Weather and work


So…what are the ties between weather and work?

I recently returned from my annual storm chase vacation in America’s heartland, and I was reminded once more that weather often has an impact on our work lives. Here are three previous posts on those themes:

1. Labors of Love: Chasing Tornadoes (2008) — About folks who chase tornadoes for a living, at least for a chunk of the year!

2. Working in a blizzard (2010) — It means different things to different workers.

3. Waiting for Irene with geeky gadgets and water bottles (2011) — Waiting for a hurricane has a way putting everything else on hold.

By the way, that’s a tornado lowering behind me in central Colorado two weeks ago!

Hey Apple, start paying your store workers a decent wage

During the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of attending three free workshops at the Apple Store in Boston’s Back Bay. There I’ve learned how to better use my various Apple gadgets. Each workshop — taught by different customer service specialists — was interesting, informative, and useful.

For people like me who don’t like reading the instructions but lack an instinctive feel for anything digital, the workshops are an easy way to get more value out of my purchases.

Too bad that Apple doesn’t reward its store workers for the value they bring to the company.

Great workers, low pay

As reported in an in-depth article by David Segal in Sunday’s New York Times, these store workers aren’t paid very well. In fact, especially given how much value they create for the company, their compensation is terrible:

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year.

…By the standards of retailing, Apple offers above average pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 and better than the Gap, though slightly less than Lululemon, the yoga and athletic apparel chain, where sales staff earn about $12 an hour. The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount.

But Apple is not selling polo shirts or yoga pants. Divide revenue by total number of employees and you find that last year, each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.

Labor market experts quoted in the piece observe that Apple deliberately sets its compensation so that most workers will not stay for a long time. However, even Apple must be self-conscious about their wages, because they announced pay hikes soon after the Times began investigating their compensation structure for store workers.

A global pattern of using cheap labor

Apple’s store workers aren’t the only ones who are underpaid. As Charles Duhigg and David Barboza reported for the Times earlier this year, Apple also has been using cheap overseas labor to build its products:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

The public response to these revelations helped to prod Apple to take initiatives toward better compensation and working conditions for workers who assemble their products.

Who benefits?

I have transitioned to Apple products over the past three years, largely because their interface is easy to use and their products are well built. The presence of Apple Stores to provide customer service also makes a difference.

But as many people know, Apple products aren’t cheap. My low-end MacBook cost much more than an entry-level PC laptop. And while the iPad is proving to be a remarkably handy machine, it’s an expensive piece of hardware.

Unfortunately, the factory workers who build their products and the store workers who sell them and assist customers are the most neglected pieces on the Apple compensation chain. Company executives no doubt are doing just fine on payday, and shareholders have been rewarded handsomely as well.

I’m not against decent salaries for successful executives and fair profits for those who invest in a company. But the situation at Apple is way out of hand. It’s time to fairly compensate the people who build and sell these products and service the customers.

Collegiate reflections: Graduating into a severe recession

A not-too-artistic shot of Brandt Hall dorm, my collegiate home for almost 3 years, until departing for the real world.

Before commentators invoked the (wholly accurate) mantra that the Great Recession marks the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, they typically observed that this was the worst meltdown since the severe recession of the early 1980s.

I remember that time well. In 1981, I graduated from Valparaiso University in Indiana with a bachelor’s degree and a political science major. My plan was to work for a year, live at home with my parents, and file my applications to law schools.

Although I presented excellent grades and a strong list of extracurricular and community activities, the entry-level job market in northwest Indiana was not very welcoming to newly-minted college graduates. The nation was in the midst of a deep recession. Locally, the labor market in the region was in especially bad shape, thanks to the sharp decline of the steel industry, which once served as a steady source of good jobs.

Back to retail

Given my extensive experience on the college newspaper and a long list of courses requiring intensive writing, I applied for jobs with newspapers and other positions that required strong writing skills. The best I could come up with was a very part-time position reporting on local town government meetings for a weekly community newspaper.

Ultimately, after several months of unsuccessful hunting for a full-time job befitting (in my mind) a college graduate, I contacted the local drug store chain I had worked for as a retail stock clerk during college summers and asked if they needed help. Fortunately they were opening a new store in the area, and they took me on. I would spend the next year working there, unloading trucks, stocking shelves, checking inventories, and assisting customers.

Lessons

A year later, when I headed east to law school at New York University and heard about what my classmates had done with their time after college, I was wholly intimidated. Many sported impressive internships and fellowships, jobs with prestigious-sounding employers, and the like. By contrast, my job at the drugstore and the part-time gig writing articles for a local paper sounded pretty ordinary.

