This is a series about jerks, blowhards, racists, creeps, narcs, petty tyrants, tenured incompetents, passive–aggressive underminers, Taylorist fussbudgets, Pinkertonish snoops, pious liberal union-killers, and sneering capitalist dickheads, which is to say it is a series about bosses. Maybe even your boss. Well, not literally—unless you work or have worked with the people who told us the stories that make up this package—but in the sense that all bad bosses are essentially the same sort of asshole. They dominate your life in one way or another, and they fight like hell to preserve their privilege to do so. If you’ve had a bad boss in your career, you are sure to recognize at least some aspects of the various bosses described below.
Many of the stories detail specific wrongs. The boss who did not let servers take a lunch break. The boss who stalked a worker to try to prove that she did not need workers’ comp. The boss who said her employees were as disposable as paper towels (“If there’s a problem, you can just tear off another sheet.”). Others highlight a system—the gig economy, the consultant-industrial complex, American families’ treatment of au pairs.
There are stories that call out for specific reforms. In the case of an undocumented domestic worker, a path to US citizenship. For the Instacart shopper, laws that prevent gig economy companies from gutting longstanding protections for workers. For the stories not told, an end to companies’ use of unjustified non-disclosure agreements.
But we don’t pretend that individual policies would have fixed all the problems you’ll read about. We live in a world in which, unless you are tremendously lucky, you have to work in an economy that runs on desperation. Most people will find themselves working for someone else. That person will determine how much insult to add to systemic injury.
English picked up “boss” from the Dutch word for “master”: baas. As David Roediger has pointed out, “boss” became popular in America as the artisanal context of “master” began to degrade and the word became more tightly linked to slavery. Slaves had masters. For white workers to distance themselves from the plantation, a euphemism was needed.
The largely unchecked power that bosses hold over workers is what led the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson to conclude that the typical American workplace is, at its core, a dictatorship. It is a place where everything from the clothes you wear to the opinions you express in private messages can be legally controlled and surveilled. When your conduct is found lacking, you are liable to be punished. As Adam Smith understood, you will end up being injured twice over:
What chiefly enrages us against the man who injures or insults us, is the little account which he seems to make of us, the unreasonable preference which he gives to himself above us, and that absurd self-love, by which he seems to imagine, that other people may be sacrificed at any time, to his conveniency or his humour. The glaring impropriety of this conduct, the gross insolence and injustice which it seems to involve in it, often shock and exasperate us more than all the mischief which we have suffered.
The stories below are told by those who felt they could be sacrificed at any time. Some workers chose to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation from past, present, and future employers. Others wanted to speak on the record. Some pulled in six figures, while others were paid at or below the minimum wage. Some did work that is paradigmatically essential: treating patients in a COVID ICU, carrying mail, preparing and delivering food. Others felt like they were just pushing paper.
Many of the workers you’ll hear from found ways to fight back. They struck. They quit. They sued. They made fun of their bosses behind their backs. They said no with Bartleby-like obstinance.
If there is hope, it might be that abusive employers have a way of energizing protest. After a pandemic killed her husband and children in Memphis in 1867, Mary Harris moved to Chicago. Her job was to make dresses for the families of “lords and barons who lived in magnificence.” Looking out of a window as she worked and seeing “the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front,” she found the contrast with her bosses “painful.” Her “employers,” she noted, “seemed neither to notice nor to care.” They lived in luxury. For the rest of her life Harris, for whom this publication is named, would lead a labor movement against the “bosses.”
Amazon has long been accused of treating its workers as expendable. The stories of contract drivers forced to pee in bottles and warehouse employees whose labor is tracked down to the second have become infamous. But the misery doesn’t stop there.
Amazon’s white-collar workers—the ones who write the code and manage relationships with major companies—must endure a corporate culture that is notoriously ruthless compared with those at other major tech companies. This is what it looked like when one of those workers found himself under a boss who embodied Amazon’s obsession with performance and quantifiable results. He asked to be anonymous because he fears retaliation from his current employer.
In response to a request to comment, an Amazon spokesperson said, “While Mother Jones has not provided enough information for us to verify or investigate these claims, the situation described does not reflect our guidance to managers or our performance management policies in respect to employees experiencing personal hardship.” He added, “We work hard to ensure that all employees have what they need to be successful in their roles, including resources for employees who need additional support to navigate challenging personal circumstances or to meet performance expectations.”
I met my wife in 1999 on Yahoo Personals. She was a standup comedian for years. We met, got pregnant, married, and moved all in a year. She was a very cool woman. Being a mom was what she wanted to do. She was just great at it. My daughters are amazing, and I attribute a lot of it to her. They’re 16 and 20.
I started my career doing consulting. Then I went into product management. We moved to California, then we moved to Tennessee. My brother called in 2015 and said, I’ve been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I can remember the date and the time because it was just so surreal. He survived 18 months and died in September 2016. He had actually worked for Amazon running seven or eight of the warehouses before he got sick. Typical of Amazon, they worked him a lot.
In February 2017, my wife and daughters decided to take a walk in the park while I was in California. My wife had a grand mal seizure while she was backing out of the driveway. She ended up backing into a school bus. Luckily, my daughters and the kids on the bus were all okay. I got a call from my wife’s friend saying they’re doing a PET scan at the hospital. My wife was diagnosed with brain cancer.
I did a bunch of research on glioblastoma. To some extent, I knew it was a death sentence. But we did our best not to think about it like that. My employer at the time was really great about it. They were really very helpful in trying to make sure that I was okay.
Then one of my friends reached out in July 2018 and said, we have an opening at Amazon that I think you’d be really interested in. It was a pretty short application process. What they offered me was almost $300,000 per year. That was a shitload of money in Tennessee. You can’t really say no, right?
I told them, I can’t move to Seattle. I explained how bad brain cancer was. There were no surprises for anybody, including my boss. I said, if this is an issue, I can’t come work for you. I needed steady health insurance. My wife’s surgery to remove a tumor was $300,000. If I hadn’t had insurance, I’m not sure what I would have done.
The first three months were really about becoming an Amazonian. They indoctrinate you into their way of thinking. There’s nothing in their leadership principles that talks about caring for other people. You hear all these horror stories about Amazon, but you’re not sure you can believe them. As you live that nightmare, you go, shit, it is like that.
Still, the challenges came a little bit out of nowhere. My boss was saying, we’re seeing some things that we’re concerned with. I said, look, I’m having some issues. Every few months my wife would have an MRI. I would be so tense going to the next MRI because tumors were a fairly frequent occurrence. We were just trying to keep my wife alive.
As we got into the end of 2019, I go to my HR department. With my brother’s death—I had explained to Amazon that my brother had died—I never really took the time to grieve. I pushed down the grief. Then my wife got sicker and sicker. I just got more and more depressed. You see no end in sight.
