I quit

Posted in Uncategorized on March 12, 2008 by reluctantbat

I was not fated to be among the elite who last for any length of time at the warehouse. The personal cost was too high. Although I got sufficiently adjusted to nocturnal life to be alert at work, I showed no signs of being able to function normally outside of work. If I wasn’t working or sleeping, I wished I were sleeping. Days off were mainly about recovering from days on. I found that although I was eating only two meals a day instead of my usual three (or even four), if I am not truly hungry but am unrested, sleep is the need that dogs me until I meet it.

I saw my wife and daughter briefly in the morning and evening on days I worked. On days off I saw them more but felt I had little energy to spare for them.

I knew the schedule was bad for me, but when my wife encouraged me to quit, despite the lack of a ready alternative, it became very clear that it was hard for her, too. Too hard. Like being a single parent living with a wraith who appeared once in a while.

So I gave notice at the shipping office and was told that I might as well make that night my last. I bade farewell to Mike and clocked out. If I could just get the company to send me the paycheck they owe me, I’d be done with the warehouse.

Now it looks like I’ll be hired at a box factory, on first shift, from 6 a.m. to 2:10 p.m.

Who’s there

Posted in Uncategorized on March 4, 2008 by reluctantbat

One of the guys in my training group just got out of prison in New Hampshire. I think he might be living at the warehouse, because when we get off our shift he doesn’t leave — he sits in the waiting room outside the HR office. There’s a bathroom there, and just down the hall a number of unused offices a person could probably sleep in without being noticed. He seems to have just one set of clothes, so he doesn’t need a lot of space for his wardrobe.

Another fellow recently moved to Vermont from a small Hudson Valley town, where he worked as a carpenter and was a volunteer fireman. He wears Nascar t-shirts. His wife and three kids just joined him, and it bothers him that he hardly sees them, due to the work schedule. He also finds the job desperately boring.

The other three are very young guys. Two seem like they could be college students, and don’t look like their situations are dire enough to explain working at the warehouse — they have nice clothes, probably bought by someone else, and they seem fresh and innocent. The third looks like he has a more hardscrabble background, and is none too smart. He likes to socialize by barking fierce orders at people, then grinning at the joke, or coming up behind someone and tapping him on the right shoulder while he stands off to the left.

In another training group there’s an incredibly sweet black guy (noteworthy in a place as white as Vermont), a fat kid (I would bet a large sum he won’t last), and a fellow who is saving money to get the hell out of New England and move to Colorado as soon as he can.

A selector who has been at it for ten months or so told me that if I stick around, most likely I’ll be the only one in my group who does. In his tenure at the warehouse, he said, he’s seen hundreds of people come through and leave.

The old hands, then, are an elite of sorts. You could look at them as the dregs, of course, who can’t find better work and so are stuck, and maybe there’s truth in that. But I suspect the few who stay on for any length of time have found they can pick groceries and build pallets fast enough to make decent money, and those who work at night may be among the rare breed who actually like it. Most are a little older than most trainees — late 20s, perhaps — and they seem serious and focused. One of the shift supervisors told me he tried daytime work, at a desk job with the company, but he didn’t like dressing up (shirts with buttons) or the schedule. His wife didn’t like having him around the house when she was home, and he missed having the house to himself after work.  So he’s back on nights in the warehouse, for the long haul.

People like Mike, who have graduated to supervising the orders for truckloads and moving pallets onto the trucks, seem to be older still than the long-term selectors. They’re the sergeants of the warehouse command structure, close to the action on the ground but definitely a step above their squad members. There’s Mike, the savant.  Another guy, probably 40, looks like he could be a professional recorder player, supporting his music habit with a nighttime day job — he has none of tattooed scruffiness many of the warehouse workers sport. His round wire-rimmed glasses and oddly precise, slightly long hair make him look a bit out of place, although he seems comfortable enough. Another looks like a hippie, with his flowing hair, unkempt beard and Mexican coarse-cotton hoodie, but apparently missed the peaceful flower-child part of the orientation. He likes hearing himself bellow obscenities and death threats, and boasts of his many appearances in front of a judge for his misbehavior.

