Tuesday, May 8, 2012
©Linda Goodman 2012
In 1974, my first husband and I split up, and I morphed from being a part of what was considered (at that time) a family to being a statistic: a single mom with a two-year-old daughter to support and raise on my own.
The support part was most important, so I immediately began pounding the pavement (the preferred method of job-hunting in those days). The first place I walked into was a furniture store in downtown Portsmouth, Virginia, where I asked the owner if there were any jobs available.
He had me fill out an application. Afterwards he spent a few minutes looking over it before asking, “What kind of salary are you looking for?”
Minimum wage at the time was $2.00 per hour. I was a college drop-out, but I had graduated from high school as Valedictorian of my class. I figured that was worth something, so I decided to ask for a little more than minimum wage. “I’d like $2.25 an hour,” I told him.
His narrowed eyes filled with skepticism as he scrutinized me. “I don’t pay anybody a big salary like that,” he responded, in a firm voice that let me know that no bargaining would be forthcoming.
I caved. “Okay, then. How about $2.00 an hour?”
I started work the next day. My job title was office clerk. I worked from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. I filled those hours manually addressing envelopes that would be filled with special sale fliers and sent to customers and potential customers all over the Tidewater area. I had spent all my school years on academia, and typing had never been part of the plan. I had difficulty mastering the manual typewriter available to me, so I was relieved to know that my new boss, Mr. S, did not mind hand-written addresses, as long as the writing was legible.
The work was boring and, once the typewriter was taken from the equation, not at all challenging. While not the teaching job I had once dreamed about, it did pay the bills. In those days, one could actually live on minimum wage.
I had spent six weeks enduring this mind-numbing job when my boss, Mr. S called me into his office for a one-on-one. “Our office manager just left…without giving notice,” he reported. “I like your work ethic. Want the job?”
At that point, I would have agreed to anything to get some variety into my work day. Much too quickly and enthusiastically I answered, “YES!”
“That’s good news,” he assured me, then continued, “You’ll be getting paid $90.00 a week. Now this is a managerial position, so you’ll be a salaried employee,” he continued. “Salaried employees (what we call exempt employees today) don’t get paid overtime. But the good part is that if you get sick and have to stay home, you still get paid 100 per cent of your salary. Pretty good, huh?”
That did sound good to me, but Mr. S had neglected to tell me that this managerial job was a six day a week job. $90.00 (the exact amount of that “big salary” I had originally requested, times forty) amounted to less than minimum wage when it was divided by 48 hours. For the first several months, I actually worked 60 hours a week as I learned to operate the Boroughs bookkeeping machine, the ten-key calculator, and the dreaded typewriter (with carbon paper between the pages). Mr. S said that was the expected time, with a learning curve as great as mine.
After a rough beginning and a few months learning the ropes, I began feeling like an expert at my new position. Mr. S was so impressed that he called me for a second one-on-one. The bookkeeper had left…without giving notice. “I think that you’re smart enough and efficient enough that you can do both the bookkeeper’s and the office manager’s jobs. Of course, there will be no raise, as you don’t have the education needed to do the job. But I will pay for you to take some accounting courses.”
That seemed like a fair deal. There were some tough adjustments, though. Adding college accounting courses to what was now a sixty hour a week job left little time for my daughter. To help me, my parents took over her care until things settled down for me.
I had just reached the point where I could stop coming in on Sundays (when blue laws kept the store closed to customers) to play catch up on paper work, when Mr. S arranged another one-on-one. The payroll manger had left…without giving notice. After some hesitation, I agreed to take on that job, as well, and a seventy hour work week became routine. Of course, my salary could not be increased until I had completed my schooling.
Doing the payroll, however, opened my eyes. I was still making $90.00 a week, the office manager’s salary. When I looked at the payroll records, I learned that the bookkeeper’s salary had been $150.00 a week, and the payroll manager had been paid $125.00 weekly. I was doing three jobs with a combined salary of $365.00 a week for just $90.00!
I was patient and waited until I had proven that I could do all three jobs well, and then I call a one-on-one with Mr. S. “You were paying three people $365.00 a week to do what I am doing now for just $90.00! Don’t you think I deserve a raise?”
“Well…I..” he stammered, “You’re right. I will raise your salary to $100.00 a week.”
That was not acceptable. “$100! Don’t you think I should get at least the bookkeeper’s salary?” I demanded.
“No,” he firmly responded. “She had a degree.”
“But you said I’m doing a better job than she ever did!” I protested.
“But you lack education and experience,” he hollered. “No one in his right mind would pay you $150.00 a week!”
