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.

Faith and good works…

I went to work for my Uncle Sam almost 11 years ago. I knew that the job was never a path to riches, but it was good, honest work in support of the republic. I had the idealist’s faith that I was doing good works mad-as-helland in exchange I’d be afforded a decent salary and benefits commensurate with my professionalism. Maybe that was true once… or maybe that’s a past world that only ever existed in my imagination.

This is going to sound strange coming from a cynic, but I still feel like I’m doing good works – that what I’m doing does, or at least should matter. What I’ve lost, though, is the faith that I’m doing the right thing for me and that my time and talents wouldn’t be better spent taking on some other challenge. That’s a startling realization after you’ve spent most of your professional life following what you thought was “the one true the way.”

After three long years of hiring and pay freezes, furloughs, impending shutdowns, an apathetic administration, and serving as the legislative branch’s favored whipping boy, it’s really a marvel of human endurance and fortitude that more people aren’t just walking away from the whole damned mess. I’m not on the cusp yet of having my “mad as hell and not taking it anymore” moment, but I’m sorely tempted on an almost daily basis.

I may have lost my faith, but like everyone else on the planet I have bills to pay and promises to keep… and that’s likely enough to keep me on the straight and narrow even when the thrill is gone.

What I Did on My Furlough Friday (Part 5 of 6)…

You can see from the title that word came down from echelons higher than reality that the Great Defense Furlough of 2013 has been shortened from eleven days to six. That’s outstanding. I’m all for it. I’ll be glad to get back to not having 20% of my pay chopped off every other Thursday.

All other things considered, Furlough Friday has gone pretty much how you might have expected. There was grocery shopping and playing with the dogs. Before the day is over there might even be a little laundry. What there hasn’t been, of course, is anything that would have required any more funds than was absolutely necessary. The grand irony of furlough is that you have plenty of time off, but the pay reduction makes you want to squeeze every quarter until George screams for mercy. Fortunately beer is still pretty cheap and no one is charging admission to sit on the deck, so it hasn’t been too much of a sacrifice yet.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go now and do absolutely nothing. It’s my furlough day after all and working is against the rules. With the end in sight, at least now I can kick back and attempt to enjoy the rest of the day. Someday soon I’ll once again spend Fridays fiddling with PowerPoint, but today’s not that day.