I had a long talk with HR. The response from them was, okay, you have two options here: You go on family leave, or you can perform. Those are your two options. I was thinking, if I take family leave, I get no income. I remember talking to my wife about it and saying, I can’t believe these are my options. So, I ended up trying my best to power through with the added pressure of knowing my boss wasn’t happy with me, even though I’m not sure what I did. I feel like I was doing the things I needed to do.
It went from mild concern from my boss to heavy concern after my conversation with HR. In December, when we’re in a meeting in Vegas, he comes up to me and says, your performance is not what I expect it to be. You and I need to have a conversation. It was really weird timing with me going to HR in November and then him coming back in December and saying, we don’t think you’re working as effectively as you need to.
I remember sitting there thinking, what the hell did I do wrong? Could I have done things better? Definitely. Could I have gone out and been more proficient in some of the things I did? Sure. As you look at your wife’s mortality, that has an impact I didn’t fully register at the time. But I felt like I never got any support from him. I felt like they were looking for the path of least resistance, which was to push me out.
In February 2020, my boss put me on what’s called a Pivot. The Pivots are typically made so that you’ll fail. As an example, I was going to be judged by a metric I had no control over. They give you an option: Do the Pivot or take $30,000 in severance. A week before the Pivot was supposed to end, I finally said, I can’t do this anymore. I was at my wits’ end. I felt like I was going to lose it at any point. Not that I was going to kill myself, but that I was going to be put in a rubber room. I was able to take family leave because I finally realized I was just clinically depressed. I spent from about February until about June working with a therapist trying to work through my issues. I finally got right in my head.
Then I sent this really long note to Amazon saying the person who I was is not the person who I am. Their response was: We started the Pivot process. We don’t have a choice. We have to do this. They cut one of the goals in half, but it was still a huge amount. My boss basically read the letter I sent and had no compassion. It’s just metrics. I’m a cog in the machine. My wife was not getting better. She was going into radiation.
I felt like it didn’t matter what I said or what I did. He was going to get me out. I can’t tell if it was because of taking family leave. He basically had decided that he was going to let me go, regardless. Towards the end of the Pivot, I said, screw it, I’m gonna get a lawyer. The lawyer said that she had gone through a lot of instances like this at Amazon. Getting a lawyer delayed the inevitable by maybe a couple of weeks.
At the end of the Pivot, my boss said I failed. I had the ability to go to a board to explain why I shouldn’t be on Pivot, but the chances of that working were minimal. The lawyer said, let me write a letter. Amazon ended up responding with a 30-page document that I had to address. My boss knew that my wife was in terrible shape. He just didn’t care. He was just one of those people that was kind of a robot. Whatever was happening outside of work didn’t matter. There were a lot of people I worked with that ended up leaving because of him. Amazon truly is an organization that has very little human emotion to it.
That was the middle of July. By the middle of August, they fired me. I refused to sign a severance letter. I said to my lawyer, I’m not signing that unless they give me what I think is fair, which is a year’s worth of salary. The other thing was my next set of 40 shares of stock options were coming in December. I lost about $100,000 because of when they fired me.
In September, my wife went into hospice. She decided to stop all treatments. I was completely heartbroken. I blame Amazon to an extent for what happened to me, but I also blame my boss for the fact that he was so inhumane about this. I think it was probably 60 or 70 percent my boss, and 30 or 40 percent coming from Amazon’s culture.
I tried to explain to my boss, the person I love the most is dying. How would you be able to cope as an employee? He didn’t care at all. I get the sense that Bezos doesn’t really care about your personal life. It’s like, that’s your thing. You gotta care about the work and the work only. That customer obsession is great in theory, but the human impact is devastating for someone like me. I had to go on COBRA. I had no income. I couldn’t work because I didn’t know what was going on with my wife.
My wife died two months later. What if she had survived five months? What would I have done? They gave me three months of COBRA. I had savings so we probably could have lasted a period of time. At some point money would have become an issue, but I would have begged forever to have my wife last longer.
My wife went comatose the last week of her life. It’s part of what happens as people die from glioblastoma. They kind of lose consciousness, but they’re still here with you. I didn’t sleep for eight days. I was watching her die every day. It was awful. If I could come back to my boss, I would like him to understand what it looked like. But I’d never want him to go through it because it was so painful. And still is.
This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.
It started back in 2016 after I tore my peroneal tendon in my ankle on the gun range.
The agency fought tooth and nail with the office of workers’ comp not to approve a much-needed repair surgery. Two of my personal doctors said I needed it. So did an orthopedic specialist that the agency selected. Still, the agency delayed my surgery until 2018. All that time I was walking around in a cast or boot in agonizing pain.
I was not working because they would not let me work considering that I needed surgery. My supervisor, as a way to try to get promoted, felt as though she had to prove to the office of workers’ comp and senior management officials that I was not injured. So she decided to stalk me. She was outside of my house. I had pictures taken of her following me. I had her arrested. I went to court with this lady to prove that she was stalking me. And I won my grievance and had a restraining order issued against her.
After that, in 2019, the agency decided that I could no longer be at FCI Aliceville in Alabama. They transferred me to FCC Yazoo City in Mississippi.
It only gets worse. I mean, that’s mild compared to some other things that this agency has done to me. I’ve been with the Bureau of Prisons almost 12 years. This place is very troublesome. They don’t try to hide it either. This agency likes to pride itself on integrity and leadership—but these words are a far cry from what they’re about. Because integrity? This agency doesn’t have any. Leadership? There’s none. It’s the old-boy network.
You have to understand that in the Bureau of Prisons, these people are connected in more than one way. If they’re not connected through marriage or blood relations, these people are connected socially. I know that’s why they targeted me at FCC Yazoo City. It’s like you just go from the frying pan right into the fire.
After I reported to FCC Yazoo City in the fall of 2019, my brother passed away. They denied my request for leave. Still, I went out—grieving my brother. For that, they listed me as AWOL.
It opens up a disciplinary case on you. They’re saying you decided not to come to work. And they can use that as grounds for terminating you.
It got worse from there. In December 2019, I had a doctor’s appointment. When I came back, I had a walking boot on my foot. It was just supposed to be on for three or four days until I had an MRI. Well, during that time I was told I couldn’t come back to the institution. They said they had no place for me so I couldn’t come back till they had a meeting to determine a placement.
I would email them every day, and every day turned to every week, asking them what the outcome of my meeting was. Weeks became months. These people kept me out of work for seven months without receiving a paycheck.
So I filed the EEO complaint against them.
They received the Report of Investigation telling them I had to be reinstated. Then they had the audacity to tell me I had 24 hours to report back to work—in July 2020! Once I got back, I found out they had listed me as AWOL for the seven months I was out.
