I quit my job today, a job I've had for five years, a job which I've hated for about four of those years. I've known my employer has read my blog from time to time, and once used some information against me. So I've kept quiet publicly (and complained constantly in private!). But now I can let it all out.
First the cuts
The position started out all right. I've done legal document production work since 1990. I've worked in many corporate law firms, and the quality of the workplace can vary widely, from hellish to quite pleasant. This was a decent firm. My pay rate was good, and I was treated decently, albeit with a below-average physical space.
Then the fun started. In early 2008, the firm laid off about one-third of the staff. There had been seven people on my shift, and we were cut to three, of course with no corresponding reduction of work. After all, we're machines, right? We can just set ourselves to a higher speed.
With the surviving staff reeling from the layoffs, in a climate of fear and anxiety, the firm announced a massive cutback in benefits. And what could we do? We were supposed to be grateful that we had jobs at all.
When you work in a law firm at night, tradition has it that the company pays for a cab home. Night staff in law firms all over North America get a car home. That may sound cushy, but as support staff are predominantly female, and people are going home at midnight and later, it's a safety measure, and a hedge against potential litigation.
The firm cut our transportation benefit, putting a cap on the amount that would be reimbursed - a cap that meant almost no staff (who seldom live downtown) could take a cab home. We could be reimbursed for parking or for train/bus plus cab. (Note how in a non-union environment, the employer can unilaterally change the terms of employment.)
The public transit to my area doesn't run very frequently on weekends, and my commute instantly changed from 25 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes. And I live relatively nearby. Some people were left with a two-hour commute.
In addition to the increased commuting time, I was left waiting in at a bus stop for a cab. I call the cab from the bus, and sometimes its waiting for me... but often it is not. After a long shift, a 15-minute wait for the bus, and a long wait for a cab in a deserted parking lot, is not a great way to end the day.
I was also told I would no longer have paid sick days - all four of them. Supposedly, as a part-time employee, I was not entitled to these, I was given them in error, and now that benefit would end. I argued: an insignificant amount of money to the firm could amount to my entire income for the week, if I happened to get sick on a weekend. They relented on this one; I kept my four measley sick days.
Do I need to add that there was no raise that year?
Shortly after, we received a memo from the managing partner, jubilant about what a profitable year the firm had had.
Then the RSI
Not long after the staff layoffs, I developed a repetitive stress injury. It was an atypical injury, and for a while I didn't recognize what was causing the pain, so I continued to do the work that was aggravating it. My doctor didn't recognize it either. She sent me for x-rays, and was puzzled as the pain worsened. Finally I couldn't lift my right arm. I couldn't pick up a mug of coffee or a toothbrush without waves of pain shooting through my chest and neck.
My massage therapist diagnosed it, and suddenly it all made sense. I got a note from my doctor and asked for an accommodation at work. It meant I wouldn't perform one or two specific tasks. There was plenty of other work to do.
I had some physiotherapy, and at first the firm was supportive. Then they began to harass me. How was the treatment going? When was I going to return to full duties? I explained that the treatment was extremely limited, because I couldn't afford it, and that although the pain had diminished a great deal, that was because I wasn't doing these few specific tasks. As soon as I would resume the motion that caused the RSI, the inflammation and pain would return.
I would periodically receive emails from Human Resources, the tone increasingly annoyed and blunt. Finally my doctor wrote a letter saying the change would likely be permanent. HR said this was unacceptable.
I told HR that I was well within my rights under the Ontario Human Rights Act and the Employment Standards Act, and that they were obligated to comply with my request to modify my duties in this extremely minor way. In the US this is called "reasonable accommodation"; in Ontario it's known as "duty to accommodate". You can be sure that Evil Corporate Law Firm knows the letter of the law backwards and forwards. They were just trying to intimidate me. (Once again, the non-union workplace: we are left to fight against our employers alone.)
That ended the harassment - until it was time for my annual performance review. What a surprise, I received the first non-stellar review of my entire working career. In one year, my performance somehow slipped from excellent or above-average to average or below-average. What a coincidence.
Then there were the co-workers
For one year, I was subjected to an utterly self-absorbed compulsive talker, whose nonstop chatter and ear-splitting volume caused me to wear headphones 100% of the time. I would never express any interest in her life, to avoid a 90-minute answer. I am not exaggerating.
This woman's presence felt like the final straw. Miraculously, she left the department after one year.
Other co-workers have come and gone, but the one constant was a mean-spirited compulsive gossip and inveterate liar, who spent her time either complaining about how everyone was against her, broadcasting everyone's business (much of it fiction), or plotting against her co-workers.
"We have information that you were not, in fact, sick."
We didn't receive raises the following year, or the year after that. The workload continued to increase.
Our supervisors started instituting new, inflexible rules. If we were 15 minutes late to work, or if we had to leave a little early to take care of something, we were to deduct that time from our dinner or lunch breaks. If we misplaced our receipts for transportation, we would not be reimbursed, despite weeks, months, and years of the same amounts claimed for transportation.
To be clear, this is a firm whose partners charge $350 to $500 an hour, whose clients include the largest energy producers and real estate developers in North America, the largest mining operations in the world - and the Conservative Party of Canada. The firm recently opened offices in Vancouver, and the Opening Gala resembled a royal wedding.
Harassing people over a lost receipt for a $20 cab ride, or docking a good employee 15 minutes of pay, is not a financial survival tactic.
Once I used a sick day to attend a war resisters event. A few days later, HR called me at home. "We have information from an online posting board that you were not, in fact, sick, and that you attended a rally."
Are you reading? Did you get that? You were right, I wasn't sick! Fuck you!
Believe me, I tried to get away
I looked for another job - continuously - for 2-1/2 years. I couldn't find another weekend job, and was unwilling to take a full-time, Monday-Friday job. This field is supposed to subsidize my writing and activism, not be a full-time career.
At the same time, freelance writing opportunities were drying up. It's never easy to earn a living as a writer, but the internet has made it all but impossible. So not only did I hate my day-job, it was also my sole source of income. I did a lot of freelance transcribing, which helps pay the bills, but it was a hell of a way to spend my week. Not the way I want to live.
Eventually I concluded that I had to do something entirely different... and realized that to do that, I needed more education. And the rest is (my) history.
And now I am done.
I've done legal document production work since 1990, on weekends since 1995. For a long time, it was an excellent way to support myself - well paid, interesting enough so that it wasn't mind-numbingly boring, but not so challenging that it used any creative energy, and I never had to take work home (literally or mentally). But like so many other fields, available jobs have dried up and working conditions have deteriorated.
The only good thing I can say about my old job is that it paid well. I landed it before wages in the field became depressed - that's why I could force myself not to quit all these years. It will actually be a long time before I make a comparable hourly rate in the library.
But no matter. Because now... I. Am. Free!
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