The Modern 16-Hour Work Day, by Winter Trabex

Excellence? Debatable.

For a lack of something else to do, and because bills don’t pay themselves, I ended up going back to a company that I knew was horrible. I’d been there for two weeks a few years ago until things went south and they showed their true colors- which didn’t take long.

It all happened one silly weekend in which I was scheduled to do two inventory jobs up in Maine (I live in the southern half of New Hampshire). One was at a store called Party City, the other at a fabric store called JoAnn’s. Why such businesses actually had outlets in Maine or how they managed to be successful, I could not tell.

I had always thought that Maine was the center of fish, heavy snow, and the occasional Stephen King villain come from the wreckage of Gilead. To find out that there were normal, boring old businesses that served a very niche market was well…disappointing.

The catch was simply this: the Party City job began in the late evening, while the JoAnn’s job began in the early morning. Even on paper, anyone could tell that this was a bad idea. No one told us this prior to the jobs actually beginning, though. We did our best, and took longer than expected at the night job. By the time we got to the hotel, we found out that the manager had booked the wrong day. It took about an hour to sort that out. By the time we all got into our rooms, it was two in the morning.

I had at least had enough foresight to bring some dry food with me to eat the following morning, but because of the time crunch and because my roommate took his sweet time, I wasn’t able to get a shower before the JoAnn’s job started.

They piled us all back into the van at 6 in the morning. I’d only gotten three hours of sleep that night. I couldn’t really sleep in the van, not with so many strange people around- not to mention the jolting that would stir me awake from time to time. I couldn’t back out of the morning job, however much I wanted to. I was in Maine, and I had no way of getting home save by the company driving me themselves. I just had to knuckle up and do it myself.

We finished up in JoAnn’s by around 1 PM or so. That, at least, was a small mercy. The drive home took at least three hours. By the time I got home, I knew I needed to find a new job. I couldn’t keep doing this same thing over and over again. And I certainly wasn’t going to work for a manager that thought so little of their people that they would get the hotel day wrong and couldn’t even be bothered to push the job back to the afternoon so we could all get some sleep and/or have enough time to eat some proper food.

They didn’t even feed us anything at all, a pattern that I would later discover in my second stint at work.

I went back knowing that this might happen. I wasn’t deceived by the company promising an easy time. I knew that the company’s initials WIS were interpreted by the employees as “What Is Sleep?” because the company constantly drives all their employees much harder than is necessary for the sake of making as much money each quarter as they possibly can. They do this by counting the inventory of a store to confirm what they have and what they don’t. What’s often most annoying about this is that if the store’s count and the employee’s count doesn’t match, the employee is asked to count all over again- and never mind if it took five whole hours to count a single tag with 1300 products on it.

I volunteered for a Macy’s job, figuring that we would all spend three days working the same store. Macy’s, for those who don’t know, is often a two-story mall location like Sears or JC Penney’s that sells overpriced clothing made in third-world countries and name-brand shoes and perfume for people who can actually afford such things. Most of the customers I saw frequenting the store in the few hours before it closed were all middle-aged people who looked like they had the privilege of owning their own cars and houses. They could afford to drop 100 to 200 dollars on clothing every few months; that wouldn’t bother them.

Meanwhile, I was over there making an hourly wage, forced back into a company I didn’t like just to pay my bills. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit tetchy at this arrangement. I kind of wondered too where Macy’s got off, charging 59.50 dollars for a badly designed shirt from Indonesia.

My idea, because I hadn’t been told differently, was that we would all have enough time to do each store. That didn’t prove to be true. Rather than taking two or three days for each store, as would normally be the case, we had to take a single day for one store only. The second day in particular, one done at a store in my hometown of Manchester, NH, was particularly rough. I was there for 15 hours, during which time I got to see in full detail just how incredibly exploitative and horrible WIS was as a company.

I got in at roughly 6:00 PM on a Friday evening after having taken the bus up there. I left at a little before 10 AM the following Saturday morning. I had committed 16 hours straight to one job- and I had left early on Saturday before the job was done because I really needed to get some sleep. During the time when I had continued working, WIS didn’t order pizza for us. They didn’t get any kind of food for the folks who stuck it out.