So finally, I’m back at work, and then I was placed with a supervisor who has a propensity for being an aggressor. She has, I want to say, five or six threat assessments, which is where you have allegedly posed a threat to someone you’re supervising or working with.
In April this year, she threatened me, moving in an aggressive manner. But the agency didn’t think she was a threat, so they wouldn’t remove me from her line of supervision.
Then in June this year, she decided she was going to “accidentally” discharge her OC spray in an area I occupied. I’m asthmatic, so I ended up having to go to the hospital.
She never owned up that she did it. She didn’t report that she had discharged it. But I was off work for a week or so afterward, and I’m still receiving medical treatment because I have developed a lung issue regarding this pepper spray.
While I was off work again, upper management decided they were going to further be nasty by telling me that I couldn’t come to work—even though my doctor returned me to work. Once you’re given a clearance to return, if the agency doesn’t have a job for you, it’s incumbent upon the agency to pay you through administrative leave. And they didn’t want to pay me. I said, “I’m not going home without knowing how I’m gonna get paid.” So they called the sheriff’s department to have me escorted from the premises. A false rumor went around—and I believe management started it—that I had been arrested and escorted off the property for bringing in contraband to the inmates and having sex with the inmates.
I’m a teacher at the prison complex, and in the meantime they now have me sitting at the camp education department. They’re trying to make it appear as if I’m under investigation, but that’s not what’s happening: I’m at the camp because I can’t be around OC spray and can’t walk long distances because of the injuries sustained to my lungs. But the rumor has spread.
At the Bureau of Prisons, here’s what they like to do when they have an issue with you: They kill off your character. That’s what mean bosses do. They kill off your character. To try to give you no credibility within the agency or with your peers. And that’s what they’re trying to do with me.
This agency is a monster. And as we speak now, I am trying to either transfer to another agency or leave the institution where I’m at. I would love to go to the Department of Defense with the military school system, or to work with the Department of Education itself in DC. But the BOP is just not it.
This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.
The nurse in this story spent most of the pandemic working in a Texas COVID ICU run by a for-profit hospital company. She asked to remain anonymous to protect her from potential retaliation.
I grew up in Texas and was always involved in athletics. An athletics scholarship allowed me to be the first person in my family to go to college. I studied what I was comfortable with: sport science. By the time I graduated, I realized it wasn’t fulfilling.
I had no long-term goals, so I decided to go overseas for a few years to continue pursuing my athletic potential. While I was there, I got really sick. I ended up needing a pretty major surgery, and I was in the ICU for a week. I didn’t have any way to get in touch with my family except through Skype, which I couldn’t do because I was so out of it. I only spoke like a 5-year-old level of the language.
There’s a lot I don’t remember because I was probably sedated, but I do remember one nurse who really went out of her way to try to communicate with me. She took great care of me. Right then and there, I knew I wanted to be a nurse. I moved back to Oklahoma and started prerequisites and got into nursing school as soon as I could. I’ve always worked in the ICU—six years. I really love being a nurse. It’s truly my calling.
I’ve seen all three waves of the pandemic. I started at my old hospital two years ago. I tried to pick a hospital that had good reviews, and this one did. They had a $20K signing bonus. Usually, a big signing bonus means you’re walking into a shitshow because they want to be able to retain you. Twenty-seven dollars an hour was our base pay.
I learned right away that they spare every expense. It seemed like they were saving money by putting everything on the bedside nurse. I charged in one of three ICU units that are like sister units. As a charge nurse, I don’t get paid anything extra. At this hospital, it was our responsibility to do the staffing numbers for the next shift, to make sure there’s enough staff. But there never was.
I was in COVID 75 percent of the time, maybe 80. The units have 13 beds. A nurse will have one or two patients—one if they’re supercritical. Very rarely, someone may get tripled. To be properly staffed, we really need seven to eight nurses on the unit. But we’ve been running at five.
It’s just been hard. There are medications called “drips” that run continuously to keep our patients’ blood pressures in an appropriate range. There are medications we need to give to keep them sedated if they’re on the ventilator. Especially with COVID, we have a challenge of keeping patients sedated enough. Their lungs are so noncompliant, you have to keep them heavily, heavily sedated.
If you keep that kind of medication on a patient, oftentimes their blood pressure will go down. Then you have to compensate with a blood pressure medication. They also have blood-clotting issues so they have to be on continuous anti-clotting medication. A lot of these patients are on seven drips. The drips are weight-based. We’re in South Texas, so most of our patients have the South Texas Special: hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity. They’re just big. We run through these medications really quickly.
It’s very exhausting, just staying on top of the drips alone. But there are also all the other things that come with maintaining someone’s body when they are incapacitated. ICU is somewhere where, if you have a hole, we got a tube in it, or we can make a hole and put a tube in it. They’re on the ventilator. They have a feeding tube. Often they have one or more chest tubes. I’ve seen up to five. They have a catheter. They have a rectal tube. They have central lines. Patients, before all of this, would have been a one-to-one. Now we’re tripling those patients because we don’t have enough nurses.
In the first and second waves, all patient care—not just at this hospital—was relegated to the bedside nurses in the COVID ICU units. Doctors didn’t come into the room. We would give them our head-to-toe assessment. They would just take our word for it and write orders. We didn’t have EVS to come in and clean. We didn’t have lab to come and draw. We did all the physical occupational therapy. We were doing eight people’s jobs at once.
Standard ICU orientation is 12 weeks long—no shorter than eight. Even if you go from one facility to another, they give you six to eight. I was orienting our nurses for five weeks. There are things these nurses haven’t ever seen, especially nurses who went to nursing school during the pandemic and had a very limited clinical course. These new nurses were just shocked. The first two weeks, I’m just, “Watch what I do. I’m here to answer any questions.” We go from there but that’s already halfway into their orientation.
I’ve had two orientees I’ve had to fight for one extra week for. The next week management said, “Okay, we’re going to change preceptors. We’re going to put this new nurse with a new preceptor and see if they can get them off orientation faster.”
If I see something that’s not right, I say it, but not everybody’s that way. If you’re a new nurse and your superior tells you to do something, you just say, “Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.” You’re worried about losing your job. I feel like the hospital preys upon that. They’re typically more timid about asking for a raise. The poor staffing ratio is all they know. Not at all their fault, but I never felt comfortable going to lunch because usually I would have the most critical patients and be leading a group of nurses who hadn’t had this type of therapy before.
Here’s an example of what can happen if you take a nurse off orientation too soon: A nurse got a patient who came up from the ER intubated. He was on three blood pressure medications. An experienced nurse would have thought: What’s causing his blood pressure to be so low? Is he on any medication? No? Is he bleeding? But if you have an inexperienced nurse, all they’re doing is just replacing the drips, and they can’t be at the computer all the time to see orders. She didn’t know that the doctor had ordered an abdominal scan.
