Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Breaking Up -- Or, "I Can't HEAR You"

Over my lifetime, we've all kept trying to break up with AT&T.  But, just as with any abusive relationship, they always come back with promises and lies.  And instead of making them stay away, the judge tells us to just go home and cook up a nice steak and AT&T will treat us better.

And for awhile, they do.  They lower rates and offer more services, give us better ways to communicate with them and improve repair times.  But then the old ways creep back in.

I live out in the boonies, ten miles from gas and groceries, and about three miles from any cell phone service.  This makes me a captive customer with an AT&T landline; in a hopelessly naive attempt to make the most of a bad situation, I also have AT&T internet, all bundled with Direct TV.

You might think that a telecommunications company, especially one as humongous and long-lived as AT&T would be able to get some things right, like, for example, communications.  But size means not having to say, well, anything.

When I lost my internet service eight days ago, it was mildly disruptive, but it's happened often enough that I turned off the computer and tried again the next day, at which time I had service, although somewhat spotty.  We who share our lives with AT&T understand that sometimes we just try to be grateful for anything we can get.  But the following day I learned from people who had been trying to reach me that I had also lost phone service.  Now I understood why I hadn't been hearing from all those robocallers, telemarketers, and hang-ups that usually keep me jumping up and running across the house just in case someone I care about is trying to contact me.

Anyway, here's the thing.  My internet is coming and going, mostly a few minutes at a time.  I have a cell phone that I have to drive several miles toward civilization in order to use.  And I have a landline that is dead silent, and yields a busy signal to anyone trying to call me.

And as if my relatively simple life weren't complicated enough, exactly one week earlier, I had pulled a muscle in my leg and been in serious pain and having difficulty walking.  I was waiting for a call-back from my orthopedist for an appointment, which of course never came.

It would be logical, under the circumstances, to attempt to go to AT&T online and send a message to their repair department.  NOT SO FAST.  There is no email address available.  Good luck finding a link to their repair department.  But look -- here are phone numbers to call if your PHONE ISN'T WORKING.

Eventually, I was able to use my gmail phone to call, and each time wended my way through their evil menu only to lose my internet connection.  Even at times having actually reached a human.  And sadly, my cheerful demeanor diminished with each attempt.

Finally giving up that plan, I attempted an online "chat."  Except that you can't do an online "chat" if it's your phone that needs repair.  You can only do an online "chat" if it's your internet that's not working.  Go figure.  This is the kind of illogic for which we all love AT&T.

The faceless, voiceless helper, when I explained that my internet seemed to be working but I had no phone service, proceeded to give me instructions on how to troubleshoot -- my internet connection.  In the hope that these two troubles were connected, and that she actually understood the problem, I ran around the house giving her modem numbers and checking things called filters, all of which seemed to be working at the time.  Then she had me change a half dozen internet settings.  For this I can only be glad that I did not lose internet service in the midst of this operation.  When she was done she told me to keep an eye on this for 24 hours.  And when I asked her about my dysfunctional phone, she gave me a link to att.com/repair.  Which I guess she could have done in the beginning.

But, ever the optimist, I went to att.com/repair, filled out my phone number, hit continue and went... nowhere.

That's right, the actual repair site link wasn't working.

Next step was to drive out three plus miles and call their repair number.  When the robot answered, it gave me back my cell phone number and asked if that was the number I was calling about (this is important).  After answering several stupid questions, I decided to cut through the nonsense by yelling "help!" and "human!" and "no, damn it!"  Until the robot said, "Are you saying you want an "agent?"  "Yes" I said in relief.  At which it began to ask me the same stupid questions we'd already been through.  By now I was yelling "AGENT, damn it!" in increasing volume, until finally it told me to hold my horses, it would connect me to the next available agent.

Then there was a five-minute wait in which I was compelled to listen to not only bad music, but a tape that was so worn (or a connection so bad) that the sound faded out every couple of seconds.  There I was parked at one of two intersections on this tiny island, hoping to be heard at some point over all the trucks that were driving by, dumbfounded by the amount of traffic on this road to nowhere.  And when the agent did come on and started asking me stupid questions again, I was just not a happy AT&T customer.

Now, I am not making this up.  After a very short time, in which I was trying to communicate the fact that I was calling from the road because I have no phone service at home and no cell service where I live, we were interrupted by NOISE ON THE PHONE LINE.  At which time the agent asked me for a callback number.

First response, "I have no idea what my cell phone number is."  NOTE:  just as when you answer twenty questions knowing full well you are talking to someone who has all those answers sitting on a screen right in front of them, I later recalled that the robot had recited the number I was calling from when I called.  But I was too distraught to remember this, and either my agent was having too much fun, or only robots are allowed to know what number you are calling from.