With the gift of hindsight, however, I look at that interim year and realize that I learned valuable lessons that are relevant to my work today:

First, I experienced the indignity of having my hours (and thus pay) slashed without notice when sales figures were less than anticipated. To this day I remember how it felt to report for work one day and to see that one of the company executives had taken a red pen to our work schedule, brutally cutting hours.

Second, I saw how some of the female employees, earning wages similar to mine, became primary family breadwinners after their husbands lost their jobs in the steel mills. They assumed these burdens without whining or drama.

Third, on a more positive note, the experience buoyed my work ethic. I’m not claiming that I found any deep meaning in working retail. This was a non-union employer, and the wages were pretty low, hovering a dollar or so above the minimum wage — with no employee benefits that I can recall.

But the store managers were hard workers, they weren’t jerks, and oftentimes they’d join us to do the heavy lifting that needed to get done. (Later in life I would discover how this is not necessarily the norm!) Even though this was far from my dream job, I gave it a good effort almost every shift.

I’ll stop short of calling it a “humbling” year, because I honestly didn’t expect the world to hand me a high-paying professional job on a platter, but I certainly learned that sometimes you have to take what you can get if you want to earn some money.

Why today is worse

So, when talking to graduates today, do I use my career successes to blithely assure them that things will get better? Absolutely not. Besides the fact that, like many of my peers, I am one job loss away from genuine financial struggle, here are reasons why today’s graduates have it harder:

Structural recession

The current meltdown shows strong signs of being more structural than cyclical. By that I mean certain financial and labor markets are in the throes of downward restructuring, translating into a likely permanent shedding of jobs. The recession of the early 80s had some of that quality — the demise of the steel industry is one example — but the outlook for college graduates remained optimistic.

30 years of “trickle down”

Today’s economy reflects the cumulative effect of “trickle down” public policies that triggered a sharply growing gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. These policies, ushered in by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, were just starting to redefine the landscape at the time I graduated from college.

Student debt

People today are graduating from various degree and vocational training programs with enormous amounts of student loan debt, as I have observed often on this blog. The shift from grants to loans as the primary form of financial aid was occurring before our very eyes during the 1980s, and it has continued unabated since then. It means that graduates are carrying heavy monthly repayment obligations into a difficult job market.

Older workers remaining on the job

As I wrote earlier this month, the entry-level job market for graduates increasingly will be restricted by a growing number of older workers who remain in the labor force because they cannot afford to retire.

Summing up

I do believe that opportunities are out there. It’s not like we’ve run out of work that needs doing. But the current economic landscape is much different than that of the early 80s. We are facing very tough times for the long haul. It’s one more reason why we need to think and act wisely about how to rebuild our economy in a lasting and sustainable way.

***

Note: With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience and its immediate aftermath to address topics pertinent to this blog.

Other posts in this short series

Cruelty on a school bus

After watching this video, I am stunned by the unrelenting, ongoing, almost casual cruelty it depicts. A group of junior high school students from Greece School District in Rochester, NY, subject bus monitor Karen Klein to a profanity-laced stream of humiliating insults and threats. Suzan Clarke for ABC News reports (link here):

Klein, a 68-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight, was riding on a school bus with several students from the district’s Athena Middle School in Rochester on Monday when she was subjected to mean and cruel mockery by several students.

In a 10-minute video that was uploaded to YouTube  on Tuesday by one of the students on the bus, several students can be heard taunting Klein, telling her she was a “fat ass,” “old ass,” dumb, poor and sweaty.  Most of the voices appear to be male, and their comments toward Klein are riddled with profanity.

The video is about 10 minutes long, but it feels like it goes on forever — or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Karen Klein. One radio station blog reported that some of the kids involved posted it to their Facebook pages.

The video has gone viral, the news media have discovered it, and there’s even a fund created to support Karen Klein. (Google “school bus monitor video” and you’ll get dozens of news articles and blog commentaries.) At least there’s a public outcry about what occurred.

Okay, so lots of junior high kids can do and say mean things, and that doesn’t mean they inevitably will grow up to be horrible adults. But at a very young age, the kids in this video demonstrate the easy capacity for extreme, ongoing verbal abuse. There is no indication that they’re acting out of anger toward something that happened. They display not one ounce of conscience or understanding about what they’re doing to another human being. Apparently it doesn’t matter at all to them that she’s an older adult who obviously is becoming upset.

Let’s hope that Karen Klein is able to find a silver lining in the outpouring of public support she is receiving. And let’s hope these kids don’t grow up to become the adult versions of what they depicted in the video.

***

June 22, 2012 addendum — Jason Sickles reports for Yahoo! News (link here) that the fund for Karen Klein, originally intended to raise $5,000, has surpassed $500,000. Two of the boys involved in the verbal abuse have issued apologies. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, both the school district and the children who participated in the incident have been subjected to harassment and threats.

