What does work mean to you?

By Caitlin Kelly

These are the tools of an artist. That's work, too!
These are the tools of an artist. That’s work, too!

It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.

It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:

  • Daily expenses
  • Retirement savings
  • To fund higher education, for self and/or others
  • Short-term emergency savings
  • Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
  • Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
  • Challenge
  • Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
  • The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
  • Learning and mastering new skills
  • To support the financial needs of family and others
  • A place to feel welcomed, to belong
  • Building self-confidence
  • Ambition
  • Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry,  the law
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.

All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.

No wonder I, too, work for myself as a full-time freelance writer, editor, writing teacher and writing coach.

Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too
Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.

I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.

Since my high school days I’ve worked as:

  • a lifeguard
  • a waitress
  • a busboy
  • a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
  • a magazine editor (four national magazines)
  • a writing teacher (four colleges)
  • a writing coach (multiple private clients)
  • a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
  • an author (of two works of non-fiction)
  • a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
  • a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
  • a retail employee at $11/hour
I covered the unity march in Paris -- I love breaking news!
I covered the unity march in Paris — I love breaking news!

Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.

At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.

I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.

In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!
Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.

I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.

I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.

I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work),  a page-turner.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.

But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)

Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.

Insanity.

What sort of work do you do?

Do you enjoy it?

What would you change about it if you could?

What are your skills really worth?

By Caitlin Kelly

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

In a time when American CEOs now, unapologetically, take home 354 times the wage of their average worker, what we earn is finally becoming a larger part of the national conversation.

From this week’s New York Times, an op-ed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo:

President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the minimum wage a national law in 1938. Years earlier, he said, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” But minimum wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living.

Nowhere is the income gap more extreme and obnoxious than in the fast-food industry. Fast-food C.E.O.s are among the highest-paid corporate executives. The average fast-food C.E.O. made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple the average from 2000 (adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, entry-level food-service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year, which at a 40-hour week amounts to $8.50 an hour. Nationally, wages for fast-food workers have increased 0.3 percent since 2000 (again, adjusting for inflation).

Many assume that fast-food workers are mostly teenagers who want to earn extra spending money. On the contrary, 73 percent are women, 70 percent are over the age of 20, and more than two-thirds are raising a child and are the primary wage earners in their family.

I spent 2.5 years — part-time, one shift a week except for holidays — as a retail sales associate for The North Face, selling $600 ski jackets to hedge fund managers from Greenwich, CT headed out to Aspen for their vacation. I made, from 2007 to 2009, $11/hour, a wage some in the U.S. — whose federal minimum is still a paltry $7.25/hour — consider munificent.

I did it because I needed a steady income, even a small one, in the depths of the Great Recession. It was, to say the least, eye-opening, to work for low wages and see how little they bought.

I wrote my last book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, about this life, including many interviews with other such workers across the U.S.

malled cover HIGH

Many customer-facing jobs, often in retail, food service and hospitality, are deemed “low skill.”

Which — as anyone who’s done one of them — knows is utter bullshit.

Some of the many skills you need to do this work include:

— patience

— excellent listener

— empathy for/with your customer and their needs

— the ability to quickly pick up, retain and use information

calm under pressure

— multi-tasking gracefully and competently

— physical stamina

— emotional stamina

— how to initiate and close a sale

Have you heard the phrase “emotional labor”?

It’s the expectation of customers and management that, even if your feet are swollen and painful from eight hours standing/running/walking without a break, even if you feel ill or nauseated or had to re-open the store barely hours after you closed it (and cleaned the toilets) — you’re happy. Smiling. Perky.

Riiiiiiiight.

One of the least amusing aspects of working through the holiday season, when wealthy shoppers in our affluent suburban New York mall entered the store already laden with pontoons of loaded shopping bags, was being told to be nice(r.)

All the time.

This, as you face long lines of shoppers who, by the time you can help them — (stores cut labor costs by under-staffing, even during busy periods), are pissed off and taking it out on you — not the staffing/scheduling software your company paid millions for.