Second response:  "I am calling from a road three miles from my home, because I don't have cell service at home.  I am calling because my home phone is not working.  I am not going to be sitting here in the street waiting for a call back."

At which point my "agent" got even more snippy.  I said, "Can't you just send out a repair person?" to which she replied (on Wednesday) that they would send someone out on the following Monday.  And I'm sure she was smirking when she added, "And if they have to come in the house there will be an $85 charge."

Let me conclude this tale by saying that those poor underpaid, understaffed and no doubt undertrained people who answer the phone (and online "chat") are not at fault.  They are being paid not to help but to waylay frustrated customers like myself.  I can't blame them for getting defensive about the fact that AT&T has not given them tools with which they can actually help customers.

Turns out, and not surprisingly, that the hero to this story was the repairman who came out Sunday afternoon in torrential rain to find the problem.  He was knowledgeable and helpful, and I just hope they were paying him enough.  Although my guess would be that, compared to the boobs that make the decisions that run that pitiful company, he is getting a fraction of his worth.

Back when I lived on Long Island, residents were victims of The Long Island Lighting Company.  There in the latter part of the twentieth century, we lost power at least once a week all for rates that were exorbitant.  Periodically the people of Long Island would raise hell and try to take over the utility.  Long Island Lighting Company -- LILCO as they were fondly known -- responded with neat new advertising campaigns and eventually just changed their name to LIPA, Long Island Power Authority, as though donning a disguise.  My favorite was the pencils they handed out with their name printed on them.  At the end of the pencil, instead of an eraser, was a little plastic light bulb.  I think the symbolism of removing something essential and utilitarian from an object in order to replace it with something cute and useless was a perfect metaphor for LILCO.

LILCO - You Have a Bright Future!

I see a lot of similarities between the business models of AT&T and LILCO.  In fact, when you logon to AT&T their motto:  "Rethink Possible" comes up in a very pretty image.  But I hear that they are considering changing that slogan.  I would like to make a suggestion:

AT&T - Possible but Unlikely

Friday, February 21, 2014

It's Not About the MINIMUM Wage

The argument against raising the minimum wage is just too intense and dogmatic.  It doesn't make sense.  Why would people argue so vehemently to keep people in poverty, while raising the minimum wage would lower dependence on government services AND result in more spending?  Seems like a win-win.

But every time the subject of raising the minimum wage comes up republicans in Congress begin to moan and wail.  For ten years, from 1997 to 2007, the minimum wage was set at a ridiculous $5.15 an hour.  The highly questionable "tipped worker" minimum wage -- if you receive more than $30 per month in tips this means you -- is now, in 2014, what it has been since 1991:  a whopping $2.13 per hour.

Working well within the fact-free zone, republicans talk about how important it is for teens to work hard to develop character.  Doesn't matter that one-third of minimum wage workers are over 40.  Ditto for the fact that the cost to fill a gas tank -- much less maintain a car -- makes it nearly impossible for a minimum wage worker to get to  that low-paying job.  And it's not like republicans are offering ways for low-wage workers to pay the bills -- they oppose any initiative from food stamps to health care to college education -- that might help a worker survive the abysmal financial hardship of their employment.

Yet we all know that when the minimum wage has gone up, things have gotten better.  After all the Sturm und Drang, workers spend more money, businesses do more business, employers hire more workers, workers spend more money and the spiral keeps moving upward.  Until, that is, minimum wage has once again failed to keep up with costs.

So why all the fuss?  I don't think that the fight against raising the minimum wage has all that much to do with minimum wage workers.  The thing is, when the minimum wage goes up, workers who are at levels above the minimum wage also will get a bump in pay.  The rising tide in fact does raise all boats, and this is what all the fuss is about.  Those in the middle class who are struggling also have a tremendous amount to gain in this fight, and that is exactly what corporate America is paying our legislators to fight.

Unfortunately, this remains a well kept secret.  We keep hearing -- and rightly so -- about those who are unable to survive on the minimum wage.  But this argument doesn't mean much to those who are also struggling to make ends meet, but are earning more than the minimum wage.  So many of us who are caught up in our own financial battles, while the one percent is pulling the strings, need to understand that this fight to raise the minimum wage is a fight to raise the wages and standard of living of all of us.

