What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Handholding. If you’re a “professional” well into middle age and need constant hand holding and reassurance, perhaps you’ve got into the wrong career field. I don’t have the time or inclination to sooth your forehead with a cool rag and assure you that everything really will be alright. You might be the most important player in your own drama, but I can promise you’re not carrying enough rank or influence to convince me to give much of a shit before I write you off as a whiny sonofabitch and consign your future efforts to the ever growing file of received, but unread email.

2. $15 an hour. Want $15 an hour, you can start by doing a good job to begin with. The last three times I’ve been through a particular fast food joint they’ve gotten the order wrong – wrong size, wrong item, and then the last time, the whole order, fries included, dumped loose into the bag. I went in to complain about that last one. The manager looked like she couldn’t be bothered, her blank stare clearly not comprehending why I wasn’t satisfied. Pay rates should, in part, reflect the level of difficulty of the job and the quality with which it is performed. Why anyone expects a 100% raise for what seems to be an increasingly abysmal level of service is well and truly beyond me. Maybe think about earning that raise, you’d be amazed how good it feels to have a little self respect instead of getting something for nothing.

3. Interest rates. Mortgage interest rates are bumping along towards or at historic lows. They currently make the first mortgage I got 20+ years ago look almost usurious by comparison. The problem is mostly that the rates are low enough now that it’s starting to tempt me towards refinancing the mortgage on the ol’ homestead. Without fully running the numbers, I’ve got to think there are a few dollars to be saved if I can drop my rate a couple quarters of a percent. And that’s when I start to remember the absolute rage-inducing process that accompanies mortgage refinancing… and I’m left wondering if any kind of savings is really worth going through it unnecessarily. I’ll be off to the next place well before I pay off the note on the current house. The less crazy making course of action may well be keeping what’s already a respectably low interest rate and just ignoring the promise of a few less dollars flowing out every month, tempting though it is.

Twelve hour days…

There was a time in my career I would have done back flips about the possibility of working 12-hour shifts. The work week that consists of basically three days on four off, the possibility of a steady supply of overtime, night differential, and holiday pay. Now that I’ve over-topped my projected career halfway point, though, the idea is less appealing on just about every level.

I’ve never wanted or expected something for nothing. I don’t mind doing the work in exchange for the pay… but in any duration that stretches on for much more than eight hours, I lose interested and focus at an alarming, perhaps even exponential, rate.

I’m not shy about telling anyone that I’ve long since reached the point in life where, with a handful of possible exceptions, the only place I really want to be is home. I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of money just to have those four walls and a roof. There are dogs and a cat and a tortoise there. The furniture is comfortable. I control the temperature and in a pinch can even make my own electricity. I’ve spent a half a lifetime filling the space with objects of at least personal significance. If it wasn’t the place I most wanted to be, I’d be concerned that I was doing something completely wrong.

I suppose that’s all a long way of saying that I’m going to take a pass at “volunteering” my name for the short list of people who might be willing to sign up for 12-hour days at some indeterminate point in a possible future.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The First Amendment. It’s plain that the First Amendment doesn’t mean what the masses on the internet seem to think it means. The 1st protects you from the government interfering with your speech in all its many forms. It means the FBI won’t come kick down your door when someone gets butthurt about something you posted on Facebook. By contrast this amendment has absolutely nothing to do with what a business such as Facebook will let you post on their platform… that you joined voluntarily and pay nothing to use. If you’re going to crusade for your rights, perhaps it would be helpful to first know what those rights actually are… because the Constitution nowhere guarantees your right to force a 3rd party to use their property to amplify your voice.

2. The Office of Personnel Management. It’s been 41 days since the bill authorizing a pay raise for employees of my Big Bureaucratic Organization was signed into law. It apparently takes at least that long to calculate what 1.9% of 2018’s pay tables were and add those two numbers together. And don’t get me started on the fact that if the legislative and executive branches weren’t both being led by children, that raise would have started showing up my pay sometime in January. Yes it’s allegedly retroactive, which is nice and all… but that also means the tax man is going to take a massive cut out of whatever check three or four months of retroactive extra pay eventually slide into. If only there were some parts of government who’s main job was formulating and executing timely budgets for departments and agencies perhaps this wouldn’t be such a difficult exercise.

3. Extraneous logins. I have accounts on more than one system at work that exist purely so I can log on to those systems once a week in order to keep my account active. I never have any actual work associated with those accounts and yet once a week I log on just to avoid getting an angry warning that my account is about to be disabled from our IT office. Like the old coffee can full of extraneous bits and pieces you keep in the garage, I’m told to keep these accounts active “in case you need them some day.” That this is how we do business never fails to stupefy me if I dwell on it for too long.

My 16th year…

Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of my life in sworn service to our mad uncle. People say that time flies when you’re having fun, but in my experience having fun is entirely optional. Time just flies. Well, more specifically, the years seem to fly. Individual days feel like they might well last for weeks on end. It’s when they get rolled up into their individual 365-count bundles that they race away from you.

