This would’ve been slated for Rant Space (OT) the other day, except I happened to get distracted by something shiny. I started working on it when Fuck It Friday (fucking finally) went up a few hours ago, except I realized about, oh . . . 800 words in or so that it was less suited to being a comment and more to being a standalone post of its own. In any case, though, this is something that I’ve been mostly holding inside for a while, and it’s turned out to be a long one. If you’re not in the mood for stress-borne hostility and possible self-centeredness, you may want to give this one a pass. Anyway, though, here we go:
I’ve commented here a couple of times that my main employer is paying us through the PPP loan, which briefly seemed like a welcome development at first, until I happened to delve into the details. At the time when it was first announced, they said that they’d be paying us on the basis of what we’d earned in January and February of this year, over the course of the eight-week timetable necessary to have the loan completely forgiven. I ran the numbers and realized, just as more than a few other inactive workers across the country have, that under those terms I stood to gain far less — like a couple of fucking grand less — than I would have just from collecting the expanded unemployment benefits.
Now, after I came to this conclusion, I wrote a letter asking if it would be possible for me to get paid over the course of four weeks instead of eight, after calculating that at least this way would outpay the unemployment benefits and not jeopardize my claim or require me to apply all over again after not making any weekly requests for benefits for more than 28 days. I addressed it to the person who sent us the e-mail announcement about the payment, the boss who’d composed the letter attached in the announcement and the HR chick whom he’d told me to talk to after I’d texted him that night to ask what was up.
On the Monday afternoon after the announcement (why, yes — I did spend that whole weekend obsessing over this shit, in fact), the HR chick called me and basically gave me a bunch of bullshit platitudes about “seeing the big picture” and focusing on the survival of the agency, without really seeming to listen to me. (Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising given her position, but it was dispiriting nonetheless.) I texted my boss again to let him know that I didn’t feel like she and I had understood each other, to put it diplomatically. He later replied that it seemed that there had been a misunderstanding about how the payments were to be administered and that they would now be calculated on the basis of what we’d earned between December 16 of last year and March 15 of this year. Since that seemed to account for twelve weeks of earnings payable over the course of eight weeks, I thought that those terms were even more favorable than the ones I’d asked for, so that set my mind at ease. Even still, I told the boss that I’d wait for the official numbers.
My first inkling that this was still fucked up, though, came when he later texted me to quote the average amount that I’d be making, which worked out to be more than $600 less (i.e., the amount by which the unemployment benefits have been expanded) than the amount that I’d calculated for myself. I asked him how they’d come to arrive at that amount, and he immediately asked me to talk to the person who e-mailed out his announcement in the first place. I asked if they’d be sending out an update with the official details and, after he said they would, told him that I’d just wait for that instead.
Well, the update was finally sent out last Friday. In it, the HR chick mentioned that we’d indeed be paid on the basis of what we’d earned between December 16 and March 15. She also included a table with several references to that amount as divided by six, for the number of pay periods represented over that period. On May 15, we’d be receiving two of those fixed payments, for whatever reason, to cover the periods of April 16 through April 30 and May 1 through May 15. Then, on May 31, we’d receive another payment to cover May 16 through May 31. And then, on June 15, we’d get one last payment to cover June 1 through June 15. Of course, she added that if, during any of those periods, we happened to earn more than the fixed amount, we’d be paid that higher amount. So, according to her, it was a good idea to cover as many interpreting appointments as possible in order for the agency to resume its regular business. Also, apparently in light of my communication with them, she added that they were unable to make exceptions or pay us another way due to the forgiveness guidelines for the PPP loan. Besides that, it was important to mention that we may not be eligible to receive unemployment benefits as of April 16, and that all claims filed would be protested by the agency.
(Now, if any of you are still with me at this point, I should probably clarify a couple of things: The interpreters are paid hourly, and the workload can vary, sometimes greatly, from pay period to pay period. So, even at the outset, it’s not like we’re salaried employees earning a fixed amount on every paycheck.)