It has been proven, and will be again, that this is a fight we all need to weigh in on, loudly and passionately.  When the working poor win, so do we all.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thankful...I'm Not Working on Thanksgiving

When I was working at the library, and good Christian stores like Walmart began to open on Thanksgiving Day, I recall standing there with my mouth open when a co-worker -- we had Friday off as well as Thanksgiving -- talked about going shopping on Thanksgiving Day.  And when I talked to her about how that meant other people couldn't spend Thanksgiving with their families, she replied that she just liked to go shopping.

In what can only be seen as the ultimate in irony, this year Walmart has taken up a collection among employees to help other Walmart employees who are unable to afford a Thanksgiving dinner.

I'll just bet that asking their employees to donate is Walmart execs' un-ironic solution to the growing criticism that Walmart expects the government to subsidize their low wages.

The other solution of course is making employees work on Thanksgiving Day.

This nonsense began a number of years ago with those openings in the wee hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving (no I won't call it Black Friday, although it is an apt name for all the wrong reasons).  No matter that people stood in line in the cold and dark for hours for a good deal on a TV; it was well worth it.  A carnival atmosphere.  And if a few people got stomped and had to be hospitalized, it was all in a good cause -- big savings.

But the real deal is that employees had to be available in those wee hours, cutting short a visit to family, or with family, on Thanksgiving, all so that those profit-craving corporations could cut into the profits of others that began Friday sales during business hours.

Who is surprised that the next infringement on those lowest paid of workers is on Thanksgiving Day itself?  Does it matter if the stores don't open till six p.m.?  For those of us that don't have to work on the holiday, can you imagine having that hanging over you throughout your family meal?  And forget about that after dinner nap, Walmart needs you.

Walmart may have been the first, but in true 21st century capitalist spirit, others have been quick to jump on the bandwagon.  And opening time is creeping upward, with Toys 'r' Us opening at 5 p.m.  And getting the Dirtbag of the Season Award is K-Mart, opening Thanksgiving morning and remaining open through Friday.

This may be the year for Thanksgiving Sales Creep by creepy corporations, but it is also the year of growing awareness of the crisis -- and shame -- of shoddy treatment of low-wage workers.  Corporations with continued high profits are counting on government dollars to subsidize their workers, with food stamps and Medicaid.  We pay with tax dollars, and also insurance premiums when the uninsured sick end up in emergency rooms.

But this is Thanksgiving.  What it costs us is not the point, although that will be what moves the debate.

What we need to remember this week is that there are workers who are paid so little they cannot afford Thanksgiving dinner.  And many of those are expected to work hours most of us are not:  nights, Sundays, holidays.  And that that holiday which has been held most sacred as a day for family to gather has been subverted to corporate profit.

We can say no.  We can boycott the Walmarts and K-Marts and give our business to those who respect their employees by giving a living wage with benefits and time off to spend with family -- or just napping on the sofa -- a day with no work.  Locate the stores which refuse to open on Thanksgiving Day, and be sure to give them your business during this holiday season, and let them know you are doing it.

And for goodness sake, if you run out of milk on Thanksgiving Day, drink your coffee black.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hiding the Poor

In the US we've gotten quite good at keeping the poor out of sight.  Also, disguised.  They are not merely segregated into parts of town we tend not to visit.  These days they wear the Wal-Mart frock, serve us french fries, and clean our hotel rooms.

And we are pretty out of touch about how poor our working poor are.  I recently was talking to some family members about tipping hotel housekeepers.  I had read a book that shocked me by saying that a reasonable tip per night was $2-$3.  All these years, I had been overtipping with $5 tips, assuming that the woman who cleans my tub and toilet deserves at least that.

My son-in-law contested that they actually make a good salary.  I did quite the double-take.  He's a fairly recent college grad making a nice living in computers.  I told him that I was pretty sure these women made salaries not much above minimum wage.  Since this was a friendly, happily inebriated last-day-of-my-visit, we soon went on to other subjects.

Since I've been home, though, I've been mulling this over.  Today, I found some statistics.

Indeed, with the exception of a few states like New York, the wages hover around $20,000.  And I would guess that the big city in those states tip the scale a bit.

So this career path, which involves doing the kind of job that I don't even like to do in my own home, and for hotel guests that are probably often not as neat and considerate as I am, also likely involves not being able to pay one's bills, and not being able to afford extras, like buying a pizza to take home to the kids at the end of a long shift.  I would imagine the benefits do not include sick pay and paid vacation either.

And invisible?  How often do we actually know who is doing this scut work for us?  Unlike a waiter, you can skimp on the housekeeper's tip and never have to look her in the eye.