I was on a different unit that day and I heard a Code Blue overhead. I ran to her room. We coded this guy and he died. She ended up getting blamed for his loss because she didn’t take him down to get the scan. But in her defense, he was so unstable, he likely would have passed en route. It turns out he had an internal bleed that if they had been able to know what it was and where it was coming from, he could have gotten surgery.
I feel so bad for her because management really came down on her. She wasn’t fired, but she was encouraged to leave. She ended up going to another hospital that offered a 12-week orientation. Last time I talked to her, she was really happy there and things were starting to click for her.
One of my last shifts, we had five nurses. I was the charge. I had to triple two of the nurses. I had two patients of my own, and I was running a dialysis machine on another patient. We had a patient down the hall: 90 years old, had just gotten intubated; her oxygen was 55. We’d been asking for any physician to call family and talk about maybe making a DNR. They were all too busy putting out fires themselves. She coded.
So we ran in there, and we got her back. We called the family to let them know. Any healthy 90-year-old wouldn’t have a good prognosis. But on top of that, with COVID, she was a smoker and had other issues. At this point, it’s just prolonging suffering. You’re literally cracking somebody’s ribs when you do CPR. They’re naked in the room. It’s not like it is in the movies.
The patient’s family hung up. We have a no-visitor policy in the unit because of COVID. I don’t know how the daughter got through security. She came up all the way to the unit—no mask—and demanded to speak to the charge nurse about why she couldn’t be in the room with her mother.
It’s a fair question. Nobody should have to die alone, and she’s not wrong about that. But at the same time, this family member also had COVID. We all knew the whole family had COVID. None of them were vaccinated. Then she comes in without a mask.
It takes a lot of strength, especially at the end of the shift, to be professional at that point. I told her, “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I understand. No, your mother shouldn’t have to pass alone. I can put a tablet in the room. But, unfortunately, I have to ask you to leave. Please, put on this mask.” I tried to give it to her. She knocked it out of my hand, called me a bitch, and said this was all a fucking conspiracy. I paged the unit and told everybody, “Stay away from the front desk if you can.” Then I called security, and she was escorted out.
That’s not how I would have wanted it to be. At that point, you have to think of safety over dignity. I had never thought about that. At every other point in my nursing career, I’ve never kept anybody from family when they’re passing. It’s always been about making sure, whatever they believe in, they feel okay about the process.
The circumstances surrounding this pandemic, especially this wave, where many of these deaths could have been prevented, are heartbreaking. We’ve had several people in the COVID ICU say, “I really wish I would have gotten the vaccine.” I feel bad for those people because a lot of them had intended to get it, but they just put it off. We’ve had people who thought they’d have more time to think about it.
When I can, I try to be in the room with the patient as they pass. I try to call family on Zoom. There are ways that you can arrange for a family member to be there, but there is also a route to do that, and that route is not coming up to the nurse’s station without a mask and cussing someone out.
Now, it’s like every third one asks about Ivermectin. I had one today. We had just intubated her mom overnight. She said, “How long is she going to be intubated?” I said, “Well, it could be months.” I went into how it all works. She said, “Well, what about the medication you’re giving her? Is that going to help her?”
I said, “What medication?”
She’s like, “Aren’t you giving ivermectin?”
I said, “No, ma’am. There’s currently no evidence to support its use.” It gets brought up all the time.
One of our managers just wasn’t doing his job. He stayed in his office and the pandemic happened. He got fired because he was just kind of worthless. The second one was a little sneakier. He was hired in October. He was fairly knowledgeable. He was younger, early 30s. I quickly started to notice that the nurses being hired were fairly attractive. There’s nothing wrong with that, but he started making comments to several of us.
He’d never say things in front of other people, and you couldn’t really distinguish whether he was joking. The only time I would go by the old manager’s office was to get candy. After he left, this other guy took his office. I would go in there to get candy, but the candy bowl was always empty. I was like, “Where’s the candy?” He was like, “The only snack in this office is me.”
I’m sure you’ve heard my son in the background. I’m too old for that shit. I’m 33. I jokingly said, “Eww,” and walked away, because I’m like, maybe he’s kidding. Then he came up to me later. He said, “Was it really ‘eww’?” He wanted me to break it down for him. I was like, “Yes, actually, eww.”
In February, I found out I was pregnant. The baby had a lot of problems. The bloodwork showed she had congenital issues. I had to go see a specialist. They only had certain days I could come in so I had to get coverage for my shift so I could go get scans checked out. I asked him if he knew anybody who could take my shift. Right away he filled the spot. I was really grateful that I didn’t have to stress about that or take a hit to my record.
We found out we were going to lose her. I had to schedule for a week and a half after that so I could deliver. I had to find more coverage. I texted him and asked if he could help. Insurance wasn’t going to cover me for short-term disability, so I scheduled the procedure for midweek. Then I stacked my week to work at the very beginning of one week. Then I had a long split and didn’t have to return until the next Thursday.
The week before the procedure, I was a walking tomb basically. He came up to me and put his hand on my stomach and was like, “Do you like how quickly I found coverage for you and the baby?” It felt creepy. It was creepy. I didn’t say anything to anyone about it because it felt like something that could easily be explained away, and I was questioning my own emotions at the time—losing a child and managing everything and trying to find a cremator, and blah, blah, blah.
He knew what was happening with the pregnancy. I’m pretty open. I’m in therapy for PTSD from the first wave. And he had helped me get coverage for when I needed the delivery and all that. But I didn’t say anything. I tried not to think about it. I tried to block it out. When I came back to work, all these other things came to light. He had been sleeping with three of the new nurses he hired and had also been sleeping with another nurse who’d only been a nurse for a year.
There was a point in May where there were a couple of us who kind of knew it was going on but didn’t feel safe to tell anybody. At that point, there was one COVID unit. He was the manager for three units. He was picking favorites and sending his least favorite people to COVID. He was basically punishing people if they said that they would go forth and say something or if they challenged him in any way.
It was probably early June when we started asking for raises. We were asking just for anything at that point. We didn’t tell him we needed a raise to keep working with him. I think he tried to push through a raise for everyone. Then he got fired and we had interim management come in early July.
The interim manager was covering five units at once and didn’t know any of us. For most of the other units in the hospital, their charge nurses automatically get a $1-an-hour incentive. For whatever reason, our unit doesn’t qualify. I guess this interim manager assumed we already had extra money. Most of the other nurses, some of whom had just recently been hired, got a $2 to $5 bonus. But charge nurses didn’t. We’re in charge of these nurses who have six months of experience. I’m not saying they didn’t deserve that raise. They absolutely did. But it was very unfair.
We weren’t feeling appreciated. Definitely not compensated. After I got called a bitch by an unmasked family member who had COVID and didn’t get a raise, I thought, you know what, if I have to work with these patients anyway, I need to be paid for it because right now I am losing it.
