Friday, January 27, 2012

I am not quitting, so I must be getting fired

I began working for Barnes & Noble in 1998. At that time the Coral Ridge Mall was still being built and when I heard that Barnes & Noble had signed on to have a store in the mall, I immediately went to the nearest location to get the lowdown on the hiring process for that store. I remember how giddy I was during my interview. I loved to read, loved to write, and I was ready to throw on the Cat in the Hat costume and start working that day. I was hired (as everyone was at that time) on a temporary basis, with the knowledge that they were hiring more people than they needed to assemble the store, not everyone would remain on staff after the store opened.

For about a month, my new B&N coworkers and I parked in the mud of the unfinished mall parking lot, and walked on cardboard and wood planks to get to the front door of the store without tracking in the mud. We put the first books ever on the shelves of the brand new Barnes & Noble #2917. It was more than a job, it was an amazing experience.

Opening a new store is a great bonding experience, and the employees got to know each other before we had to be all business casual. Even today, after we have all moved on, I still maintain a friendship with many of these people. I had a wonderful time over many years of working at that store. In the beginning, I worked 32 hours a week, and had a few $.50 wage increases. It was not enough to live on, but I still loved the job. After borrowing a large sum of money from a friend to keep myself from bankruptcy, I had to find a more lucrative full-time job.

Since then I have had four other full-time jobs (each more lucrative than the last) but I never wanted to give up Barnes & Noble. I remained a part-time employee and when I moved out to DC, I transferred to a store in the area. Since June of 2008, I have worked for the same store, giving up my weekends to help pay off student loans and go to a job that I genuinely enjoyed. My full-time jobs have all been in an office environment, where I am exposed to the same people every day. Working at the bookstore has been a wonderful way to get out and meet new people – both coworkers and customers. It exposed me to a lot of things that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to get to know. Not all of these things were positive, there are some people who are shamefully condescending they to people who work retail. For the most part, it has been a good experience. Sadly, the events of the last week have suddenly overshadowed my positive feelings about the company.

I was informed last week that if I did not open up my schedule availability, I would be terminated.

The manager corrected me when I used the word “terminated” because she assured me it was not punitive, it had nothing to do with performance, and if I could work more hours they would be happy to have me. But I am not physically capable of working more hours without killing myself. She said she understood, but gave me no other option. Tomorrow (Saturday, January 28th) will be my last day with the company. She kept assuring me that I am not being fired, but our conversation was like a mixed-up version of the stereotypical disgruntled employee/employer conversation. “You are NOT fired!” “Well, I am not quitting.” “But we are not firing you!” “Well you must be firing me because I am not quitting.”

Okay, it didn’t go down exactly like that, but it was similar. I have worked the same schedule for the last year. After all of this time, she has told me that it is unacceptable and she needs people with open availability, or at the very least, people who will work 2-3 days per week (6-8 hour shifts). She kept saying, “How many businesses do you know that have employees who work one day a week?” (What I didn’t say out loud: How the hell should I know? I don’t have any inside knowledge of business schedules!) What I did say out loud: “How many businesses do you know that have employees who have worked there for 14 years?” She went on to explain that the book business has changed in the last 14 years. This is obvious. Nothing is the same as it was when I started. The company has adapted to the changing consumer demands, and I understand that they constantly need to make changes. I just don’t happen to understand how terminating my employment factors in.

She went on to tell me that the company needs to save money and there are too many people who take advantage of the company benefits and holiday pay but only commit to limited part-time schedules. (What I didn’t say: Well if you would pay more, then people would be able to work here for a living instead of part-time.) What I did say: I don’t receive any benefits. How am I costing the company money? All she could say was – “Well, you get your employee discount. You can go into any Barnes & Noble in the country and get 30% off."

Really? I am bankrupting the largest book retailer in the country with my discount on occasional book purchases and once-a-week bagel & beverage from the cafĂ©? That’s a little hard to believe. No, actually, it’s just downright insulting.

But, I have no choice in the matter. As of tomorrow afternoon, I will not be a Barnes & Noble employee - for the first time in nearly 14 years. This is really not how I predicted this adventure would end. I am more than a little pissed off.

The conversation between the devil manager and I took place last Saturday right before she left at 4:00. Of course, I was scheduled until 5pm, so we had this horrible and offensive conversation and I was trying to hold back tears (unsuccessfully), then she gave me a moment alone to compose myself and I had to go back out onto the sales floor for another hour. My face was bright red, my eyes were bulging red and tears leaked out of them. I blew my nose every five minutes. Customers awkwardly avoided me as I watched the clock and waited for a very long 60 minutes to end so that someone could relieve me and I could go somewhere more private. All the time I am thinking – 14 years I have given to this company and this is how it ends?