My point being that this is shameful.  And that maybe the worst thing about this situation is that we are able to not know that it exists.  And this is how we successfully hide our poor.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Good Employer Award

You've probably heard of some of the awards they give out on the other side.  Our own SC legislators are always getting awards, including pictures all over the local papers and on their websites, for some noble cause or another.  Just last year Tim Scott got the Standing Up for Seniors Award.  Why they even remember to honor the little guy -- Peter McCoy proudly touted his Peas & Carrots Award during his debate for state representative last year.

You and I both know that behind all those fine sounding names lurk groups of fat cats whose real purpose is to continue to push for things like repealing social security and the right to continue to decimate the environment.

But it works.  Voters think Tim Scott is up there at the capitol working hard for seniors, and not just the seniors who run the big corporations.  Here in Charleston, the folks at that debate were impressed that an "environmental group" would give Peter McCoy an award for his work on saving our beautiful lowcountry.

I think we need to recognize -- and I mean loudly, publicly, recognize -- those who truly do fight for us.

A group that comes to mind is made of up the small business owners who are not currently whining about the Affordable Care Act.  There actually are employers who feel strongly about providing a living wage with decent benefits for those who work to make their company grow.  There are employers who understand that, even though these are tough economic times and the cost of just about everything is going up, the place to cut corners is not by hurting the people working for you.

There are employers who respect their employees, and I believe that if you respect your employees, you respect your customers.

And so, I propose that you out there who have the know-how, create some awards, and then give them to those good employers.  Maybe a Good Citizen Award, but with a fancier title.  And then use all your contacts to get those employers' names out to the public, so we can continue the good by giving our business to those that deserve it.

I for one would rather pay a few cents more to Costco, whose management thinks it's important that their employees have health care than to the criminals who run Wal-Mart.  Money talks, and I'm thinking that once the word begins to spread, the Wal-marts will start to see their employees as humans and not just commodities.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Help Us Serve You Better

I'm getting asked to take a lot of Customer Satisfaction Surveys these days.  Pretty much anything I do online, from Expedia to eBay to Snapfish, wants me to take a survey.  Not so much about the product, although they do ask cursory questions about whatever you've bought, but about how satisfied you were with the service.

I have decided pretty much without consciously deciding, that I would answer every question regarding my treatment by an employee, by giving the highest score possible.

Because I believe these surveys are a pretense.  I believe the surveys are a means to minimize the things we are most concerned about, like the actual item we have just bought, by allowing us to "give input."  And by asking about our "customer service experience" any problem we have with for example the price of the purchase gets deflected and thus diffused.

I took such a survey after a visit to Lowe's about a year ago.  This was a result of two things:  I wanted to let management know about a very helpful employee, and I went online and attempted to do that.  What I ended up with, instead of the opportunity to actually contact a human and describe my experience, was a survey.  And the questions infuriated me.

See if you recognize any of these "Customer Satisfaction Survey" questions.

Did the staff greet you in a warm and friendly manner?  If you asked about the location of a product, did the employee give you verbal instructions or take you to the product?  Did the employee tell you to have a nice day and come again?

Our own idiot governor here in South Carolina, Nikki Haley, has forced any of the state employees who have the (I think) unhappy job of answering the phone to say, "It's a great day in South Carolina, how can I help you?"  And at the library where I worked we were told to answer the phone with, "Good morning, this is (me) at the ________ Branch, how can I help you?"

I have a lot of problems with all that nonsense.  First of all, if I call you with a question, you don't have to be happy to talk to me, as long as you are attempting to answer the question I'm going to ask you.  You don't have to tell me your name, because that's not relevant to what I've called you about either.  And when you have to give a speech before I can ask my question, I'm either not listening or by the time you're done I'm not going to remember what I called about in the first place.

And for the record, I don't believe for one minute it's a great day in South Carolina, because I know where we stand in education, health care, and income compared to the rest of the country.

To get back to the "Customer Satisfaction Survey," it is appalling enough that we work people harder for less pay and fewer benefits than most other "civilized" countries.  Employers now believe they have the right to force their employees to not only do their work well, but be personable and popular.  All the damned time.

Have a sick child at home because you can't take the day off?  Car broke down on the way to work and your boss is ticked off because you're late?  Just found out your spouse lost his/her job?  Your back aches because you've been standing for 2,3,4 or more hours?

Just keep smiling and acting like the coolest thing in your day is listening to me go on and on and on about some nonsense.  Or asking you stupid questions.  Or complaining about something that you have absolutely nothing to do with.

You'll never get questions like that about your Wall Street banker, or about your Congressman.  Or about the CEO of whatever company actually determines the quality of the goods or services you have purchased.