Incentive selectors have a jack of their own, and the more committed among them usually pimp them out with stickers (“I kill people like you” is one I’ve seen on more than one jack) and especially with stereos, which they build themselves to run off the 24 volt batteries that power the jacks. I’ve seen one that had a round screen on it, something like an oscilloscope, with a display that relates to the music, and another that has a TV screen. I heard about one guy — possessed of an extreme personality, I guess — who spent $4,000 on his 24-volt stereo.

I’ve heard a variety of music amid the cacophony of competing stereos, including Elvis Presley and old-time Delta blues, and there’s even one selector who plays stand-up comedy recordings, but the most popular genres seem to be thrash metal, hardcore and hiphop — sounds that express rage and bad-ass posturing. It’s incongruous to hear the threatening approach of a jack playing what sounds like the soundtrack to hell and then see its typically mild-mannered driver.

Time is money/Safety is everybody’s job

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 26, 2008 by reluctantbat

During this two-month training period, I’m paid hourly — $12, plus 25 cents for working the night shift. But after 60 days, grocery selectors are paid on a piecework basis, per case, with an adjustment for accuracy. The rate is about 11 cents a case to start with, but is decreased to 8.25 cents if a selector makes too many mistakes. From time to time, a truck load of pallets is audited in order to see how accurately the order has been filled.

Picking groceries is essentially solitary work, with each guy cruising around the warehouse on his own, with his own list of things to get, and there’s no feeling of everyone being part of a single project. The usual courtesies of trying not to get in people’s way are colored, on one hand, by the knowledge that if you hold somebody up you’re costing him money, and on the other by the awareness that if you try too hard not to hold other people up you’re cutting into your own pay. People are, however, organized into “teams” that work on the same truckload of stuff, under the supervision of a person who is organizing that load. Being on a team doesn’t affect a worker much, except that the company cuts the pay of everyone on a team (for two weeks) if anyone on the team picks too many wrong cases.

The company has a strong interest in fast work, since a given worker’s benefits cost the same whether he picks 500 cases in a shift or 2000. And the worker can go from making pretty lousy money to doing pretty well, if he can really move a lot of cases. During our training period, although we’re not working “on incentive,” we have a quota to meet, which increases each week. I picked an average of 650 cases per shift in my second week, which just barely met this quota. (If I were being paid on a piecework basis, I’d be making about $8 an hour.) By the end of the 60 days, we’re supposed to be picking about 1500 cases, and anyone who doesn’t will either be kept on as a “trainee,” still making $12.50, or told to move on.

Hurrying, then, is fundamental to the job. And guys who are picking at a high rate do move fast, throwing themselves up into the racks to reach high items at the back of a pallet, ducking under racks to get bottom-slot cases, tossing boxes onto their pallets and jumping back onto the jack to move onto the next thing. Wrapping finished pallets with the Saran wrap-like film used to bind them together, they run in circles around the pallets, first upright, then bent at the waist with their heads pointed to the floor as they wind the film to the bottom of the pallet. Federal law allows for two 15-minute breaks in a 10-hour shift, but unlike the 30-minute lunch break also mandated, we don’t clock out for them, so it is possible to skip them in order to increase the case-per-hour rate, and people often do.

Many factors beyond a selector’s control can lower the pick rate: having to get a new battery for the jack; getting stuck behind forklifts in the aisles a lot; or most common, just getting a bad shot — one that requires a lot of travel around the warehouse for relatively few items. Other slowdowns, more within a worker’s control, include losing part of a load due to excess speed and/or bad stacking, and cleaning up spills when something gets broken. The only way to keep the pick rate up in the face of such adversities is, of course, to hurry more.

There are no banners urging workers to move faster, just “SLAM the job” (“stop, look, assess, and manage,” remember?), “You count and others count on you — be safe,” “If it’s not safe, don’t do it,” etc. But the language of money speaks more eloquently than these safety messages, and the importance of speed eclipses caution for the most part. Getting on or off a moving jack, having fewer than four points of contact (i.e, both feet and hands) while on a jack, moving a jack while not standing on the deck, and reading a shot list while moving all fall into the category of officially unsafe and forbidden practices, and all are a constant part of the job. To observe the rules strictly would slow the pace down so much it would be impossible to make remotely decent money.

