Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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“Your badge still works?” asked my boss, half jokingly, as I walk in the door to our office.

This is not the question one wants to hear first thing in the morning, this mock-incredulity coming from the fact that my initial contract had ended and my boss – well, one of my bosses – was finding it hard to justify my expense to his uppers due to work volume. According to some numbers, we’ve had two lean months in a row and that means staff reductions. This is, after all, the corporate way: The client company just posted above expected profits of two billion this quarter, due in no small part to staff reductions.

The humor of it is, I’ve been working copious amounts of overtime every single week for four months up until this point, because we’re woefully understaffed for the work volume, having already gotten rid of four employees during that same interim. This boss, a portly, red-faced New Jersey Republican who likes pinball and trips to Spain, a former frat bro gone to pot, usually prefaces any and all interactions with a “but if you find anything better, please don’t hesitate,” and is now openly joking about the Sword of Damocles hanging over my employment situation.

The sword which is held by him.

Everything is a learning experience. For instance, I learned that currying favor with the managing directors of the various departments within the client company has more to do with my employment situation than my own bosses. This boss of mine – let’s call him the big boss – is supposed to match employment concerns with work volume, which means predicting work volume and drumming it up if necessary. His ability to perform the former is evidenced by the abrupt staff reductions and the current skeleton crew. The latter actually falls to the technicians themselves, as they seem to have more direct participation with the clients who actually produce said workflow.

The small boss, the Jamaican lead technician newly promoted to the position, is supposed to manage staff around the actual workflow, except he must first ask the staff what workflow there is and how they’re handling it, as, again, they seem to have more direct participation with the clients who actually produce said workflow. Their combined jobs, therefore, can be said, if one wanted to be cruel, to be to reap paychecks for other people’s labor. Marxism 101.

I also learned, due to the loose lips of the big boss, how much his contracting company is paying my employment agency for my services. It came in a roundabout way, when he was kvetching about how much cheaper I’d be if they’d just found me a permanent position in his contracting company – a process that takes six months to a year of this indentured servitude, if all goes well – and the answer is I’d be 40% cheaper. To put that another way, the employment agency who matched me with this job has, for its efforts in making a single phone call back in January, been collecting two fifths of my paycheck since then, and will continue to do so for another two to eight months if I last that long.

I hesitate to ask what the client company is paying for my services.

Its managing directors, however, are probably the closest thing I have to proper bosses. It’s their tasks I must accomplish, it’s their favor I must diligently keep, it’s their mouths that must retain and utter my name. Throughout most of the day, indeed, the workflow comes straight from them to the techs, skipping all manner of protocol and hierarchical structure in the way. That can be worked out in the back-end, they say; we need this now. We techs rank them on how closely they keep their word in such matters.

Their workflow of late has largely been predicated on staff overhauls, which means staff reductions. China apparently isn’t as bullish as certain analysts would like, therefore huge chunks of several departments are being axed. And when they’re axed, people need to pick up the pieces, which is my department’s job. In the sense that I’ve managed to survive this long, outlasting my coworkers while putting an obsequious face and responding quickly to various oddball inquiries, I’m beginning to feel like a shark – especially in that I’m spending a lot of time bottom-feeding.

But whatever animal I call myself, it’s not my stomach that grows fat off my feeding.

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