That’s emotional labor.

Malled's Chinese version
Malled’s Chinese version

There’s a current trend in the U.S. — where labor union participation remains at an all-time low despite record corporate profits and stagnant wages — called Fight for 15.

The movement wants a wage of $15/hour for low-wage work; a day or week’s wages for workers in places like India, China, Nicaragua — where they make most of the clothes we sell and wear.

But it’s still very little income if you live in a large American city.

I’m forever fascinated by what people are paid and how they — and others — value their skills. Most of us have to work to earn a living, and many of us will do so for decades. Most of our lives will be spent earning an income for the skills we have acquired.

Time is money!
Time is money!

As a fulltime freelancer, knowing how to negotiate is one of my top skills.

It’s also a skill many women fail to acquire or practice — women offered a salary far too often say “Thanks!”, grab it and begin.

Men, statistically, have been shown to negotiate for more. They also get it.

You don’t ask — you don’t get.

One of my favorite books on this issue is called Women Don’t Ask, and I highly recommend it.

I grew up in a family of freelancers and have also spent much of my journalism career without a paycheck.

I know that negotiating is every bit as essential to my income as knowing how to write well and meet a deadline.

One example: a major magazine assigns me a story, the fee $2,400. The “kill fee”, i.e. if the story cannot be used, was $600 — a loss of three-quarters of my income. Nope, I said. They raised it to $1,000. The story, for reasons completely beyond my control, couldn’t be used; they offered me more than the agreed-upon fee.

But what if I hadn’t asked for more in the first place?

I also network, every single day, with other writers at my level; only by sharing information, candidly, can we know what people are actually paying — and not just jump at the first lowball offer.

You also need to be extremely honest with yourself and know what the current marketplace most values in your industry; if your skills are weak or out-of-date, you’re not going to be able to effectively compete and negotiate for more.

It’s scary to operate without a safety net, the security of a paycheck and paid sick days. But I thrive on the freedom to set my own hours, to work when and where and for whom and for how long I deem necessary. I set my own hourly rate — $225/hour with a one-hour minimum for coaching and consulting — and work only with clients I know will help me meet my goals, both intellectual and financial.

images-2

It’s a sadly American mindset, in a nation addicted to freedom and liberty, to see how dismissively many workers are treated and how little they’re paid.

And how many put up with it.

I get paid to do this? When work is joy

By Caitlin Kelly

A print on polyester -- I had a long convo with the designer!
A print on polyester — I had a long convo with the designer!

Sometimes work is sheer drudgery, the thing we can’t wait to flee at day’s, week’s or career’s end.

But sometimes, when we’re lucky, it’s pure joy.

A young friend of mine is traveling throughout SouthEast Asia for three months leading tours and photographing it all. She — yes, really! — fell off an elephant, and into the Mekong River in Laos recently. I awoke in suburban New York to her panicked email from the other side of world asking for my husband’s email; (he’s her mentor and a photographer.)

Here’s her blog.

Aside from a water-logged camera and lens, she is both working hard and impossibly happy, especially sweet after a New Jersey internship that was exhausting and often formulaic.

Two fabrics from a Montreal distributor
Two fabrics from a Montreal distributor

Last week was like this for me.

As a full-time freelance journalist, I work on a wide variety of stories and assignments, from coaching fellow writers to writing personal essays for The New York Times. I also do less glamorous stuff like covering trade shows.

A booth filled with vintage clothing, used for inspiration
A booth filled with vintage clothing, used for inspiration

This week I covered three, all held in New York City, where I live — (and my feet are sore!) — interviewing their organizers and some of their many vendors.

The first show, Premiere Vision, brings together 300+ textile, lace, button and zipper manufacturers to meet the people who need their goods to make the clothes we will buy in a year from places like Marc Jacobs or Diesel or Tommy Hilfiger.

Isn't this gorgeous!? Even the sequins are wrapped in mesh
Isn’t this gorgeous!? Even the sequins are wrapped in mesh

However unlikely, I spent 45 minutes at another show discussing…pockets.