You can probably tell, I am a little bitter. I am offended by the fact that my length of service means nothing. I understand that if someone with my availability filled out an application, that person would never get hired. It would not be worth it to train someone with that limited of availability. But I am not a new trainee, I am a self-sufficient, reliable and tenured employee. How foolish of me to think that would count for something.

For all practical purposes, I can understand their decision. Generally speaking and all experience aside, someone who works 30 hours is probably going to be a more efficient employee. There are so many trends when it comes to books, and displays are constantly changing, sections are re-categorized from time to time, and only working once a week, I don’t always know where everything is located in the bookstore. But that too is less of a factor because I have been working in the music & dvd department. I know a thing or two about movies. So I really don’t think that the problem was not being oriented with the store. What I think is that the economy has tanked and there are plenty of people who are willing to work for the store minimum. I do not make the store minimum. I am "maxed out" for the bookseller position and I don't even get raises any more. But a new hire would make about $4 less per hour, and probably have a PhD in Anthropology or something. That is the beauty of this economy for businesses. There are always people willing to work for whatever wage you offer to pay them because their other option may be unemployment. And I understand that it’s more profitable for a business to pay someone less and give preference to people who will work whenever you want them to because they don’t have another job to work around. I get it. I see how that could be a more attractive option. But I never expected to get kicked out the door so unceremoniously.

I am less pissed off now than I was last week. I realize that there are people in far worse situations than I am in. Whoever takes over my former shift may need the income more desperately than I do. Perhaps it works out nicely for everyone but me. I am less bitter about the situation than I was at first, but I still think it is cowardly how B&N handled the situation. I may not have put in many hours, but I gave up nearly every weekend for a dozen years to work there. I survived 14 seasons’ worth of hectic holiday shoppers. I had a strong connection to the bookstore and under other circumstances, would have remained a loyal B&N employee. But in one afternoon of breaking this girl’s spirit and then sending her back out on the sales floor to talk to customers while trying not to cry (unsuccessfully), they have all but erased all of those warm feelings that have accumulated over the years. I still have fond memories of the people I have met, and am happy to still have many of them in my life. But I can’t bring myself to show that company any more consideration than they have shown me, and I can’t imagine walking back into that store and having to see that manager ever again. She was successful in getting rid of me not only as an employee, but as a customer, too. I understand that the book business is struggling and they have to adapt if they want to stay in business. But I have very little sympathy for the struggles of the company after the disregard they have treated me with in the last week. I have done my part by saving them all of that money they were wasting by giving me a discount on my weekly bagel at breaktime. You are welcome, BKS shareholders. You are welcome.


[Follow-up edit: I arrived to work on 1/28 to find that I had been scheduled for the following Saturday, 2/4. The store manager never mentioned anything about our conversation to the Asst. Manager who writes the schedule, other than telling him a few weeks ago of her intention to talk to me. So, I am happy to enjoy one more week of employment, but it was like adding insult to injury to learn that the manager didn't find it significant enough to communicate my situation to the rest of the management staff. No one on any level seemed to know about my departure other than the people who I had told directly. How many times can a company burn the same bridge?]


Jackie said...

I'm so sorry, Kathleen. You have me hating B&N and not only am I still there, I just applied for a Merch/Dept managet position. Ugh! I only applied because I can't afford to live on my $10.75 an hour and this year I won't be getting a raise because I am maxed out as a lead. :( It all sucks. Maybe I'll start playing the lotto. - Jackie

Kathleen said...

Aw, I don't want to try and turn you against your store. I really think that the decisions in my case were made at store level. Your store has a much better environment than mine. I have heard about managers who like to discourage booksellers hanging out together b/c they think it makes people less productive. Things seem very disorganized and discouraging to me. Of course, I'm only there one day a week, so I don't see the big picture. People at the store complain about management a lot. In Iowa City, most of the complaining was about rude customers or people who drop their kids off in the children's section and then run off to get their hair done.

I understand where you are at, though. When the store first opened, I would've been happy to work there full time and I would have loved the CRM job, but it was not economically feasible. It's a shame.

POPS said...

The time of companies taking pride in their employees is gone. Not that long ago we earned monthly dinners in nice restaurants,a catered breakfast, trinkets(coffee cups etc.) Your skills and knowledge no longer mean anything. Perks are reserved for those at the corporate level. It's not only B&N, it's everywhere. I truly grieve for the young people of today and tomorrow. It' not that our "leaders" don't know about our strife, It's that they just don't care. Welcome to the herd. You must either keep up, as best you can or fall behind and left to the wolves.