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Work Observations

October 16, 2005 05:29

For those of you who don't know, I have recently become gainfully employeed with a real job at a Big Lots! distribution center. One of those 40+ hour week jobs that requires actual work and pays benefits (some say the only reason to even get a job). So although work on the house is still progressing at a snails pace, I at least now have a good excuse. My job involves the lifting, carrying, transporting and ocassionally dropping, throwing, fixing, or cleaning up after boxes.

As some of you also know, I used to work for UPS several years ago, doing much the same thing. While on the face of it, the actual JOB was similar, there are some fundamental differences in the companies. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the long run.

First off, UPS had a union, and Big Lots doesn't. While once labor unions served a valuable, and some may say necessary purpose in making sure that the labor workforce was not unfairly taken advantage of, we no longer live in the early 1900's and today the primary purpose of the union seems to make sure that mediocre employees keep their jobs, at all costs.

For a few examples, the last time UPS went on strike was in 1997. I remember this because I had a box of checks shipped just before the strike, and had to wait about 3 weeks to get them because they were perpetually in transit. Knowing what I know now, they were probably sitting in a warehouse in the area, but no chance in hell of actually GETTING them because it was the drivers who were striking. Anyway, the point is, when the strike ended, the contract that the union negotiated for the employees was WORSE than the previous one, in every measurable way. The starting salary was lowered, the yearly raise was lowered, the benefits package was delayed such that depending on when you joined, you had to work there for up to 4 months before you could start using your benefits. This all benefited the company greatly. So why would they do it? It helped a few employees, the current ones. Since they are on an old contract, they keep getting higher yearly raises and other perks that new employees won't. The union helped a few current employees to the detriment of all future ones.

When I was a supervisor, there was a whiny girl who had made a number of bad life choices, and from the looks of it was still making them, such that she needed to work as many hours as possible. The problem is, she wasn't much of a worker. She was also exceedingly annoying. But she had seniority over most of the other workers and seniority rules on pretty much everything when you're doubleshifting. So I can't just not let her work for me if I have ANYONE else working for me with less seniority than her. The union helped make sure of that. She once, while driving an irreg engine, which is basically a battery powered go-cart, but able to pull several tons of weight, was looking sideways talking to someone while driving and ran into one of these huge metal tables, causing the table to strike someone and this resulted in thankfully only a minor fleshwound. She lost her certification to drive, but the union got her that privelage back.

There is also evidence that the union, through the guise of protecting the jobs of the employees, causes the company to make decisions that keep it behind technically. The sorting operation at UPS is done by manual labor, which is both error and injury prone. At BigLots! it's all automated, and from what I can tell almost perfectly accurate and about 10x faster. And that's 10x faster than a team of about 60 employees could work. The company can therefore save money. This money is then invested in keeping the equipment in good working condition, rather than running it always on the verge of failure, which causes constant downtime. At UPS we needed quite a bit of training on how to handle the conveyor belts, how not to mess with the cages guarding the belt motors, etc. At BitLots, the belts are all out of reach, and if you did manage to get within arms reach of one, a sensor will shut it down.

BigLots will also not hesitate to shut down a store that isn't making money. They do this to about 40 stores a year, although they start up more new ones than that. This puts some employees out of a job, but offers new jobs to others. A union would frown on such activity and make it difficult. The company would therefore be forced to lose money to not risk a strike.

I started working a minimum 40 hour work week at a standard base pay. I get 75 cents worth of raises the first year and performance based raises every year after that. At UPS, it was 50 cents a year, no matter how good you were or how much you sucked. In addition to my base salary, I have the option to earn up to 50% more by having high performance numbers. If I do the bare minimum, I get paid the minimum. If I work my ass off and accomplish more, I get paid more for it. If my fellow employee isn't working as hard as me, I don't see that as a problem because I know he's not getting paid as much. In fact, it works the other way, as the slower employee will hear at the weekly meeting that his fellow employees are making more money than him because they work harder. This is a much better motivational tool than the operational standard at UPS which was "We have to be nicer to our people.". I couldn't reward excellence and I couldn't punish mediocrity. All I could do is hope people would show up to work everyday. At UPS, they could miss work 12 times a year, over and above all their vacation time and any days they ask for off in advance. 12 times they could just not show up, no call, nothing. 12 times before we could fire them. And each of those 12 times, we had to document it and have them sign off on it or it wouldn't pass muster with the union. At BigLots, the second time you don't show up for work without calling, you're gone. Strangely enough, everyone shows up for work everyday. I'm not saying there isn't the occasional illness, but now it's a once every other month thing instead of a several times a week thing.

Benefits I have to pay for, although it comes out to a few bucks a week. At UPS, they were free, BUT you had to be there several months before they were available. The retention rate at UPS was less than 50%, meaning over half the people hired in any one year quit before that year was up. There's a good chance that people would quit long before UPS ever needed to pay a dime toward benefits. Of course, at UPS you only had one package available. It was the same for everyone. I get to choose which package I want, and I can even choose to not have any coverage at all, and there is a monetary difference for me as a result of the option I choose.

Now, since there's no union, there are some things BigLots will do that make some people grumble. We are guaranteed 40 hours a week. There is also quite a bit of mandatory overtime, up to an extra 10 hours a week. It's also possible from time to time we'd have to come in on a Friday or Saturday. Of course, any hours over 40 a week get paid time and a half. If working lots of hours isn't going to work for you, then this isn't the place to get a job. And there is sometimes a bit of grumbling about it, but people do keep showing up. And it's not because of management breathing down their necks. I see my supervisor at the beginning of the shift and the end of the shift. Those are typically the only times I ever talk to him, and if I even see him any other times, it's not because he's hovering over me with a clipboard. The computer keeps track of my production. The employees train the new employees. We all motivate ourselves and each other. And it works. I get along with everyone there. There aren't any of those strange wackjobs that are only there because the union won't let us get rid of them. I had several of those at UPS. There were even offers of days off for any supervisor that was able to convince some of those people to retire.

Anyways. I like my job. I come home tired and dirty and that's the extent of my complaints. We'll see what time tells.

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