From my vantage point here as a solidly mid-career bureaucrat, I won’t pretend there haven’t been some good times. A few of them are probably only good in retrospect and with the benefit of distance from the facts, but that’s probably to be expected. Over the last 16 years I’ve been privileged to meet some of the smartest human beings I’ve ever known. I’ve also met more than a few sniveling, conniving, climbers who I’d happily shank in a dark alley if I ever got the chance – and thought I could get away clean. Not one of that bunch is worth going to prison over, though I hope I’m still around when they inevitably overreach.

About once a year someone on the outside asks if I’d recommend government work. A decade ago I’d have said yes. Government work isn’t going to make you rich, but the pay doesn’t suck, the health and retirement plans are good, and you never have to worry about your employer going out of business. It was a haven for those who value stability – a place of low risk and correspondingly modest rewards. After a decade of living through multiple hiring freezes, multiple pay freezes, and multiple government shutdowns, though, I couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience these days.

Uncle is no longer a stable employer – pay and benefits are just another political football at risk every year. If you’re going to live with that much uncertainty, you might as well go work in the private sector where you might have a chance at making some real money for assuming the risk that your company or contract won’t be there a year from now. I won’t go so far as saying that both options are equal – but the assessment of whether public service or the private sector is a better place to have a career feels like more of a dice roll now that it has in the last 16 years.

In a few months I’ll climb over the halfway point on the long road to whatever retirement might look like in or about 2035. That feels like a far more important milestone than yesterday’s just passing another year on the job. Who knows, maybe my mood will even improve. Probably not, but it would be a neat trick if it did.

And we’re back…

Assuming I keep up with it so long, I think I can safely say that this blog will expire on or about the day I retire. It turns out that when I don’t have the job sucking every ounce of fun out of five days each week, I really just don’t have that much to say. That explains the spotty schedule of posting I maintained over the last couple of weeks. Not only didn’t I have much to say, but I had virtually no interest in sitting down and writing up whatever was rattling around in my head. It turns out you don’t need much catharsis when you don’t have something agitating the hell out of you on a regular basis.

The good news, or bad news, depending on your perspective is that the days of not needing to vent my spleen on a regular basis are still far off in the future. Now that we’re back on the normal schedule, I have a feeling that my notebook will soon be refilled with all manner of angst-causing stories just begging to be told.

Look, I’m thankful for the pay check – and glad I’m not one of those poor bastards at State, or Treasury, or Homeland Security either working for nothing or stuck sitting around waiting and wondering when the next direct deposit is going to hit. That shouldn’t put anyone under the delusion that there’s nothing I’d rather being doing than clearing two weeks worth of emails from my inbox while scouring them for the one or two nuggets that might need some actual attention.

We’re back… and that’s probably a good thing in that long march out towards the back half of this career… but don’t think for a minute I’m not missing the long, lazy days when a few critters and a good book was more than enough to fill the passing hours.

The Gods on Olympus are in the process of rolling out a new pay system. Right now they’re in the phase of that process where they’re going all out to sell it as a step ahead and “in the best interests of the workforce.” That means lots of memos and meetings about what we can expect to get out of this new system. They’re trying to get employee buy in – acquiescence if not consensus. In my experience the only reason anyone ever does that is because some special expert on management theory has told them it’s important.

I’ve been on the job now just shy of 15 years. Most of that time I’ve worked under the old General Schedule, the pay tables that have racked and stacked bureaucrats since 1949. The General Schedule is dull stuff. Movement through the pay table is predictable based on your grade and years of service. For a hot minute in the late 2000s, I lurked a while under the National Security Personnel System before it faded away ingloriously as a massively expensive but failed program. Since then, I’ve again been a creature of the general schedule.

I’ve been around long enough to come to appreciate dull and predictable when it comes to how your pay is governed. Fancy new systems with layer upon layer of review, no transparency about how your final rating is arrived at, and no way to predict from year to year how much money might be available in the pot to pay out “performance bonuses” make me all kinds of nervous and jerky. Experience tells me that if the big bosses are trying to sell something this hard, it’s a good time to put my hand on my wallet so I can make sure their’s doesn’t get there first.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

If you’ve been sitting around this Thursday night wondering What Annoys Jeff this Week and what on earth could be holding up this nearly 300 week long running regular feature, the simple fact is there is nothing currently annoying me. I’ve met my favorite band, had some delightfully good food, spent a great deal of time with the animals, and done a bit of reading. The largest single factor that drives nearly all the things that annoy me has simply not been present this week and all has been well. 

There’s probably an important life lesson in that, but due to my interest in not being foreclosed on and forced to live under a bridge, it’s a lesson I’m not in a position to act upon. Maybe I’m actually annoyed this week after all. 