We had traveling nurses coming in. You talk to them and find out they’re making $100 per hour. I found out that some of them stayed local. I started putting in applications to be a contract nurse. All the while, I was talking with other charge nurses, and we were all thinking the same thing. I guess it was maybe the third week in August when all of us came to the same conclusion: It was time to go.
When we put in our two weeks, we did try to bargain with our bosses. We didn’t want to leave per se, now that our previous boss was gone. All of us felt guilty for leaving, and it’s hard to transition to another job. We didn’t necessarily want to leave just for the money, but it was a slap in the face that we didn’t get the bonus that everybody else did.
I asked for $50 an hour. They said that’s too much. Then I asked for $40. They said that’s too much. They didn’t budge at all. I might’ve even stayed for a retention bonus. We also tried asking for less responsibility. They said that wasn’t possible. They said these things have to get done and there’s nobody else to do it. It was like, okay, we’ll force your hand and see who’s going to do it when all of us are gone.
We were over two of the five COVID units. Now the unit is left with even fewer nurses and no leadership because the interim director doesn’t know anybody. It’s not safe. It wasn’t safe before with only one experienced nurse per shift. But even though all these issues were out of my control, there’s a feeling that I’m leaving people behind.
I’m at a COVID ICU at a hospital just down the street. I get $90 an hour, then $1,200 a week for living and food expenses. My goal is to save everything, go back to school, get a higher degree, and keep working in the medical field. I’m working just as hard now, but I don’t have anywhere near the mental load. I haven’t had to go to any codes. I don’t have to worry about staffing. All that stress is gone. I just get to worry about my patients.
This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.
When the pandemic hit, dancers from Jumbo’s Clown Room, a popular Los Angeles joint—part dive bar, part strip club—were out of a job. To make money with the world shuttered, they created Cyber Clown Girls: an online show that became explosively popular, reaching thousands of viewers, many outside of the city. For the first time, the dancers were able to become their own bosses. Without having to conform to a club owner’s whims and demands—over their schedules, their sets, how they should style their hair, what kind of make-up they should wear—each felt a new freedom. Work had other difficulties. But in a world with so many shitty bosses, it was invigorating to work collaboratively, instead of competitively, with other dancers—and redistribute tips they made to reproductive justice and LGBTQ+ organizations.
Below is a conversation with three former Jumbo’s dancers, Akira/Coco Ono, Velveeta, and Reagan, who share about their bad bosses and the mistreatment they’ve faced in their collective 20-plus years experience in dancing and sex work in Los Angeles, while juggling grad school and careers in the arts.
Setting the Stage
Reagan: I’m based in LA and I have worked in the industry for I think 12 years. I was a dancer at Jumbo’s for 11 years. I was dancing on and off at Star Garden. I started there about 10 years ago.
Akira/Coco Ono: I’ve been dancing since 2005. I’ve danced all over LA and Las Vegas and a little bit in New York. I’ve been working at Jumbo’s and other clubs since 2005.
Velveeta: I’ve been dancing for only like four years now, since 2017. I started at Star Garden and I was there for a year. Then I worked at Jumbo’s for a year before the pandemic.
Akira/Coco Ono: Jumbo’s is known to be a cool place to work and somewhat respectable. Most people that I told that I worked there thought it was pretty cool. And it was cool because it was a women-owned. It was all women bartenders. I think that was the outside perception of what it was.
But we all did not have that experience working there. There was a constant anxiety—kind of like under the surface and favoritism. I don’t know if unethical is the word but just favoritism played a lot in hiring practices and schedule-making by our boss Karen. That was pretty complicated.
Reagan: For 10 years I was a recipient of Karen’s favoritism. I enjoyed all of the benefits of that—which is something that I think I’m atoning for now, to be honest.
That included being able to get away with dancing a certain way on stage. There was this sort of unspoken understanding that certain people could get away with wearing something slightly see-through or kind of pulling their panties down a little provocatively.
Karen seemed very turned off and just kind of squeamish around sexuality a lot of the time. So, when she was there, there was a code word in the dressing room. “Can I wear this?” someone would ask. And I’d be like, “No, mom’s here.” You really had to be on your best behavior. Like, “mom’s here so be on your best behavior”—or you might not get the shifts that you want. That is definitely a part of everyone’s experience: the anxiety around getting shifts, the number of shifts, and how good those shifts are. It was really around how you tailored your interactions and presentation to her.
If you had a good interaction with her you could expect to have a good schedule the next week. If you had a bad or confusing, baffling, any other kind of interaction with her—where she said something weird or didn’t smile—then you could likely expect to have a less than favorable number of shifts. So, you were constantly trying to be on your best behavior and present yourself in a way that was obsequiously pleasing, so that you would get the shifts at your job that you make your money at. There was something very bizarre about that. It was a part of the culture. Like this is what you have to do to survive. You have to make sure that every interaction with her is like pleasing and whatever and just get through it.
Akira/Coco Ono: The shifts were always very erratic which is why all of us worked at other clubs simultaneously. Or at least that’s why I did. I would pick up shifts at other clubs or go to Vegas or do whatever you had to do. That was pretty apparent early on.
We were all really good employees. We’re all really good entertainers. We are all really good at talking to people. We all had customers. So, it’s confusing to be both in the industry where that’s important, then on top of that, you’re pandering to your boss, who in the end makes the final decision.
It doesn’t matter how much money you’re bringing in, how nice you are to customers, how many drinks are being bought. None of that actually matters.
Velveeta: I would say I felt it more so than other clubs I’ve worked at because it was a family run place. Karen was the boss, and then her other family members work there. It was kind of like, if you went against the family or something then you were at risk of losing your job or good shifts.
It created toxic dynamics in the dressing room. I think the girls that were in with Karen felt a certain impunity and used that as a way to be kind of the head of the pecking order. There’s just that kind of the power dynamic there. It was uncomfortable.
The boss at Star Garden was more indifferent. He basically didn’t have relationships with any of the dancers. He was more of a stereotypical strip club boss. His name is Hans, he’s a big burly German guy. The infamous quote from him is that “dancers are like cockroaches. They are drawn to the sugar and if you squash one it doesn’t matter.”
Akira/Coco Ono: But you know what? The cockroaches are going to basically outlive everyone. It’s the oldest profession on earth, right? We’re fine.
Velveeta: He saw dancers as interchangeable. Most club owners are pretty indifferent or see dancers as interchangeable.
Reagan: Does every strip club boss have an infamous line where they say something disparaging about the disposability of dancers? That just totally reminded me of the “dancers are like paper towels” quote.
Akira/Coco Ono: If there were better working conditions, perhaps we wouldn’t be flaky and have to go find 16 jobs. Because like what would a strip club be without dancers? It would just be a bar. And would it be successful? I don’t know, maybe.