July 2, 2012 addendum — News outlets (e.g., Christian Science Monitor story here) have reported that the boys who harassed Karen Klein have been suspended from school for a year, and instead will be attending an alternative school during that time.  Klein is quoted as saying that she is “fine” with the penalty.

When I first heard that a suspension was in the offing, I was troubled by the possibility. These kids need more structure and discipline in their lives, not less. But the provision of alternative school arrangements makes this disposition an acceptable one.

The impromptu online fund started to give Klein a “vacation” has now reached well over $600,000, which means she’ll likely have the option of returning to work or retiring. It is the “feel good” aspect of this story, one in which people continued to give (and give) even though they were well aware that the original fundraising goal was a modest $5,000.

It also gave rise to greater public awareness of bullying behaviors and their impact on targeted individuals. The case of Karen Klein is a hybrid of sorts: We tend to separate school bullying from workplace bullying, but this event blended the two, with an adult employee being severely bullied by a group of school kids.

Readers left very insightful comments to this post, and I’d suggest reading through them for their collective wisdom.

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Here’s an update that reports on the remarkable success of the fundraising campaign to help Karen Klein and what she plans to do with the money now that she has some freedom to decide her future.

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles

The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Barbie Latza Nadeau reports for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland — all of which are in the throes of severe economic crises. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau begins her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of this recession.

Cutting back when the need is greatest

Austerity can be a sound philosophy and practice when you need to cut back on spending, and surely many individuals and organizations manage to do so when times are tough. But in this context, austerity has meant sharp cuts in government support of those who most need assistance, including social services to help people who are struggling with life’s harsh challenges.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

The European economy today is different from that of the U.S. during the 1930s, but the point about government support is no less relevant. When people have nowhere to turn, some choose the most terrible option.

On suicide

It pains me that suicide comes up so often in discussions of depression, desperation, and despair related to work and livelihood. Before I began to understand the psychological impact of work and the economy, I did not comprehend how severe setbacks and traumatic experiences linked to employment (or lack thereof) might be related to suicide.

I get it now. The increasing suicide rate in Europe is horrific in itself, as well as the canary in the coal mine. We must pay attention.

Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts

Contemporary view of the main drive of the VU campus, looking not terribly different than from back in the day.

I sometimes remark to my students that I had to go to law school, given that my undergraduate studies in the liberal arts (with a political science major) didn’t exactly bust open doors to select jobs upon graduation, especially in the midst of a severe recession.

But I confess that this quip, which usually gets a laugh or two, obscures the fact that the deeper value of a liberal arts education is in its long-term dividends, not in its short-term job market clout.

Back in the day

As an undergraduate at Valparaiso University (Class of 1981) in Indiana, I pursued a fairly well-rounded liberal arts curriculum, favoring subjects such as political science, communication and debate, history, and economics. These courses helped to give me an understanding of the world and my place in it. Overall, liberal arts study sharpened my critical thinking abilities and nurtured writing and communications skills that have proven valuable to me throughout my life.

Given that I wasn’t the most intellectually mature individual during my collegiate years, the seeds planted by the liberal arts did not fully sprout for many years (er, decades). When that point arrived, however, the late-blooming epiphanies were powerful ones, such as understanding totalitarian rule in the private sector (thank you, George Orwell) and appreciating the power of storytelling (likewise, Homer).

Great Books

Many of my friends were enrolled in Christ College, VU’s liberal arts honors college. Through CC’s courses, roughly half of their degree program was devoted to an interdisciplinary study of classic works of Western Civilization (a/k/a the “Great Books”).

I gave Christ College a try but never finished the full program. As a collegian, my plan was to major in political science, go to law school, and pursue a career in politics. (Some readers may be surprised to know that I was an independent leaning strongly Republican until my final semester, when I realized my worldview had changed!) I quickly became impatient with the Great Books and gravitated toward classes that fueled my immediate ambitions.

My friends who stayed the course were gifted with an immersion in the great works of literature. Their eventual occupations, moreover, were hardly limited to “bookish” ones. Some did become educators and writers, but others pursued careers in business, law, technology, and other fields. I’ve never heard any of the latter complain that their undergraduate education was “irrelevant.”

Skills

Nevertheless, it would be hypocritical of me to tout the big ideas by trashing practical skills. A year after receiving my B.A., I would pack my bags for law school at New York University, where I devoted much of my time to vocational endeavors such as clinical programs and internships. These credentials and experiences would create many opportunities in the years to come.

So, I readily acknowledge that it’s not an “either/or.” We benefit both from honing skills that make us functional individuals and by developing broader perspectives that give our lives meaning.