Lost count…

In my 13+ years of service I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been reorganized. Half a dozen is the “for sure” number and if I were guessing there are probably two or three more occasions that I’ve mentally blocked out. Technically, reorganizations don’t have to be a bad thing. Theoretically they should be employed to achieve some long term goal like improving the efficiency of operations or to refocus an office on areas that historically are part of their core mission set. Good ideas, those. Unfortunately, what a reorg usually means, though, is that someone, somewhere has no other idea what to do so changing the lines on the wire diagram is the logical place to start. If things aren’t broken already, you can always count on a reorg to bend them till they are cracked and bleeding…   It’s got to be the oldest make work project in government.

So it seems we’ll be at the old games again. New desk, new boss, new mission, new projects, but the same old faces and ever aging technology. But then the pay’s the same and it’s the same eight hour day that it’s always been. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter if it matters… as long as the checks don’t bounce on every alternate Thursday.

Just a theory…

I won’t presume to speak for all the vast sweep of humanity, but sometimes I just hit a point in the day where no amount of additional effort is going to create any significant gains. It’s like trying to accelerate to the speed of light. Getting close is easy enough if you’ve got the right equipment, but getting that last little punch of speed requires the application of infinitely more energy. The problem being, of course, that it’s (under our current understanding of how the universe works) impossible to supply any system with infinite energy.

I hit just such a wall at 2:56 this afternoon. I mean I just hit a spot in the day that I couldn’t power through no matter how much coffee or sugar I poured into the system. My brain laid down a very clear line of demarcation, letting me know that I’d go no further. Maybe with a little more time I could have found a way to circle around and come at the day from a different angle, but with end of the day closing in, a new avenue of approach wasn’t really an option anyway.

Under the circumstances, the only thing to do was stiffen my upper lip and ride through the last hour of the day trying not to make waves or get noticed. My brain just wouldn’t answer the helm this afternoon and for a guy who pays the bills based on what the ol’ brain box puts out, it’s damned humbling experience. I’m going to write it off to being a problem transitioning to Daylight Saving Time and not as a harbinger of a God awful week waiting to happen. Check back with me on Friday to see how well that theory holds up.

Bare minimum…

The year was 1994, or approximately the end of the last ice age. I was 16 years old, worked 20 hours a week and McDonald’s, and minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. Flash forward to 1998. I was 20, worked about 16 hours a week as a student dispatcher, and made $5.15 an hour. Jump two years into the future. I was 22, worked 40 hours a week as a first year teacher and made $15.38 an hour. Climb into the Way Back Machine for one more ride to 2008. I was 30 years old, with an undergraduate degree and an MBA, working for Uncle Sam, and making a multiple of $15 an hour.

So what’s my point? Nothing much other than giving you a little background and assuring you that when I say working in fast food and making minimum wage sucks, that it’s a situation I know a little something about. It sucks a lot. As someone who cleaned grease traps, unloaded truckloads of frozen foods, and filtered the fryers, I’m uniquely postured to say that with a degree of authority. Although the job sucks, I can’t bring myself to see that it sucks badly enough to justify paying basically the same wage I made as a first year teacher. After all, that job sucks for a whole different list of reasons… and not just that, it requires a 4-year degree, testing, certification, and a relatively clean criminal background check. Yes, dare I say it, teaching is more important work than flipping burgers and the compensation should be commensurate with that.

There is nothing in my experience of working minimum wage jobs that tells me anyone should make $15 an hour based on the work’s level of difficulty. Of course level of difficulty really isn’t the argument. In all the cases I’ve heard, the reason is simply that they should make $15 an hour because they need more money. I hear ya, brothers and sisters. I need more money too. But you see, I never “just” worked my part time minimum wage job and expected it to be enough to get by. I cut grass in the summers and shoveled snow in the winters. I collected aluminum cans and cashed them in for pennies. That was all side work on top being a pretty successful full time student and on top of my part time job. Even now that I’m outside that $15 an hour range, I’m not above picking up cans from the side of the road, or taking on an occasional side job, or writing a damned book about my experiences and selling it online.

Let’s be brutally honest, there aren’t many of us who are working as hard as our grandparents did. I’ve never come out of deep mine after eight hours underground coated in coal dust. My young life wasn’t put on hold to take four years off to go liberate Europe. I’m not up at 4AM to milk the cows. I’ll bet most of the fast food workers who think they need $15 an hour aren’t any of these things either. And for the record, I’m not saying they should be doing those things. All I’m saying is that what I really want to see is what they’re doing to improve their employment options beyond holding up a sign and demanding more money. Not everyone needs to go to college and get a job wearing a tie, but if you’re strolling around waiting for your CEO to pay you more just because you think it’s what you deserve, well, I hope you’re dressed warm because you’re in for a long wait.

Maybe you can’t put a value on a human life, but the market can damned sure put a value on the work we do with the life we’re given. It’s up to each of us to maximize what our labor is worth… and if you personally find it worth $15 an hour, I’d recommend you set your sights a little higher than grill jockey at the local greasy spoon.