As in: the fabric used to line pockets, specifically of jeans and jackets. I loved this pair of shorts, showing how creatively one can use these fabrics.

Love these!
Love these!

 

At PV, there’s a whole section of people selling their designs, some of which I now realize adorn my workout clothing — for $500 or $700 you buy their design outright and can use it in whatever way suits your needs. Another few vendors sell scraps of vintage wallpaper and fabric that end up used for pillows by Crate & Barrel and other major retailers.

Yes, it's fabric! Stretch cotton with a wood-grain surface print
Yes, it’s fabric! Stretch cotton with a wood-grain surface print

As someone obsessed with textiles and a student of design, this is the most paid fun imaginable — getting to see and touch gorgeous fabrics, meet smart, cool designers and see how it all comes together.

How was your week at work?

 

A bit hard to see -- tiny gray crystals attached to pale gray wool, an award-winning Japanese-designed jacket
A bit hard to see — tiny gray crystals attached to pale gray wool, an award-winning Japanese-designed jacket

Do you work to live — or live to work? Karoshi is crazy!

By Caitlin Kelly

Did you hear about the young woman, Mita Diran, who died of overwork recently after tweeting about her long hours — 30 hours without a break?

And here’s the 24-year-old who died the same way.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

I have four words for this, and they’re not: Rock on, you over-achievers!

Rather: Are you fucking kidding me?

And here’s a whiny, tedious rant at Slate by a woman who’s shocked — shocked! — to find that French workers get subsidized meals from their employers and are treated with a great deal more respect than they are in the U.S.

Duh. Americans are simply nuts about work. They go onandonandonandonandonandon about how busy they are and how needed they are and how many things they just added to their to-do list.

As if this makes them more….something.

Tired, probably.

Here’s a list of 10 reasons — written by a local colleague and former board member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors — why you might consider taking a break.

They include:

1. Quantity kills quality.

You want to be excellent at what you do. But the more tasks you take on, the smaller your chance of doing an excellent job at any of them.

2. Sleep matters.

“The way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is getting enough sleep,” Arianna Huffington said in a 2011 TED talk. She would know. She fainted from exhaustion and broke her cheekbone and is now something of a sleep evangelist. “I was recently having dinner with a guy who bragged that he’d gotten only four hours’ sleep the night before,” she continued. She considered retorting: “If you had gotten five, this dinner would have been a lot more interesting.”

3. You suck when it counts.

You’ll be bad at generating new ideas, finding creative solutions to problems, and worst of all you’ll suck at listening attentively to the people around you. That disrespects them and wastes their time as well as yours.

4. Your mood is a buzzkill.

The kind of irritability and impatience that goes with being overworked and behind schedule will cast a black cloud over the people around you both at work and at home. If you’re an employee, it will damage your career. If you’re a small business owner, it will harm your business.

5. Your judgment is impaired.

The research is conclusive: sleep deprivation impairs decision-making. As a leader, poor judgment is something you can’t afford. Crossing some tasks off your to-do list, handing them to someone else, or finishing some things late is well worth it if it means you bring your full concentration and intelligence to the tough decisions your job requires.

Readers of this blog know I work my ass off. But they also know how much I deeply cherish balance in my life.

images-3

I bitch about being broke a lot. Money isn’t great right now at our house, but we’ll be fine.

The truth is this: I could work twice as many hours and, probably, double my income.

At what cost?

On Monday this week, I revised a story for five hours’ straight. The rest of the week was spent emailing pitches and checking in with long-time clients to see where we are and lining up details for a crazy foreign trip I’ll be making at the end of March for work. In other words, I’ve been plenty busy.

Yesterday — yes, the hell with it — I devoted to all the things that actually make me happy, no matter how retro or silly or low-value they may sound to some people:

ironing, tidying the linen closet, a manicure, making cranberry bread, making dal for an Indian food feast, listening to CDs, (instead of the radio, and talk shows because I’ll learn something), emailing a distant friend who’s not feeling very well, chatting with pals on Facebook and deciding not to make soup. Even my non-work days have limits!

