Thursday, May 19, 2011

Temp Work

It was my last day at work.

For almost a year, I had been a temporary employee. At an assignment that was only supposed to last a couple of months. The company, one of America's largest medical supply conglomerates, with a massive distribution center here in north Texas, had provided me some remarkable experiences during my tenure. But after I had received several extensions to my contract, time had run out.

At the beginning, I re-organized all of their safety files, a project which in itself had morphed from updating training records to helping my manager overhaul the distribution center's campus safety system.

Being a high-profile player in the nation's medical supply industry, constant training in safety procedures was a way of life at this company, both for the warehouse employees, and the managers in our upstairs offices. Why such an emphasis on safety? At one point, just before I arrived, this facility secretly held every drop of flu vaccine in the United States. In addition, some of the chemicals stored in its specially-designed haz-mat room could, if exposed to the right elements, have sent parts of our building into a nearby residential neighborhood.

Oops - should I have said that on the Internet?

I Remember Where I Was

Well, it doesn't matter much today - my time there started before 9/11, before safety considerations forced people to think about everything with a haz-mat label as a potential terrorist tool.

Indeed, after that fateful day, lots of changes took place at the warehouse, not only because of the chemicals stored there, but because all of the products shipped from this location. From surgical gloves to medicines to sensitive operating instruments, just about everything in the warehouse would be needed by first responders and medical personnel in the event of a disaster. Sure, before 9/11, we all had an intellectual appreciation of that fact, but afterwards, society's perspective shifted from "if" to "when." And in today's just-in-time world, being on backorder is practically a sin. Some industries, like healthcare, have to be prepared for anything.

Because, sadly, "anything" is now possible. Dumbfounded, I watched on live television in the first-floor breakroom as Tower Two fell that awful morning. I was sitting next to an inventory control clerks who received the call from our upstate New York warehouse for thousands of body bags (which, you'll recall, weren't needed after all).

The parent company's warehouses along the East Coast were scouring their nationwide inventory for emergency supplies to respond to crisis locales in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Hospitals from Chicago to Los Angeles were proactively stockpiling supplies for fear of still more attacks. Suddenly, the medical industry had become intensely essential, no matter the cost; not the ephemeral money-hog it's been portrayed as being in the debate over Obamacare.

Perhaps the saddest reality in the office that day, and the days that followed, was that none of those body bags and other emergency supplies were needed after all at Ground Zero or Shanksville, Pennsylvania. All of those victims; their bodies literally erased from existence in the pulverization of the Twin Towers and the obliteration of Flight 93. No survivors pulled from the wreckage to bandage and suture. After being on stand-by for hours on end, yet with no demand for supplies, our inventory personnel somberly stood down.

You're Paying for This

Since my temp work was in the facilities department, I was assigned tasks which sent me into every corner of the building. Such access took me from the special section where the explosive chemicals were stored, to the executive offices, to the picking stations of the hulking German-built computerized inventory machine.

I had never seen such an enormous, intricate contraption in my life. Towering probably 40 feet above thin rail tracks and spanning five or six of those tracks, lined with hundreds of little baskets, this machine was state-of-the-art, at least for 2001. Each of those little baskets held small pieces of equipment and supplies needed by hospitals and doctors, and fast-moving robots would whiz along the tracks, programmed by inventory clerks in real time, plucking the requested items from their baskets and conveying them to human beings at one end of the machine.

The only people to handle the items, these employees would take what the automated pickers delivered to them, match it to a corresponding print-out label, and ship it out. Hour after hour. The computerized robots would be picking all sorts of items used in healthcare that had been requested through the company's online inventory system. The process was so complex that we regularly had engineering experts from its manufacturer's headquarters in Germany on-site to troubleshoot mechanical and software glitches.

As regular readers of my blog well know, few things significantly impress me: this picker was one of those things. It ran constantly, 24/7, both pulling inventory and stocking it. The next time you gasp at your hospital bill, remember that at least part of it probably is going to pay for machines like this that help stock the supplies needed for your surgery.

Getting to Know You

I'm still not sure why, but I managed to strike up affable acquaintanceships in departments all over the building. They were like most office relationships - not quite friendships, but you got to know these people well enough that you didn't just nod at each other in passing. You learned who their spouses were, where they lived, what their politics were, and what they thought of everybody else in the building.

The workers who staffed the amazing picking machine would yell greetings to me above the contraption's mechanical humming, the senior executive secretary upstairs would whisper confidentially to me in a corner of her cubicle. My boss's secretary would blab out loud about anything to me, while my boss would mutter warily, constantly glancing over his shoulder to see who was nearby, even if what he was saying was absolutely harmless.