Last week, a selector in the freezer warehouse hit a railing, catching his leg between the railing and his jack and suffering a broken femur and a gash from hip to knee. The next day another guy’s hand was injured — “crushed” was the word we heard — when something fell on it. In the first accident, the worker was making a corner at “rabbit speed” (that is, having engaged the overdrive activated by the “rabbit button”) while reading his shot when he lost control. I don’t know the circumstances of the other incident.

The guy with mangled leg, if he returns to work, will have his pay cut. Preventable accidents, along with inaccurate picking, absences and some other misdeeds, are among the things the company punishes workers for by cutting their per-case rate.

I have felt some desire to do this job well, which is to say quickly, but I soon resigned myself to failing in this regard. For one thing, a 20-year-old may be able to get away with throwing his body around at a 1500-case-per-shift pace, repeating movements all night that are a perfect recipe for a back injury, but at almost 40, I can’t. For another, one of the few truths I think I understand about life is that, in the absence of a true emergency, hurrying is almost always a mistake. And while I think a lot of my co-workers get caught up in a competition to be fast (I hear guys bragging they picked “two grand” in a shift), I would feel like a sucker if I were driving myself at the pace the company wants. So I work at a fairly quick but humane and dignified pace that, if I stick around long enough, will get me fired.

Clifford proves dangerous

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 25, 2008 by reluctantbat

Those who remember Clifford from my first post will be interested to know that I saw him again. I hailed him by name, which confused him a little because he didn’t remember me. But, as is his way, he opened up to me immediately and told me how upset he was that he was being sent to HR to see if there were any other positions available. Apparently he had started working as a selector (that night, or days before — I don’t know), but his supervisors decided he was too dangerous on a pallet jack. “It’s a bummer,” Clifford said. Another bummer was that nobody would give him a ride, so he was going to have to hitchhike in the cold night with his 40-pound pack. Poor Clifford.

Voyeurism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 24, 2008 by reluctantbat

I assume we all feel a certain curiosity about what other people eat. I know when I am in the supermarket checkout line, I look with interest at what the person in front of me sets out on the conveyer belt. All to often, I find myself feeling judgemental about it: So much meat! Look at all that soda! I particularly bemoan a collection of bad food when it is both unhealthful and expensive and is being bought by someone who I can see needs better nutrition and a lower grocery bill.

As a grocery selector, I get to see what whole communities are eating, or at least the customers of a whole store. My shots are only part of a store’s order, so I don’t get a complete overview, but I do get a sense of the order’s relative quantities of the items I am selecting.

So far, the most disturbing has been an order for Akwesasne, NY — a Mohawk community. I assume that, like most Indians, the people there are poor and suffer a lot of health problems, so I was sorry to see how much money they are wasting on Kool Aid. Case after case of flavor after flavor of the trashy sugar water drink mix. Also a great deal of ranch dressing. Maybe the Mohawks have a casino now and are rich, though, in which case I am sorry that their money hasn’t bought them good taste and good sense.

Apparently the military is one of the company’s biggest customers. I filled part of an order for Mitchell Field Command, in Garden City, NY, and was surprised by the quantity of air fresheners and other stink-suppressors. Including lavender air freshener, which doesn’t seem very Spartan-like. Are our people in uniform a bunch of nancy-boys and -girls? An alternate interpretation, I suppose, is that soldiers just stink more than most people.

The people of Southbridge, MA, are completely brownie-crazed, if one may judge by the half-pallet of Betty Crocker brownie mixes (three kinds).

Training continues

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 24, 2008 by reluctantbat

Portrait of a pallet jackPortrait of a pallet jack

The job is straightforward: drive around the warehouse collecting cases to fill orders from supermarkets, loading them onto pallets and staging the pallets on the shipping dock to be put onto trucks. The skills involved are operating a pallet jack and building loads on pallets. Formal training in the former began and ended my first night, although people have shared some techniques with me since then. Mostly it’s a matter of getting a feel for it. Stacking a proper load on a pallet has been the main concern of my group’s trainer, Mike, who is our supervisor during two-month training period.

