Sunday, May 03, 2015

Inhuman Relations

It’s not often that I am moved to present the less-than coveted Inhuman Relations Award to companies who establish a new low in employee abuse.

I understand that there’s a never-ending tug-of-war between employees who feel overworked and under appreciated and management which views those same employees as a temporary nuisance, to be replaced much as you would change the oil in your car.

So acrimony abounds. Therefore, the winner of the IR Award has to register a big jolt on the Outrage Scale to gain consideration.

Indeed, the last company to be so honored was Northwest Airlines which offered some helpful suggestions to its employees who were being laid off.

Entitled "101 Ways to Save Money," the good folks at Northwest, motivated no doubt by pure paternalistic instincts, advised their soon-to-be-unemployed workers to buy jewelry at pawnshops, auto parts at junkyards and to take shorter showers.

Wait, there's more. The list included asking doctors for prescription drug samples, borrowing a dress "for a big night out" and giving children hand-me-down toys and clothes. Also suggested: "take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods," "write letters instead of calling" and "never grocery shop hungry" which seems like odd advice to give the newly poor.

And the capper: "Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash." Or as it’s more commonly referred to: dumpster diving.

American Airlines was also a winner when it gave huge bonuses to its top executives shortly after flight attendants, mechanics and pilots had agreed to give back hundreds of millions in salary and benefits to keep the company from bankruptcy.

The latest contender is Walmart, no stranger to employee abuse.

If you’ll recall, the giant retailer recently closed five of its stores, including one in Pico Rivera for “ongoing plumbing issues that will require extensive repairs.” It is estimated the stores with be closed for six months or longer.

The human cost: More than 500 employees lost their jobs in Pico Rivera and 2200 nationwide. In keeping with Walmart’s warm and fuzzy relationship with its “associates,” workers received no advance warning.

A Walmart spokesman said that workers were told once the Pico Rivera store reopened, they would have to reapply for jobs. You can bet that regardless of their job level and pay, it might be at minimum wage. Accrued vacation and benefits?  Forget it.

It was ham fisted and brutal, even by Walmart standards.

According to one report, the Pico Rivera store underwent a $500,000 refurbishment over the last year, during which it didn't have to be closed--a refurbishment that included the restrooms and the grocery department.

In the meantime, this paper reported that the company has not yet asked for any building permits, which may be required for major work.

So while the mystery deepens, rumors surrounding the closure range from the plausible to the preposterous.

Plausible: The closures were a form of "union-busting" activity intended to get rid workers who were publicly critical of Walmart's labor practices, such as employees of the Pico Rivera store who went on strike in 2012 over "issues of scheduling, pay, benefits, part-time work, unfair treatment and discrimination throughout the country."

Preposterous: The closed Walmart stores will be used as "food distribution centers" and housing for "invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans."

However you want to slice it, a lot of people are out of a job. And as they were being ushered out the back door, Walmart handed them a publication giving them advice on how to deal with the living hell their lives are about to become.

“Care for yourself by eating well, exercising and resting when needed. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate and nicotine and depressants such as alcohol.” Advising someone who had just been blindsided by a job loss to eat well and rest raises callousness to unseen levels.

“Give yourself time to recover. Difficulties with concentration, memory or decision-making are common but short-term reactions.” So are anger,frustration and disillusionment which unfortunately are more often long-term.

“Remember, that difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of being hyper-alert are common and will diminish in time.” Time is a luxury a laid-off worker with a family to feed can’t afford. Those pesky mental health issues will just have to wait.

Now, take that advice and apply it to Jenny Mills, a nine-year employee of the Pico Rivera store before it shut down. As Mills explained it in an interview with Gawker:

I already couldn’t pay my rent or feed myself and my husband on the pay I was getting. So I’d already lost my apartment and was living in my car in their parking lot, and now I don’t know if I even have a job to go back to. It’s just gotten so ridiculous, and they didn’t give me any real help.

“[The managers] told me to go find somewhere to live, and that there would be a possibility for funding from corporate if I did. But no apartment is willing to take you before you can actually pay. I told Walmart I’d need the money for an apartment ahead of time, but they said no, they don’t do it that way.”

Walmart has not only won the Inhuman Relations Award. They may have retired it.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

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