For that matter, while teachers get rated by everyone from their principal to their students, the principals never have to suffer that indignity, although many certainly should.  As a parent, you can complain about the principal or the superintendent, but neither you nor the teachers that bear the brunt of bad management will be able to take a "Customer Satisfaction Survey" detailing the ways those particular employees have done their jobs. 

If you're my age you'll remember the old airline commercials, from back when those folk working in the aisles were called "stewardesses." With a wink and a smile, the stewardess on that commercial suggested that you -- honestly -- "Fly me!"  Well, we have come full circle, and if you work with customers, forget about dignity and respect.  You are the front line, and you aren't even allowed to defend yourself.

So when I am asked about whether the hotel room was clean enough, or whether I was asked if there was anything else I needed, or if I was told to "Have a nice day," the answer is always yes, and the rating is always the top rating.

Because these people who are out there trying to do their best to for god's sake keep their jobs, they are us.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Let Me Give You a Little Tip

While I was away last week, I was giving some thought to the matter of tipping.  I think it started when I noted the tip jar as I got myself an ice cream cone.  I didn't leave a tip, although I'm told I should have.

There is a book about tips and tipping that was recently written by a former waiter, who made a name for himself after writing a restaurant tell-all anonymously and then saying, "what the hell" and going public.  All I know about tipping has to do with restaurant dining-in.  I have always wondered if I was tipping maids enough, and how much to tip someone who carries my luggage or drives a taxi, as well as someone who carries my luggage into and out of the taxi he (she) is driving.  Keep the Change seemed like it might have the answers.

What it did have was not as much entertainment as the first book by Dublanica, but some surprises.  He did attempt to entertain, himself and his readers, by dealing with tipping people like strippers.  And most of his information had to do with tipping people I'll never want or need to employ, like limo drivers (that are taking you to visit strippers).

The essential point that I took from the book was that the harder you work, the less of a tip you are warranted.

Imagine my surprise to learn that when I leave a maid $5 a day, I am overtipping.  I mean, it takes her more time to clean my tub and toilet than for a parking attendant to park my car.  And for another thing, it is a far more disgusting job, and to my mind, therefore deserving of greater appreciation.

Not so.  According to Dublanica, a maid should get $2 to $3 per day, while the parking attendant could get $5, especially if you want him to take good care of your car, and be really attentive to you.

A good barista, one who really knows how to draw that lovely dollop of whatever onto your caffeinated beverage, deserves a dollar for that fancy (and overpriced) coffee; a bartender gets a dollar for the drink.  Basically, that's half of what your maid gets for cleaning your entire room.

And how about the guy who served me my ice cream cone? Why on earth do places like that (or that "coffee bar") solicit tips?  I think it goes way back to why we tip Pullman porters, which is that originally they were freed slaves and of course weren't paid anything like a living wage, so the Pullman Company had the genius idea of convincing passengers to tip the man.

And so, increasingly, whenever an employer doesn't pay living wages, you are likely to find a tip jar.  And yet...

You're going to tip that ice cream guy, right?  But do you tip the high school student -- or the "retired" senior -- at McDonald's?  My guess is no, even though they are likely to be earning the same or less than the ice cream guy.

And my favorite story about tips is the idiot in the Louisiana legislature who introduced a bill making it illegal for library workers to accept a plate of cookies from a patron.  And you might want to check for yourself; it is quite likely that they earn less than the ice cream guy.

So what is my point?  I really dislike tip jars, because what it means these days is that the employees are not making adequate wages.  Here we are in a country where one percent of individuals can't shovel their profits into tax havens fast enough, and our less-than-esteemed members of Congress are afraid that raising the minimum wage would destroy our economy.  (Is that a paean to small business I hear?)

It also pisses me off that the harder you work, the less you are seen to be deserving of a tip, and the smaller a tip needs  to be.

We need to take a good look at people like farm workers and maids, child care workers and fast food employees.  Because right here and now they are invisible.  They aren't even the tier that guilt us into giving a decent tip.

As far as tipping, it has become, much like the Pullman days, the means by which employers squeeze more profit, and the way we make those who do an honest day's work beg to be paid.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to leave 20 percent to my waiter,  because it's an old habit, and I'll leave $3 a day to the maid, although I really believe she deserves more.  The barista?  I'd as soon leave the harried McDonald's worker a dollar than pay a dollar for a cup of coffee, but I won't do that either.

What I really want to do is stop having to be one of the persons who decide whether you are going to go home with an adequate day's pay.  It's time for employers to recognize and compensate, and stop whining about the cost to do business.