Once again, this arrangement seemed fine at first glance — but then I had to go and ruin it by delving into the fucking details again. I looked at the table, with its total divided by six, and then looked at the two initial payments, the one after that and then the one more after that. I realized that, uh, they only added up to four payments. There seemed to be no accounting for the two more that would make them add up to the total. What about those payments – wouldn’t we be receiving them?
Then I saw the point about how, if we happened to work a certain number of hours that added up to an amount greater than the fixed amounts we’d be paid, then we’d be paid that, um, higher amount. This was a false hypothetical, of course: There’s been almost no work since the pandemic took hold, so our hours at best would be enough to cover two weeks’ worth of groceries but certainly wouldn’t be payable into the mid-three to low-four figures. Plus, the phrasing about that “higher amount” made it sound like we’d be paid either that fixed amount, or that hypothetical shitload of hours, but not both. (This last detail was especially glaring because, by the time this new arrangement was revealed, one pay period had already ended and the following one was halfway over. I, like other interpreters, had already done work during that time under the presumption of eventually getting paid for it.)
And finally, I focused on the point that we’d seemingly be getting paid for most of the pay periods in question right when they ended – within hours (or, in some case, even with minutes) of the end times for our last appointments, if there were any for those days. That made me wonder to myself how they’d be able to complete payroll and direct deposits for hundreds of employees within such a short amount of time.
I sent them a far briefer message that evening to outline my concerns. After a couple of days with no response, I texted my boss on Tuesday evening to ask if he and the HR chick had gotten my message. He said that they had, and that I really should’ve received a response by now. A few minutes later, I got a call from one of the numbers that work uses. It was the HR chick again, and she asked if she could talk to me because maybe it would be easier to explain things that way. I told her that I would’ve preferred to get a response in writing – for a couple of different reasons by then – but finally relented and let her speak.
She started out by mentioning that I’d asked if I could possibly be paid differently, but I quickly interjected that her latest update noted that it was now impossible to do that. My only concerns now were the ones I’d brought up the previous week: What about the outstanding two payments? Would we not be getting paid for the hours we worked in addition to the fixed amounts? Would we really be getting paid for those pay periods so soon after they ended? (I later considered this point in light of the previous one and realized that I really should’ve been able to put two and two together.)
She told me that she hadn’t understood my first question, and I didn’t know if that could be attributed to the language barrier arising from the fact that English wasn’t her first language, or to the simple idea of it in the first place. In any case, though, once again we kept going around in circles about this point. She kept talking about how the extra pay periods were chosen because not everyone was working at the end of last year, and the first half of March was the last pay period that was normal before the pandemic really hit. I said that was all well and good, but what about the other two payments? She DID NOT UNDERSTAND what were these “two payments” I was speaking of, even as I tried to break down the arithmetic for her. After a good 15 or 20 minutes of this, I finally said that I would take up this point with the boss and suggested that we move on.
I then said that it seemed like we would be getting paid a fixed amount each pay period, and she mentioned something about a blown deadline that would result in paying us two payments instead of one that first time. Once again, I said that was all well and good but asked if we’d be paid for whatever hours we ended up working as well. She said, as on the e-mail, that if we happened to work more hours than the fixed amount, then we’d be getting paid that “higher amount” instead. I can’t remember if I mentioned that something like that was impossible in light if the current circumstances but did ask at least if that meant we wouldn’t be getting paid the hours we’d actually worked if they happened to be less. She eventually implied that we wouldn’t be. So, I asked her, then: If we’re being paid only a fixed amount regardless of how much we work or don’t work, then what kind of incentive is there to work in the first place? I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something along the lines of how business had suffered and this was hard for everyone. I reflexively held the phone away from my face and yelled out, “OH, FOR CHRISSAKE!” Then I blurted out that I would talk to the boss instead and hung up on her.
