, “As long as we’re in business, you have a job.” But one Friday morning the company suddenly fired Bronstein and seventeen other quality assurance engineers. The engineers were told that if they wanted to receive severance pay, they had to agree to spend the next month training the workers from India who would be replacing them.

In 2005, for the first time since the Great Depression, the nation’s personal savings rate sank below zero, meaning that Americans were actually spending more than they were earning. As a result, among the bottom two-fifths of households, nearly one in four spends at least 40 percent of its monthly income paying down its debts.

Three-fourths of low-wage workers do not receive paid sick days, so if they need to miss two days’ work because they are sick or their child is sick, they receive no pay for those days — and often risk getting fired.

From 2000 to 2006, the number of Americans without health insurance climbed by 8.6 million, to 47 million. One study found that more than two-fifths of moderate-income, working-age Americans went without health insurance for at least part of 2005. Not only that, for employees who want coverage, companies are requiring them to pay more for it, and as a result, the cost of family coverage has soared 83 percent in just six years. As health costs consume more and more of the nation’s economic output — they account for 16 percent of gross domestic product, or GDP, up from 5 percent in 1960 — that necessarily leaves less money for wage increases.

Target, Safeway, Albertsons, and Wal-Mart have all hired cleaning contractors who required janitors to work the midnight shift thirty days a month. These contractors systematically broke the law by virtually never paying Social Security or unemployment insurance taxes, and they almost never paid janitors time and a half for overtime even though the janitors often worked fifty-five hours or more each week. These contractors sometimes dumped badly injured workers in front of a hospital or at a bus station with a ticket back to Mexico.

Stylists at SmartStyle, the nation’s largest hair salon company, said that pressure to minimize payroll costs was so intense that on days when there were few customers, managers often ordered stylists to clock out, then clean up the salon. Several hairdressers said they were occasionally paid for only half the hours they worked, their earnings sometimes slipping to $2.50 an hour, less than half the $5.15 federal minimum wage at the time. According to many workers and supervisors at Pep Boys, Toys “R” Us, Family Dollar, Wal-Mart, and other companies, some managers illegally tampered with time clock records to erase hours that employees had worked. Dorothy English, a payroll assistant at a Wal-Mart in Louisiana, said that if an employee had clocked forty-three hours in a week, her boss often ordered her to delete three hours from the worker’s time records to avoid paying time and a half.

Many workers fear pink slips so much that they are frightened to ask for raises or protest oppressive workloads.

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