A Middle-class Dream Hits a Dead End
Trapped and frustrated, many Minnesotans have struggled through this economic downturn hoping for a brighter future. In our final installment from Minnesota author Dana Yost, we meet one Minnesotan whose middle-class dream has hit a dead end.
This excerpt from The Right Place is set at a Minneapolis pub and captures Yost’s conversation with a discouraged friend.
From The Right Place, by Dana Yost
My friend works in an accounting division of a Fortune 100 company which has a part of its business sector located in the Twin Cities. He had been a supervisor in the accounts receivable department for quite a while, but the recession led to layoffs, department mergers, and he was now basically an overqualified bill collector.
…He worked with large, corporate customers trying to collect payments in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars every month. And it was more complex than just making phone calls. …For several months, my friend and others in his department had been ordered to try to collect early from customers—calling to have them pay their bills before payment was even due. The practice certainly ticked off customers, but was designed to help his company’s bottom line look better—if it worked, the firm would get more cash in hand at the end of the month or end of the quarter and have fewer outstanding accounts. It was supposed to please the shareholders, make the company look better financially than it might really have been.
It didn’t always work: Many of the company’s customers are themselves Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 companies—what are you going to do if one of them says you will have to wait, we’re going to pay you the $250,000 two weeks from now? Irk them even more and make it even harder to collect the $250,000 or just wait for the nice, full payment?
…In the pub, as we talked about his job, his voice was quiet but had an edge, and the more he talked, the more he swore.
For instance, the chief executive officer of his company frequently talks to employees around the country through webcasts, exhorting them, saying “We’ve got to win this time,” “we’ve got to beat the other guys [their competition],” “It’s all about winning.” It’s meant to be a pep talk. My friend sees it as something cynical.
“Why do we need to drive everyone else out of business?” my friend asked. “I’m not here to win. I just want to do my [expletive] job, get paid and go home.”
Other than just staying employed, there isn’t much incentive for my friend to join the CEO in the fist-pumping. My friend gets no bonuses, doesn’t get a cut of the annual profits, and is certainly not going to get promoted when offices and departments are being merged, and his own supervisory role has been erased.
In fact, it’s becoming even more difficult for him to stay at his current earnings rate. The company has been jacking up the collection expectations from its accounts-receivable employees—if he had a 70-percent collection rate one month, he’d be expected to close 75 percent of the deals the next, then 80 percent, and, soon, 95 percent. In part, it is because the company wants to collect all the payments it is owed, delinquent and current. But it also puts the employee in a nearly impossible situation—expectations too high to realistically achieve. He’s rewarded for doing good work by being expected to do impossible work, and, eventually, in performance reviews, if he is closing 91 percent of his monthly accounts he’ll be graded a failure.
“And right now they have so many applicants for jobs, they’ll have someone standing right over there and go, ‘oh, he looks pretty good,’ and he’s starting to burn out and not making the cut anymore. We’ll just get rid of him.”
In different economic times, of course, he’d leave the job for another one, hopefully at a company with a corporate environment he found more suitable.
Not with the country probably still in recession, unemployment high, whatever jobs are advertised often being part-time, entry-level service-industry roles or over-the-road truck driving jobs. Plus, my friend needs the health insurance he gets through his company.
He has had two serious medical conditions—diabetes and a painful, frightening bout of cancer: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They are pre-existing conditions, meaning he’s uninsurable in most eyes if he tries to change to a new insurer. Other insurance providers likely would reject him because of his health history. It’s already happened. He once asked an insurance agent if it was possible to find a different insurer if he left the job. The agent asked several companies, and they said they would not insure my friend. The agent even checked with Minnesota’s state-provided health insurance program—my friend could get insurance, but at 125 percent of the normal premium—goodbye paycheck.
…My friend’s frustrations have swollen this summer with personal complications—the health of his parents is failing.
…As we sat at the Twins game after our beer and meal at the pub, we tried to talk about the new outdoors Twins stadium, Joe Mauer and the great seats we had. But about midway through the game, my friend got two text messages from his sister, wondering if he had talked with his mother yet that day.
No, he hadn’t. Why?
His mother had had a biopsy on a calcium deposit in her breast. The results had come back, his sister said: stage two cancer, maybe worse. There were going to be more tests the next day, and, the next week, a mastectomy.
He turned the screen of his cell phone toward me: “This overshadows even what Dad is going through,” his sister had written.
“And my dad is terminal,” he said.
From our seats, he called his mother and talked in low tones for a few minutes.
We left the game early, my friend shaken, his face red, near tears. His parents live about two-and-a-half hours away from him. It was a Thursday night. He figured he’d better go see them over the weekend, but he was not sure he could. He had already committed to spending the weekend at work. The end of the corporate fiscal year was just a few weeks away, and he’d told his boss he would have his records ready for the larger company report by the end of the weekend.
We walked back toward the Nicollet Mall, parting at the intersection of Second Avenue and 10th Street. We shook hands, and I gave him a half-hearted “good luck.”
He stood on the street.
“I’m [expletive],” he said, torn between the job and his parents. “What I am I going to do?”
I rode the parking-ramp elevator up to the level where I’d parked, and I thought, “this is middle-class America, isn’t it? He’s in a job he detests but can’t afford to leave, and he can only go tend to his parents by risking his job.”
Every week, his CEO shouts over the Internet, “we’re going to win this!”
I don’t think so.