“Building a pallet,” as it is called, is something like building a stone wall, in that the goal is to use gravity to hold a pile of irregular objects together into an orderly formation. As with walling, corners are critical, and it is important to try to keep everything level course by course. Of course boxes are more regular than stones, but they come in a remarkable array of sizes and shapes, and then there are bagged items, such as dog food and cat litter, and some items held together with plastic shrink-wrap, such as bags of sugar and some salad dressings. Ordinarily, a grocery selector heads out with two pallets on his jack and fills both to a height of somewhere between four and six feet. The solidity of the load on the back pallet is most important, because it is the items on the back that are most likely to fly off when one goes around corners, and because the front pallet has the advantage of being sandwiched between the load rack and the back pallet. Bigger, heavier items go on the back; small things and stuff that doesn’t stack neatly go on the front.

Other considerations concern efficiency. It is desirable not to handle a case more than once, so putting each in the right place the first time is good. Steps between the pallets and the driving platform of the jack add up over a shift, so that’s another reason to put small items on the front pallet. The hardest aspect of load-building efficiency to learn is when to deviate from the list of cases on the “shot,” the list of things to collect. A shot presents the list as a series of peel-off labels, one for each item, identified by three numbers — aisle, bay and slot — presented in the order in which they are encountered while traveling around the warehouse. That is not always the best order in which to get things, however. Mike usually directs us to pick certain items out of sequence, in order to put items of similar size together and to build solid layers on which to pile later cases. A layer of double-stack cans is a fine base for less orderly cases to be stacked on, for instance. A load tends to become less orderly and stable as it develops; having to pile a number of large, heavy cases on top of a wobbly pile of assorted-size boxes is difficult, and best avoided by putting those cases on the bottom.

As Barbara Ehrenreich observed of low-status, low-wage jobs in her book Nickled and Dimed, work that is usually considered “unskilled” often, in fact, demands considerable skill, as well as sheer effort, to do well. That’s the case with building a good pallet. Building a bad pallet can result in having half the load abruptly distributed across the floor when one turns, stops or starts suddenly — as I have experienced repeatedly. If one could look at a shot and quickly discern which items should be picked out of sequence and where in the load they should go, it would be a great help. My trainer, Mike, has an uncanny ability to do this.

My first inkling of his peculiar skill was during the first night my group of trainees picked groceries. The first shot we did as a group, with Mike. One person drove the jack, another read the shot, and the rest of us just trailed along. At one point, the reader announced the next item: 47-48-12, let us say. This was some distance down the aisle, certainly out of sight. “Marshmellow fluff, my favorite,” Mike said. There are, I think, about 28,000 different items in the warehouse. How in God’s name could Mike remember what any given three-number sequence refers to? But it seemed he does. A list of numbers that are to me totally meaningless are to him, apparently, readable as specific known items in certain locations.

Another time, before sending me out on a shot, Mike told me to pick a number of items first, because they are all in the same size boxes. Then he pointed out another item, which he said was slightly taller, good to include with the others, but put in a corner, because it is desirable for corners to be higher than the rest of the load. Somehow he was able to recall the relative size of the boxes with such precision that he could warn me of a difference of a half-inch or so.

And on one occasion, when I returned to the dock with loaded pallets, Mike noticed one box and said, “So that’s what size that one is,” and seemed to gaze intently at it to fix its dimensions in his mind. He was genuinely interested in the case, and appeared to fully intend to remember it.

Building pallets has been likened to playing Tetris in three dimensions, which seems very apt. I asked Mike, who seems to genuinely take pleasure in arranging cases on pallets, whether he is good at Tetris, and he said he is, and used to play it a lot. Having a good sense of spatial relationships is useful in this work — it’s something I don’t have — but Mike’s ability goes beyond this. His familiarity with the vast number of things in the warehouse struck me as freakishly detailed, but I wasn’t sure if he were unusual, or if anyone who has worked there as long as he has — eight years — has the same grasp of zillions of items’ size, location and identifying number. I asked him if there were some kind of savant thing going on with him, but he laughingly dismissed that idea.