Even going out of town was kind of stressful because you have to constantly make sure it’s okay and check in. We would do crazy things. Like I flew back from Korea and immediately went to work. I had a really traumatic time there, but I was so afraid of not having a shift.
I worked injured one time. I would just go on stage with an ankle wrap or a wrist brace. I remember a lot girls going into work like that.
Reagan: You need the money so that was how you were going to eat that week. And the other part of it was you didn’t want to seem inferior and have your schedule cut. You didn’t want to call out because that made you look unreliable, and you could be punished the week after. You just had to suck it up and get through the shift.
In early 2020, as the coronavirus spread in California, venues began to close. In March 2020, Jumbo’s Clown Room shut down due to a statewide lockdown.
Reagan: Then, in May, this year there was an email that went out—but not to all of us—announcing that Jumbo’s was reopening. It said to submit your ID and social security card so that you could be rehired.
It was hilarious because nearly every single dancer responded with questions and then no one got any answers. But the three of us were not included on that email. That was our first hint that we were being fired or not rehired.
Akira/Coco Ono: I got some text from other girls saying, “Hey I’m going back.” And I quickly realized that I wasn’t part of the memo.
Reagan: A lot of us sent emails asking for clarification like, “What does this mean? Is this an indication that we’re not being offered a position anymore?” It was just a complete ghosting situation which really freaked us out because we had seen this happening for years that Karen just ghosts people when she fires them.
Velveeta: I felt like there was another email during the pandemic that told us that we’d be getting some payments because they received a PPP loan so I expected that I would get a couple thousand because it was supposed to represent six months’ pay. I ended up receiving $400 total.
It was like a slap in the face then to not be rehired and not have any communication about that. I would have been able to forgive that if I had gone back to Jumbo’s when it reopened and been able to make that money that I was making before it closed. Now it’s like, man, really?
Reagan: I think it was approximately 10 dancers that did not get the rehiring information. It was very weird and unceremonious.
A lot of the dancers—including the three of us—that were more political and outspoken, that were working with certain organizations about social justice and the industry, were not rehired. It’s things like that that make me wonder. There’s a pattern. It’s not black and white but it does stand out to me as a possible reason. Because otherwise, like, we were all good at our jobs. No other explanation has been offered.
Akira/Coco Ono: We can’t really prove it either way so maybe speculating isn’t a good idea.
Velveeta: I think it was just because she didn’t like my hair. I wore wigs to my audition then I started to not wear it. It was kind of edgy, the shaved sides. I feel like I didn’t fit in with her vision. She likes the pin-up, cute look.
Akira/Coco Ono: I had that issue too. I had my sides shaved and she kept asking me for an entire year if my hair had grown back yet. I was too afraid to cut it while I was there. I just grew it and kept it black. What other jobs do you have to worry so much about pleasing your hair do? You can’t change your hair.
With clubs closed, the pandemic helped the dancers flip the script. They began to organize shows online without the fear of retaliation from their bosses.
Reagan: In the heyday it was awesome, so liberating and empowering.
Akira/Coco Ono: We all split the money and we were all able to just do weird stuff. We did some hilarious acts—there was one with a zucchini and a shredder. It was genius. That would never happen on stage at work. I got to see people’s humor. It was great for about six months.
Reagan: It was performance: It could be as weird or as sexy as we wanted, all the time. Before we would have to mitigate the sexiness to please the boss. That was the best part. We did things differently. It was like a great model of equity and being able to kind of compensate everyone equally. You didn’t have to feel like you were competing with any other dancer. It was just a completely different vibe than what a club usually is.
There needs to be a shift where we are working together and it’s hard because the industry is built on the assumption of competition. There’s the greater enemy out there who is totally delighted that we have not figured out how to really join forces and take it down. That’s the next step, like really reaching across to each other and developing stronger supportive networks.
Akira/Coco Ono: We don’t deserve the treatment we get because we’ve chosen to be in this industry. Whether or not people like it, we are functioning members of this economy. There is a lot of money that passes through dancers and all sex workers.
I’m not really interested in going back to any old models. I’m obviously very idealistic because a lot of us are and I think after the pandemic and everything that’s happened, I can’t go back at this point.
Velveeta: I’m feeling sort of like I want to exit sooner rather than later too. The customers are just so gross sometimes. I don’t want to deal with them.
We are basically asked in our jobs to perform all of the things that are expected by femmes, by men and by society. We are supposed to be pleasing and sexually and emotionally available and supportive. As it’s currently structured, we’ve been exploited by the industry, and we haven’t been paid for it.
I would hope that there could be a cultural shift as well to acknowledge that femme labor, or like sex labor really, is a feminist cause and our rights and our welfare and ability to perform this work and flourish is at the crux of feminism.
I love identifying as a stripper and I want to continue in that. But I want to find a way to continue that as part of a revolution. I would love to work collectively to open a club with a real progressive labor model. The Lusty Lady is a great example of what could be and that was like 30 years ago.
We’ve seen the major unionization efforts fail throughout the pandemic and society is stacked against labor organizing right now. That hopefully will change during the Biden administration and that feels like the way forward.
Reagan: Going back to the way things were isn’t a satisfying option spiritually for me. I don’t know if it’s realistic but it is my dream to open something up. I’ve been talking to my friends about how to get a pop-up started and see if eventually we can have a brick-and-mortar venue.
Akira/Coco Ono: We should just plan a pop-up so we can have a retirement.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
It was one of the first things he said to me. The team’s general manager told me, the social media manager, that I couldn’t speak to players—because I might sleep with them. How do you successfully leverage social media without access to the one thing people care about in sports? It was a trip. I couldn’t believe it even came out of his mouth. I honestly should have known then exactly what it’d be like working there.
Fortunately, the PR director knew it was ridiculous and said I could do whatever I needed to. Still, they preferred that I stay out of the clubhouse. The PR intern (male) had full access. But me (female manager) had to stalk players going from the clubhouse to batting practice. Eventually, I was able to build my own professional rapport with the team.
But the whole environment was toxic. I think it’s well documented that MiLB is a cesspool. Just less so for office workers. I felt that in order to “make it,” you had to forfeit your personal life and goals for the “glamour” of working in sports.
I was blamed for the wifi being out. It fell under the purview of someone else, but I was still screamed at by two grown men. The hours were batshit bonkers. I had to beg for a night off to go to my aunt’s wedding. The GM asked if I could skip the reception and come back to work. I missed my cousin’s college graduation because I had to choose between that or the wedding since it was back-to-back nights.
Of course, we were paid pennies, too. The pay structure was based on commission from ticket sales. Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know group tickets and corporate sponsorship sales did all right. I was in charge of social media and the merchandise store, then was given $2 Tuesday ticket packages to sell. So, no time to sell, and something with a small return to sell. Then, I was reamed for not pushing tickets.