That filled up most of the day.

I spoke to my husband, as is typical for us, twice. We never let a day go by — and he has six meetings every day at his busy newspaper job — without one to three brief phone calls to say hello and trade some news. He’s my husband. I want to talk to him. When he comes home in the evening, the computer is off (except for blogging!) and we talk to one another, a lot.

Minda, who wrote the piece above, has no children, like me. She confesses in her story that her husband had to get assertive about wanting more of her attention, and she says she works most weekends.

Nope. Not for me.

I could make a lot more money. I have. Seven years ago, I made twice as much. In 1996, I made twice as much.

It didn’t make me twice as happy.

I know that some of you are desperate to get a job, and a well-paid job, so someone who isn’t dying to work all the time probably seems lazy to you.

Uh, no.

What I am is someone who knows her priorities: sleep, (8-10 hours every night, without fail), friendships, uninterrupted time with my husband, travel, preparing decent food for us and our friends, a clean and tidy home. I take dance class 2-3 times a week and try to work out in other ways as well.

I’ve learned my limits the hard way.

On March 17, 2007, I begged Jose to rush me to our local hospital, in pain that even laying the seatbelt across my chest was agony. I had no idea what was wrong with me, but something sure was — a 104 degree temperature and pneumonia. That meant three days in the hospital on an IV and a full month to regain my strength.

Like many people, especially freelancers and the self-employed who have no paid sick days, I kept on working while ill.

Never again.

FINGERS ON KEYBOARD

Yes, I need to make money. And I need to bump it up by probably 50 percent this year (sigh) to make a significant difference to our quality of life.

How about you?

Do you work to live, or live to work?

It’s Labor Day: What does work mean to you?

By Caitlin Kelly

The radio plays Aaron Copland’s breathtaking “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

Cover of Supply Chain Management Review
Cover of Supply Chain Management Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front page of The New York Times carries this incredibly depressing-but-important story about how clothing factories overseas — the ones that probably made the T-shirt I’m wearing as I write this post — are lying, cheating and faking their “safe” inspected factories:

As Western companies overwhelmingly turn to low-wage countries far away from corporate headquarters to produce cheap apparel, electronics and other goods, factory inspections have become a vital link in the supply chain of overseas production.

An extensive examination by The New York Times reveals how the inspection system intended to protect workers and ensure manufacturing quality is riddled with flaws. The inspections are often so superficial that they omit the most fundamental workplace safeguards like fire escapes. And even when inspectors are tough, factory managers find ways to trick them and hide serious violations, like child labor or locked exit doors. Dangerous conditions cited in the audits frequently take months to correct, often with little enforcement or follow-through to guarantee compliance.

Dara O’Rourke, a global supply chain expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said little had improved in 20 years of factory monitoring, especially with increased use of the cheaper “check the box” inspections at thousands of factories. “The auditors are put under greater pressure on speed, and they’re not able to keep up with what’s really going on in the apparel industry,” he said. “We see factories and brands passing audits but failing the factories’ workers.”

Still, major companies including Walmart, Apple, Gap and Nike turn to monitoring not just to check that production is on time and of adequate quality, but also to project a corporate image that aims to assure consumers that they do not use Dickensian sweatshops. Moreover, Western companies now depend on inspectors to uncover hazardous work conditions, like faulty electrical wiring or blocked stairways, that have exposed some corporations to charges of irresponsibility and exploitation after factory disasters that killed hundreds of workers.

I wrote about the horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the enormous Chinese company whose workers make Apple products (yup, writing on one right now) and who flung themselves out of windows in despair.

I talked about this in “Malled”, my book about retail labor. It was published last month in China, with a new cover and title.

I have several Chinese-speaking friends who have offered to compare the translation to my original — to see if that bit was censored.

It’s a crappy day here in New York — gray, cloudy, hot and humid. It’s an official holiday. Time to relax, recharge, reflect on our role as “human capital” the new euphemism for the old euphemism for human beings toiling for pay — “labor.”