Nor did they make a point of offering a consistent number of breaks- one employee went 8 hours without a break which I knew to be a clear violation of OSHA regulations.

The crew from Rochester (wherever that might be) wasn’t treated much better- they had to come in a van the previous evening and only got to leave at 8 in the morning for their hotel stay. I kind of wondered how well that would go, given that hotels have a checkout time around 11 AM. Would WIS pay for two consecutive hotel days just so their employees could get a sufficient amount of sleep? I didn’t really think they would. Most likely, those people would just have enough time to eat whatever they could get for themselves, and off they went to the next job. Nothing had really changed at all over the course of two years since I had quit.

If government regulation and the possibility of civil action being taken against the company isn’t enough to get them to, if not treat their people well, then at least less badly, I’m not sure anything can. The problem is, employees aren’t saying no in ways that might be expected. They aren’t saying, “I can’t do these long shifts.” Instead, they’re saying, “I don’t want this job anymore.” That was, after all, the position that I had taken before during my first time through with the company.

 However, with people quitting, all the management needs to do is replace them with someone else. In my case, they didn’t give me any training at all- the point where I didn’t know half the things I needed to know while on the job. In the short term, this means that the jobs will take longer and that employees will be forced to work longer hours- which in turn leads to more people quitting. The company doesn’t have any strategy for long-term sustainable employment in any way, shape, or form. They don’t seem to understand that people just don’t want to work 16 to 24 to 30 hour shifts.

The managers appear to have it worse off than everyone else. The new general manager, having come from Pennsylvania to put things right, soon discovered that the person making the schedules is the one screwing everybody up- and from what I saw, this same person doesn’t take up a scan gun himself to help everyone out and make everything go faster. I did see the general manager working the jewelry counter, which I appreciated. She was there, clearly as tired as any human being could possibly be (and somehow expected to make accurate counts of everything despite enormous fatigue), still working and still trying her best.

Other managers fell behind because the time clock (worked through a scan gun) futzed out and lost all the data from the previous day. Thus, they had to reconstruct everybody’s punch ins and punch outs- a process that took at least four to five hours. Never mind that they had already started another long job, and there was still a third long job awaiting them on the following day.

Despite my having put in 15 hours, despite other employees putting in even longer hours, and despite the managers staying there much longer than they should have, I heard that the second Macy’s day would take longer to finish than anticipated. How this worked in the schedule, I didn’t know. Whether they had to push back an assignment or cancel another store, I never heard. While on the bus ride back, during which I had to force myself to stay awake, I texted the boss saying I wouldn’t be available until next Wednesday. Her response actually kind of astonished me.

She said that she couldn’t guarantee a shift limited to eight hours if people didn’t show up. This was the same manager who was pulling more hours than anywhere else, who felt what it was like personally to lose sleep and to have to work like a dog. She didn’t appear to have any power or influence to change working conditions for the better. And, indeed, it couldn’t have escaped the notice of any of the previous managers during the last two years that they had extremely high turnover and call outs going left, right, and center.

Whether WIS is an outlier of a company that works people to the bone and ignores standard regulation while doing so isn’t really known. From personal experience, though, I can say that they aren’t the only company to act in an exploitative, terrible manner towards their employees. By and large, workers are regarded as expendable machines- whether they are high up on the managerial chain or not.

It doesn’t even matter if workers have to go hungry, if they’re ready to pass out from fatigue, whether they’re doing their job well or poorly- all that matters is that there’s always someone new to be had, a different person to plug into the spot who might end crying in their car out of frustration, who might sit on the floor after they’ve had enough out of protest, or who, like me, might deliberately take on too many hours on a Friday night/Saturday morning so that I didn’t have to report again for the rest of the week.

None of that really matters to a company boss. If he is aware of how badly his employees have it, then he’s doing it deliberately to make money. There was a phrase uttered by someone that goes, “riches are made on the backs of the poor.” In no other company I’ve ever been with or heard of is this more appropriate than WIS International.          

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