Goes without saying that every word out the general manager’s mouth was a lie or lip service. He was the ultimate chameleon. Whatever situation he was in, he’d adapt to try to appear that he was better than he was. If he was around owners, he was a polite kiss-ass with “business savvy.” If he was around MLB players on rehab or other teams’ top prospects, he’d pretend to know every finite detail about them and their careers. He’d want to talk shop and try to give them tips as if they needed or wanted it. If he was around families at the ballpark, he’d portray himself as the quintessential family man. It was embarrassing.
When I left, I needed a few months to “get back to myself.” My family told me I had started morphing into a negative-focused person because of my job. There were some good apples in the bunch, but the toxicity of the bad ones was unparalleled. I think when you’re immersed in a hostile environment, your defense mechanism is to adopt the characteristics of the ones attacking you. You see it in work environments, families, marriages—people harden themselves and become harsh to keep from being hurt. It took some time for me to start thinking and behaving like my old self. In hindsight, I had become quick to anger, made snide comments for no reason—about anything and everything, really. I was being swallowed by selfishness.
I quit without notice early in the season. But who wouldn’t? I was 105 pounds, from the stress.
I packed up my office in the middle of a doubleheader. When it was over, I went into the general manager’s office and gave him my keys. I told him I was quitting and wouldn’t be back. He asked me if I was going to be there for the rest of the homestand. I reiterated I was walking out the doors and never coming back. He was watching the radar to see if it’d rain that night and was having the staff gather to pull tarp over the field. His final response was, “Well, I guess you’re not pulling tarp?” I said no. Then he said, “Yeah, I guess that would be anticlimactic.” I just left after that. It was like talking to a brick wall at that point.
Alice, a former Instacart worker who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her from potential retaliation from the company, has a boss. But it is not a person. It is an opaque algorithm.
When something goes wrong, there is neither an office Alice can walk into nor a person she can call. There are only the anonymous agents she chats with through an app. They, too, are beholden to a line of code of someone else’s design.
In March, a new funding round doubled Instacart’s valuation to $39 billion. The company’s thirtysomething founder, Apoorva Mehta, is now a billionaire many times over. As an “independent contractor” in the gig economy, Alice lacks basic labor protections, including the right to form a union or receive overtime pay. This is what it was like to find herself beholden to an algorithm in the midst of a pandemic.
I’m originally from northwest Iowa and settled in Des Moines 15 years ago. In college, I studied interior design and psychology. I started serving in various restaurants very young and kind of progressed up the ladder. I was set to begin working at an events space. Construction got severely delayed, and it became clear that it might not happen. So, I had to move on.
I started doing Instacart 40 to 50 hours a week in January 2020. Two weeks to a month after I started, I thought it was amazing. I found it great to make people happy and do something they needed. I thought it could always be something I did on the side if I wanted a little extra cash. It was almost like a drug in the beginning. I could always do better, go faster, and make more if I worked harder.
I want to say it was March 2020 when we were instructed to leave orders at the door of people’s houses and send a photo. It became more stressful to shop, not only because of the health concerns, but because stores were out of things constantly and Instacart’s stock often does not align with the store’s inventory. If a customer has tipped a percentage of their order total and the store is out of five items, we lose that money.
I wake up at 3 or 3:30 in the morning to be able to get in a little exercise and dog time and be ready for work at 5:30, because on a good day, that’s when the first batches will be released. From 5:30 on, I’m just scrolling. I’m not a phone person, so it’s very odd to just stare at my phone constantly. The good jobs get claimed in like 0.2 seconds. Sometimes I’m scrolling until 7, 7:30, before I leave the house.
From there, if there’s not a trip immediately, I’ll try to park close to places that are getting orders. But lately that’s been frustrating because even though there’d be a glowing red orb around a certain store, you’re not seeing orders from that store. Today was bad. I think I spent three or four hours in my car just scrolling and driving to a different store thinking I was not by the right hotspot.
On a typical day, I shoot for 75 percent actually working. But that can get closer to 60 to 40. On a really bad day, it’s 50-50. You might just give up early because you can’t stand waiting anymore. I usually work until 4 p.m. unless I’ve got a big bill coming up. Then I’ll push through and work for as long as I can.
Things are heavy. More often than not, I have a pallet cart. On a good day, I consider it a free workout. But I also have a foot condition. On my right foot, I only have one toe. It hadn’t really started giving me trouble until I hit 30ish. Now it hurts at the end of the day.
Whether an order is worth taking depends on how long I’ve been sitting and how desperate I am. At 5:30, I like to have $35 or more per batch. The lowest I go generally is $20. If I’m really desperate sometimes I’ll just do a smaller, lower-paying trip to fill the time. About 75 percent of my pay comes from tips. Since we can’t rely on Instacart to compensate us fairly, we’re putting a lot of faith in the customers.
Customers can remove tips after an order is completed. It’s called tip baiting. If you put a large tip, it will be taken instantly. People will shop, they’ll do their best, you’ll get your stuff, and then you always have the option to edit the tip after the fact. That can mean removing it entirely. It’s happened to me twice.
Last year, it was very normal to see five to nine batches at a time. For the past four months, I see four maximum, and they’re definitely lower-paying batches. Instacart has never been completely transparent about the pay. It’s always 60 cents a mile in Iowa, but then the amount on top of that to total the batch earnings has gradually decreased.
When I started, I kept very detailed financial records of every trip. I’m making a third of what I made last year despite working the same hours. Around this time last year, I was making $25 to $30 an hour on a weekday before expenses, and $35 to $40 an hour on weekends. These past two months, I’ve averaged $12 an hour. After expenses, I’ve been making $7.50 to $8. I realized that could be partly because the pandemic was ebbing, but you also notice that the Instacart pay structure has changed.
We’re at the point now where Instacart can offer a batch to pick up 44 items for two different customers, drive 20.3 miles total to deliver both, and offer $13.53 before tip. They claim to compensate 60 cents per mile in that total, meaning the shopping pay is $1.35 before tip. It’s horrendous.
They never release an update and tell us anything is changing. You just watch it happen. It’s maddening. The developers are releasing updates almost constantly, and many are glitchy. Some issues are just irritating. One week my app would close any time I tried to chat with a customer about their order. There was a map feature released recently. Since then the quantity of batches at any given time has greatly decreased. I live in a city with more than 200,000 people. I know that more than one order is available to shop between 6 and 9 a.m., but I’ll only see one at a time, if any.
There’s no option for a shopper to call support. We can only chat. The app will automatically shoot you through the virtual assistant questions every time. You can enter something like “Customer isn’t available” and an automatic menu will come up. You say, “No, this wasn’t helpful.” You do that four times, then you’re connected to chat.