Real value

Today, the liberal arts are on the defensive. Citing the demands of the job market and the costs of higher education, some regard studying history or English as an indulgence. I understand their point: Reading about the Renaissance or parsing Shakespeare doesn’t train you to work a spreadsheet or tweak a software program.

But I believe it is more than soggy reflection that causes me to urge the value of a liberal arts education. By connecting our lives to our culture and society, and by enhancing our understanding of how we can shape both, we may live richer existences as human beings and participate in our communities with a deeper sense of perspective. At a time when sound bites and “messaging” too often replace serious thought, that’s pretty good “value” in my book.

***

For adults only

The liberal arts may be fighting for their lives in colleges and universities, but fortunately options for adults to create affordable, personalized, independent plans of study are endless.

Visit the websites of St. John’s College in Maryland, the Great Books Foundation, or the online Harrison Middleton University for reading suggestions. Check out the vast array of liberal arts courses offered by the Teaching Company, which recruits outstanding professors to present shorter, recorded versions of their on-campus offerings.

If you want to create a personal library of your own great books, affordable paperback copies — new and used — are readily available. And with the least expensive Kindle e-reader and a bit of resourcefulness, you can obtain hundreds of great works of literature for less than the cost of a single college course.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to tap into the titles you can borrow from your public library, not to mention free lectures and e-books available on the Internet.

Like I said, the choices are endless.

To further whet your appetite

Some books worth looking into:

Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2003) — Recommendations for a personal course of study. For serious independent learners.

Christopher R. Beha, The Whole Five Feet (2009) — A 20-something writer spends a year reading through the Harvard Classics, the celebrated, century-old set of great books that for decades offered a do-it-yourself liberal arts education to America’s emerging middle class.

David Denby, Great Books (1996) — A New York City film critic and journalist hits a midlife crisis and returns to Columbia University’s first-year Western Civilization program.

Clifton Fadiman, The Lifetime Reading Plan (1988) — A popular guidebook to great literature, including works of the 20th century. Mine is an older edition; check for an updated one.

Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (2008) — After surviving cancer, a college president spends a semester at St. John’s College, studying ancient Greek literature and joining the rowing team.

Related posts

Want more socially intelligent workers? Hire novel readers (2012)

When liberal arts majors look for jobs (2009) 

From the Web’s Archives: The Management Myth (2009)

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Note: With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience and its immediate aftermath to address topics pertinent to this blog.

Other posts in this short series

On Wisconsin


When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker launched his broadside against public employee collective bargaining rights, he triggered a protest movement that attracted international attention. Unfortunately, the attempt to remove the governor from office failed two weeks ago, as millions of conservative dollars poured into the state to defeat the recall effort.

“We Are Wisconsin”

But the public outcry spurred by Walker’s assault on working people has not gone away. At the biennial convention of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) this weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the everyday heroes of the protest movement, a Madison, Wisconsin detective named Brian Austin.

I grabbed from Brian’s Facebook page this photo from the ADA Convention: Brian on the left, joined by two other progressive stalwarts, Congresswoman and ADA President Lynn Woolsey and Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen:

Brian appeared at our convention to discuss the extraordinarily moving documentary “We Are Wisconsin,” which chronicles the grassroots protests that immediately followed the filing of legislation to strip most Wisconsin public workers of their core collective bargaining rights. He is one of six individuals featured in the film, which follows his participation in a “Cops for Labor” group in support of the protests — despite that police officers were expressly exempted from Gov. Walker’s legislative attack on collective bargaining rights.

The screening of the film put tears in our eyes. It’s the story of everyday people standing up for their dignity and their basic rights. It’s dramatic, uplifting, sad, and outrageous. You can rent it via short-term download ($4.99 for 48 hours) here. Do so; you won’t be disappointed. The documentary soon will be available on DVD as well.

Down but not out

The defeat of the recall election was a setback and disappointment, without question. The results demonstrated the power of big money in politics and the relentless determination of the far right to diminish worker dignity.

But watching “We Are Wisconsin,” I saw the making of new activists before my eyes on the screen. Walker and his friends showed that what they’re about is not belt-tightening during tough economic times, but rather a desire to destroy the labor movement and the rights of everyday working people. For thousands of Badger state citizens like Brian Austin, that struck a chord. If their energy and commitment can be harnessed for the long haul, the anti-labor forces of the far right will have met their match.

***

For more

You can read Brian Austin’s blog, “Badger Blue, Times Two,” here.

Americans for Democratic Action is a liberal advocacy group with historic ties to the labor movement. I just completed a two-year term as its Chair, and I remain on its board. For more information about ADA, go here.

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