But we are both working, albeit from home.

Jose, whose full-time job as a photo editor for the Times keeps him busy enough, spent all day yesterday on an income-producing side project.

I spent the day with a friend, deep in conversation. Turns out, even with a decade+ age difference between us, despite living on opposite coats, we both spend much of our time figuring out how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.

Time Selector
Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Recent polls are shockingly sad — some 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs. A Gallup poll of 150,000 workers found many of us actively miserable in the place where we spend the bulk of our days and energy.

This is nuts!

I grew up in a freelance family. No one had a paycheck, pension or guaranteed income, working in print, film and television. No one taught on the side. It was balls-to-the-wall, full-on creative entrepreneurship, for years, decades.

I took my first staff job, the job (then and now) of my dreams, as a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, when I was 26. “This is the best job you’ll ever have,” a friend working there warned me. I laughed, assuming a lifetime of up-and-onward, in title, status and income.

She was right.

I hope to stop working full-time within the next decade.

Minute Maid Plant, 1950s
Minute Maid Plant, 1950s (Photo credit: StevenM_61)

I want to travel to the many places I still know very little of: Africa, Latin America, Asia. They require $1,500+, 12-16-hour flights. They are not places I want to cram into a week or ten days “vacation.”

I hope to keep writing books, teaching, keeping my hand in. But not tethered to the hamster wheel of non-stop production.

How do you feel about your job?

More Americans Hate Their Jobs — Even If They Have One

Woman working on an airplane motor at North Am...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

It seems ungrateful to anyone who’s been desperately searching for any form of paid income in this recession, but the news isn’t good, even for those who have a job, reports the AP:

Even Americans who are lucky enough to have work in this economy are becoming more unhappy with their jobs, according to a new survey that found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work.

That was the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in more than 22 years of studying the issue. In 2008, 49 percent of those surveyed reported satisfaction with their jobs.

The drop in workers’ happiness can be partly blamed on the worst recession since the 1930s, which made it difficult for some people to find challenging and suitable jobs. But worker dissatisfaction has been on the rise for more than two decades.

“It says something troubling about work in America. It is not about the business cycle or one grumpy generation,” says Linda Barrington, managing director of human capital at the Conference Board, who helped write the report, which was released Tuesday.

Some other key findings of the survey:

— Forty-three percent of workers feel secure in their jobs. In 2008, 47 percent said they feel secure in their jobs, while 59 percent felt that way in 1987.

— Fifty-six percent say they like their co-workers, slightly less than the 57 percent who said so last year but down from 68 percent in 1987.

— Fifty-six percent say they are satisfied with their commute to work even as commute times have grown longer over the years. That compares with 54 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 1987.

— Fifty-one percent say their are satisfied with their boss. That’s down from 55 percent in 2008 and around 60 percent two decades ago.

Striking to me was that workers under 25 were by far the most frustrated — with 64 percent saying they’re unhappy at work.

In his new book, “Drive”, author Daniel Pink says we all need three things (beyond the money) from our jobs: autonomy, mastery and respect. In my own experience, I’d add authority, community and connection.

That’s a lot. Maybe it’s way too much to ask and we should all shut up and keep our noses to the grindstone(s.)

Do you like your job? If so, why? If not, why not?

Spend $43.71 And You Could Win A Year's Employment

Example of an American grocery store aisle.
Image via Wikipedia

Buy some Windex and paper towel and dog food and cereal — and win a job!

Tigros, an Italian supermarket chain is offering shoppers who spend 30 euros (about $43.71) a lottery ticket that will hand the winner a guaranteed job for one year in one of their markets. Italians, as desperate as the rest of us for some good economic news, have been happily scooping up the tickets, even if they have a job, as the contest allows the winner to hand their good fortune to someone else. Many Italians are hanging onto their jobs and labor laws make it tougher to fire workers, so the unemployed face a tough time.

Would you spend $43.71 for a chance at a minimum-wage, low-skilled job? Any job?