Last night, though, by way of comforting me for my imperfect pallet-building ability, Mike mentioned that he has an easy time of it because he has a photographic memory. That made total sense, given what I had seen, but I wasn’t sure he was being serious. I asked if he remembers everything he sees, or just grocery cases. Everything, he said. Everything he reads, too? Yes, pretty much, he said.

A photographic memory is a huge aid to being a good grocery selector at the warehouse, no doubt about it. But wouldn’t it be a huge advantage in innumerable fields? I have often thought that if I could have a sort of super power, a photographic memory might be high on my list. My brain lets most of what it encounters slip right out again, sieve-like. How fantastic it would be to be able to retain everything! Mike acknowledged that his brain is a little better than he sometimes gives himself credit for, and that there might be some better application for it than selecting groceries, but he enjoys working with his hands and is grateful for the mandatory exercise his job gives him. And he does seem to really like his job. Which is great, I guess. I hope he’ll find something more interesting to remember, though, by and by.

Fatigue

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 19, 2008 by reluctantbat

Receiving dock, between shifts

Nine days into this job, it seems I was right to be concerned about sleep. But first a word about fatigue. On night two, the first shift that I worked until 5:30 a.m., exhaustion hit me like a wall at 2 a.m.  It wasn’t bodily exhaustion — I’ve pushed my body much harder plenty of times — but the wearing down of consciousness. What struck me as odd was how suddenly it overtook me, transforming me from kind of draggy to stupified in a moment. I found it hard to read the numbers on my “shot,” the list of cases to pick up, and even had to make a deliberate effort to discern whether I was holding it right side up or not. I became disoriented, unable to remember what part of the warehouse I was in and which way to go next. (Fortunately, it is about as difficult to get truly lost in as Manhattan, since it is a mostly orderly numbered grid system.) My feet grew heavy, and I stumbled.

It was after I got home that things happened that made me realize how impaired I really was, though. After spending a few minutes with my wife and daughter I went to bed and was soon sleeping heavily. But not for long — four hours and I was awake again, unable to sleep although still thoroughly tired. I put together some breakfast and put a cup of the coffee K had made earlier in the microwave. Only as I finished breakfast did I realize I’d forgotten to get the coffee. When I opened the microwave, there was milk splattered around the inside of  it, and a mug with a little milk and no coffee. Evidently I had never poured the coffee at all, just the milk, which I then overheated.

Later, after I discovered that the basement was flooded due to melting snow pooling against the foundation, I set up a pump to remove the water. I screwed a hose to the pump outlet and laid the other end outside. As soon as I turned the pump on I found myself sprayed with water, soaked from head to toe. It seems I didn’t really screw the hose on, and it flew off as soon as the water started flowing.

What really disturbs me about this is the knowledge that this kind of exhaustion is routine among medical residents, who are in a position to make worse mistakes than forgetting to pour coffee along with milk. It’s also no comfort to know how many people — like myself — are driving while operating in such a sub-par condition. Tiredness is said to be comparable to inebriation in its effect on judgment and reflexes. I know in my state of fatigue I was no more able to will myself into real alertness than I could will myself sober after getting hammered.

Happily, the worst seems to be over. I am somewhat accustomed to being up all night now, and I haven’t experienced that intense fatigue again. But my success at sleeping enough during the day is mixed. A couple of times I have slept eight hours. Other times I sleep four hours and awake. The night before last, which I had off, I slept about 10 hours, then after a few hours awake and active I went back to bed for the whole afternoon, although I didn’t sleep. Today I slept, poorly, for about five hours, then had to get up in order to interact with the daytime world before going to work — I expect it to be a long night. However much I sleep, so far, I don’t feel fully rested. Undoubtedly this is partly because I am still sick (and undoubtedly I am still sick partly because I am not getting fully rested), but I suspect that the irregular daytime sleep I get simply isn’t as restful as routine nighttime sleep. The two days I have had off from work so far were mostly consumed with recovering from the preceding days, and my main preoccupation whenever I am not in the warehouse is trying to get enough rest.

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