After I took a moment to calm down, I dialed my boss and asked, in his native Spanish, if I could speak to him because I still wasn’t satisfied. He agreed, so I took up my points again with him, still in Spanish so that nothing would be lost in . . . well, you know. It still took a bit of explaining on my part with regard to the missing two payments, but he eventually came around and told me that the arrangement was never meant to “replicate” the total that we’d earned over that time but simply for that to serve as a reference figure. He added that this was a situation imposed upon the agency by the terms of the PPP loan, and that the agency wasn’t doing this by choice.
He agreed that it was impossible to earn more than the fixed amount “because there’s no work” and ended up implying that the fixed amount was what we would be paid – once again, as imposed upon the agency by the terms of the PPP loan and not by choice. (When I protested that we wouldn’t be getting paid for the hours that we worked, he responded that, yes, we would – because we would be getting paid through the PPP loan.) I repeated my newfound revelation that it seemed like there was no incentive to work under these conditions. He told me that he understood my “philosophical perspective” but added that other people might see things a different way. When I asked how else it was possible to see things, he said from the point of view of being able to put food on the table and pay expenses. He then mentioned a couple of the percentages by which business had gone down. So, I asked him, if we were to be paid the same amount of money regardless of how much business improved, what incentive was there to work at all? He said that the incentive was “cooperating” – or, in a possibly more fluid translation,“working together” – with the agency, in order to help increase the business.
At the very least, I wasn’t swayed, and I told him that under these conditions I couldn’t do any more work for the agency until the PPP period ended. He said that something like that was my decision to make, and no one would criticize me for it. I told him that I would look into my recourses (by then I was seriously considering speaking to an employment lawyer) and, because I was at least somewhat calmer than I had been with the HR chick, thanked him for his time.
The next morning, I called the agency to return most of my remaining appointments. Other than the one I had scheduled for a couple of hours later, there were only three of them at that point, but two of them were in-person at two different hospitals: Fuck getting potentially exposed for no extra pay! Then I called my therapist and told her that I needed to speak to her again about another workplace episode. (These can sometimes be a running theme in our sessions together.)
She called me back later in between phone appointments. I explained the new terms for getting paid through the PPP loan as best as I could and told her that the whole thing had left a bad taste in my mouth, that I’d felt ignored by the HR chick and gaslighted by my boss. She said that I had a right to feel the way that I did and that there certainly were flaws in the whole arrangement but cautioned me over being so self-centered because the agency was hurting, too. (“They’re not Bank of America.”)
As far as taking actions like speaking with an employment lawyer, she counseled that doing something like that could really affect my relationship with the agency from here on out. I reminded her that, to me at least, the relationship had felt poisoned for a long time and told her that I was now feeling like anyone else who was trapped in a bad relationship and couldn’t leave. She seemed to imply that I was viewing things from the perspective of being unhappy with the agency and counseled that, if I did in fact leave, I should think about the kinds of terms that I left on, in terms of how they’d affect my professional future. She recognized that this was probably not what I wanted to hear, which was at least correct.
Anyway, yeah, as the title here indicates, I was pissed-off by all of this and still am. I got paid today, and the paystub just includes the two payments of that fixed amount – which, after all this shit, don’t even seem to add up to what my boss quoted me in the first fucking place. There’s no indication of the work I’d already done or committed to do before I found out about any of this bullshit. (Granted, in my case, that work would’ve yielded the equivalent of about six hours at my regular rate of my pay.) I still don’t know whether or not to pursue this matter further – or even whether or not to quit and walk the fuck away once and for all. (I’ve thought about the idea of giving two weeks’ notice on June 1, so that they’d still be on the hook for that last payment.) In any case, though, I’m sure as hell not doing any more work for the agency during the next month. At the very least, I’m calling it paid time off – something that I’ve never been given in the 15 years that I’ve worked for the agency and, while the timing leaves a fair bit to be desired, something that I could definitely fucking use right about now.
Fuck this, fuck them, and fuck it – I’m taking a break for a while.