I was quiet for a long. I thought about all I had learned in the one and one-half years since I had come to work for Mr. S. I realized that I had acquired skills that made me employable elsewhere. Maybe no one would pay me $150.00 a week, but I certainly could do no worse than what Mr. S was paying me.
“I’m going to start looking for another job,” I said softly.
Mr. S laughed. “You find a job that’ll pay you more than I’m paying you now,” he guffawed, “and I’ll match whatever it offers.”
That night I checked the want ads in the local paper. I saw an opening for a bookkeeper at a construction company. I scheduled an interview for early the next morning. I was offered the job on the spot. The salary was $150.00 a week. No overtime would be required.
When I arrived at the store that morning, the first thing I did was type my resignation letter. I wanted to leave immediately, but I decided to give the customary two weeks’ notice. After all, I would never have had the skills to obtain this new job had it not been for Mr. S giving me the opportunity to learn them.
I boldly walked up to Mr. S and handed him the letter. He read it and asked, “Okay, how much is this bozo paying you?”
“$150.00 a week,” I boldly replied.
He cringed, “$150.00 a week? I don’t believe you!”
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe me,” I said smugly. “I have a new job and I will be starting that job in two weeks.”
“You can’t give just two weeks notice!” he sneered. “That’s irresponsible! I can’t possibly teach someone your job in two weeks, even if they have experience! I need at least three months notice! If you give me less than that, I’m going to sue you!”
Being sued was something I had not considered. I was speechless. Mr. S turned and walked away, repulsively confidant that he had me under his control. I went to my office and called Mr. T. I told him that Mr. S was going to sue me if I left without giving at least three months notice.
A good three minutes passed before Mr. T stopped laughing. “Tell him that my lawyers will meet his lawyers in court,” he crowed. “And if he gives you any guff, just quit on the spot. You can start here tomorrow.”
When I relayed that message to Mr. S, he threw me out of his office with instructions to go process the payroll.
That afternoon, just as I was getting ready to leave for home he came to my office a changed man. “I’ve given it some thought,” he confessed. “You’re worth $150.00 a week. That will be your salary here starting on Monday.”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I said, with as much respect as I could muster. “But why should I stay here just because you’re matching a salary that I’ve already been offered? What will happen when I ask for a raise again next year? Can you guarantee that you won’t make me find another job offering more money again?”
He picked up my tape dispenser and threw it against the wall before walking out of my office shouting, “I’ll see to it that you never work in this town again!”
The two weeks passed slower than a snail sliding through its own slime. Every day Mr. S taunted me and tormented me. Nothing I did was right. Why had he ever hired an ungrateful, two-faced twit to run his office, he ranted. How long would he have to suffer low-class employees who chased their own husbands away and then thought they should be able to raise snotty nose brats on their own?
I was elated when I left the store on a Thursday, with only one more day to work for the horrible Mr. S. I bought myself a bottle of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine to celebrate. My roommate and I lifted a glass together, and I promised my daughter that soon Mommy would be spending a lot more time with her. I felt like I had the world by the tail.
Later that night, just before the stroke of twelve, I heard a knock at the door. I looked out the peephole and, to my surprise, saw Mr. T, my new boss, standing there with a Scrabble board under his arm. When I opened the door, he staggered in, drunk as a skunk, and insisted on playing a game of “midnight Scrabble.”
Before I could object to his presence, he swooned and passed out on my sofa. I recruited my roommate from a deep sleep to help me get him downstairs and back to his car. He smelled like a brewery. Before driving away, he ogled me like I was a slab of salami and slurred, “Baby, I make it a policy not to fraternize with my employees, but in your case I might make an exception.”
The next day, my last day at the store, I went to work dejected and defeated. I knew that I could not go to work for Mr. T now. Worst of all, I was going to have to convince Mr. S to let me keep my job at the store. This promised to be the most humiliating, degrading experience of my entire life.
Mr. S ignored me that morning, refusing to speak to or look at me. I practiced what I was going to say, but I was so scared and anxious that everything coming from my mouth was unintelligible. I had a daughter to support. I did not want to end up on welfare. I had to do this right.
Just before noon, I stood up to go make my plea to Mr. S, but before I could leave my desk he marched into my office and slammed a piece of paper down on my desk. “There! Is this what you want? Will this make you happy?” he demanded.
I picked up the paper and looked at it closely. It was a contract. For $275.00 a week!
I look Mr. S in the eye and demurely replied, “This is a good start.”
I negotiated my first solo deal. In addition to the raise, I got two weeks a year vacation, a daily lunch hour, and the authority to train an assistant so that I would not have to work so much overtime. I would be able to keep my promise to my daughter.Mr. S wanted one concession from me: he wanted me to promise that I would never look for another job without giving him a chance to improve my situation first. I happily agreed.