One older, gentle-featured lady who prided herself on owning a weekend farm could yell obscenities into the phone just like the truck drivers her boss managed. A cute, hyper young girl and the office's token gay guy, who I actually knew from high school, provided most of the workday entertainment. And then there were all of the middle-aged clerks across the other side of our wide-open cubicle farm who spent their days doing work on their computers but gabbing on their phones to spouses and fellow co-workers upstairs.

As my days there dwindled down, I unsuccessfully applied for a low-level position with management potential in a department headed by one of the few executives in the office who never really liked me. I later learned that the vice president in charge of our facility was pressuring his mid-level managers to either find a position for me or get rid of me, because having a temp worker on his books for so long was making him look bad to the suits at corporate. So whatever her reason for not hiring me - whether bristling at some perceived pressure by her own boss or simply thinking I wasn't qualified - my days at the company were suddenly finite after months of establishing my presence there.

Perhaps it's just as well I didn't get the job, which after all, was with a huge corporation with a big-business culture and a high-pressure advancement system. My immediate boss - who didn't have a college degree - was expected to work 50 hours a week, and all of the career-tracker management trainees hired straight out of college were told 60 hours was the minimum. And a lot of those hours were spend doing far more manual labor than these sorority and fraternity-type business majors had expected.

Being a temp whose workload was a fuzzy mixture of clerical and administrative, with some significant responsibilities, I didn't fit the corporate mold. I had a college degree, but was on first-names basis with the janitors. If any of this was some sort of threat to the local management, then the reason eluded me. Which probably helps explain why, on my last day, I was so embarrassed.

Actually, It's Not All About You

It was like any typical Friday, walking in from the parking lot, through the security doors, taking a shortcut through the break room, and on into the long room housing the cubicle farm. As I continued to my own cubicle, I saw a long row of tables set up with food piled on them. And co-workers from all across the first floor gathering beside it with big smiles on their faces. It was a going-away party for me!

"We've never had a going-away party for a temp before," one of the secretaries explained, "but we had to give you one!"

I was stunned!

"We've never had a temp like you before," I remember someone else clarifying.

But before my ego could get too big, someone else sidled up next to me and put it all in context.

"Well, we're not really doing this just for you," she explained, a look of consternation on her face. "We're also trying to make a point in front of Mary Jones!" And by the way, Mary Jones is a pseudonym for the woman who didn't want to hire me.

Apparently, Mary had arrived at this facility with an attitude already in place and a chip on her shoulder. Few people liked her, and she liked even fewer people - all of them managers, of course. She towed the company line harder than some of her own superiors, and shocked everybody on 9/11 when she actually complained that the FAA had grounded all airplanes. Her husband was scheduled to fly somewhere for a meeting, and his flight couldn't depart. I was never sure if she was mad because her husband couldn't leave town, or make his meeting. At any rate, I remember her coming out of her office, announcing her disgust to nobody in particular, and the rest of us - already reeling from everything that was taking place on the East Coast - dumbfounded by her narcissism.

So when Mary didn't hire me, the office took it upon themselves to make some sort of statement. Which was made that much more emphatic when the office's second-in-command was the first to express his disappointment at my leaving, and then helped himself to the first plate of food.

Eventually, that afternoon, Mary did come by my cubicle and say she was sorry things didn't work out. And from an employment standpoint, I was too. From a philosophical standpoint, however, I wasn't.

All Things Come to an End

I've never regretted not staying on at that company. Working sixty hours a week for a 40-hour-a-week salary doesn't particularly thrill me. Surviving the rigors of management trainee boot camp so I can earn a six-figure income with even more hours on the clock doesn't excite me, either. Not that I've become independently wealthy writing blogs. But certain experiences in life help you hone down the things at which you excel from those at which you don't. And what you think is worthwhile.

The gay co-worker at the office who I'd known from high school committed suicide several months after I left. At his funeral, as I commiserated with all of our fellow co-workers who packed the small, fundamentalist Baptist church his parents attended, we expressed our grief at how somebody so young - remember, he was my age - could give up on life so soon.

I have my suspicions for his reasoning, but they have nothing to do with that company we worked for. At the same time, his job obviously didn't meet him where he needed to be met most. Any job is too inadequate to do that.

At least two of our former co-workers got divorced not long after his suicide. Not because of it, however. Several others were laid off during a merger with an affiliated company.

There were so many bad endings associated with this company. At least I got a party.

Even if it wasn't all about me.

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