It always starts with, “I can see there are no problems with your account. Have you tried restarting the app? Have you tried restarting your phone?” Then, “You probably need to be closer to the store.” I’ll say, “I’m parked next to other shoppers, and I just saw seven of them go in. I did a speed test. I have good reception here. Why did I not see a single batch and they’re all going inside?” When it’s very obvious we’re all seeing different batches, they say it’s the algorithm. Many issues are chalked up to the mighty algorithm. You realize support is powerless, too.
You also know they have the power to hurt your account. They can block you from getting batches to certain stores. That’s always in the back of your mind. You kind of just want to fall in line.
I wish customers realized how much power they have over us. When someone asks you to message them regarding order replacements and aren’t available by chat to approve anything; when they don’t answer their apartment buzzer and you’re left outside in the heat with 20 shopping bags; when they live in an apartment complex made up of 20 buildings with no clear indicators and zero clarifying directions have been left—these things add so much time to a trip and greatly affect our income.
I will never forget the day when I was at Costco and it was a two-customer trip. I knew that the tip total was $30 but I didn’t know the breakdown of who had tipped what. The customer with the smaller order asked if I could add on 15 cases of water while I was there. That changed the whole experience. I had to change carts and it’s very heavy. They were the first customer and I saw I was going to an apartment. My stomach sank. It was freezing cold outside. It took me forever to find their place. They lived on the third floor. Of course I never saw them face to face. Later in the day, I found out that they had given me a $1 tip. It felt like a slap in the face.
I also had a customer hand me a $100 bill during the holiday season last year. I cried on the spot.
Ratings are also tough. If you drop below five stars, the app is designed to show you available trips a few minutes after five-star shoppers, which is basically devastating when your area is oversaturated with shoppers vying for a limited number of good batches.
I had a day last November that still bothers me. I had received only five-star reviews up to that point. Then I got two one-star reviews in one day. One customer left a comment that her bananas were not green, and the other left no explanation at all. I don’t know which is more frustrating: knowing that I messaged the customer saying the bananas didn’t look as great as I’d like and asking if she’d prefer something else without ever hearing back, or having absolutely no idea what I did wrong with the other order. Your lowest rating is automatically removed, but my average still dropped to 4.98. I needed to shop 100 trips before my average was reset to 5 stars.
I tried to contact support about the reviews. I had already learned to take screenshots of everything I chat with a customer about because you always need proof. I shared the message I’d sent the customer about the bananas not looking great. It was so frustrating for support to say, “We can’t change that, but your lowest rating is automatically removed.”
I said, “Did the other one-star give any feedback?” They said no. And that was it. I just had to swallow it and move on. Until I got my average back up, I wasn’t seeing the early-morning batches anymore. I probably could have made $3,000 more in those two months without those reviews. I think that’s a low estimate.
For me it feels like a dead end more and more every day. You start to doubt your capabilities in a professional sense, which makes it harder to go on any interviews. It’s also been hard on my relationship with my partner because I’m constantly connecting with an app and refreshing.
When there aren’t too many positive things to share about your daily work experience, that’s just not something you want to continually burden your partner with. If someone gives you a tiny compliment in a rating and it’s your work accomplishment for the week, it feels rather pathetic. It just becomes an isolated, frustrating ball of stress. When I don’t have to do it, I will never look back. I will never open the app.
“I once worked for a VP who came to work at noon, took a two- or three-hour liquid lunch, and began to work around 4:30 or 5 p.m. Of course, he expected me to stay late and meet his demands.”
“The restroom at the office had very cheap toilet paper. The boss had his own package of White Cloud toilet paper that he would proudly carry down the hall to the restroom.”
“I typed a nine-page document which was dictated by my boss. He found an error on the last page. He took an orange marker and swiped it over the entire nine pages. This was before computers. I had to type the entire document again.”
“He was the chief ER doc. He hired and fired. He kept me working full time but I didn’t get benefits. He said ER docs should be male as ‘girls talk too much and have babies.’ He wanted nurses to wear heels. (The union had to be the one to stop him.) He was a boss from darkest hell.”
Few companies are more revered among young, ambitious business types than McKinsey & Company. It is the Harvard of management consulting firms, and many in the business world see having McKinsey on their résumés as a door-opener for the rest of their careers. Jobs at McKinsey are quite competitive, owing to both the prestige and the relatively high pay, which approaches six figures for even the most entry-level workers—business analysts straight out of undergrad.
I spoke with a woman who’d worked at the company as a business analyst for two years right after college graduation. (She requested anonymity out of concern for professional repercussions.) The pay, she said, was transformative. Making $85,000 per year, she was able to pay off her debts. (Current pay for business analysts is reportedly $100,000 per year, before bonuses.) But the work also came with grueling, relentless hours, harsh feedback, 2 a.m. Zoom calls, and an expectation that workers keep up this frenetic pace at all costs—a culture that she credited with all but ensuring the lack of diversity in the firm’s higher ranks.
Undeniably, I was extremely fortunate to be getting paid what I was being paid right out of college. And I was able to pay off my debts, which was huge. I did not expect to do that within two years. But in terms of the work itself—there is so much to say.
There are a couple of things that stick out to me. The first is the hours: A really light week for me would be 60 hours, but what was expected was 80 hours. A crazy week would be 100 hours. Every two weeks, you had to fill out this pulse survey for your team. I had a friend on a different team, and she was laughing because her leader was like: “Oh my gosh, everybody wrote that they only worked 60 hours these last two weeks. That’s the lowest I’ve ever seen at McKinsey. Great job, guys.” There is just no expectation of normal working hours.
Once COVID hit, it became even worse. Because before COVID, when we weren’t working remote, we would have fly time—time when we were in the air and therefore harder to contact because we were traveling between our client’s site and home base. Additionally, because we were all in person, people were more aware of human beings. So there’d be things like regular breaks for lunch or dinner. The typical day was much more like you’d show up to the client site at 7 a.m., maybe get a half-hour break for lunch—but everybody would be working during lunch—then work through 7 or 8 p.m., get dinner as a team for an hour, maybe work out for an hour, and then work for three to four more hours on a hard day or one to two more on a normal day.
But with COVID, I couldn’t go have dinner without being in deep fear that I was going to get three frantic Zoom calls during that time. I would get Zoom calls as late as 2 a.m. to completely redo models for the next morning. I’d get Zoom calls after 8 p.m. most nights—after 10 p.m., maybe once or twice a week.
I was completely isolated in my apartment. I was not really able to leave, because I would never know if I might get a Zoom call or something while I was on a walk. I developed extreme dependency on nicotine and marijuana. I would anxiously chain-smoke my Juul during the day as I was on Excel. I know that that’s so common right now among business analysts. We’re all like, “What are we going to do when we’re back in the office?” I spent $20 a week on Juul pods. I spent approximately $150 a month on marijuana, and I probably spent about $50 a month on wine. I was probably drinking like half a bottle a night, about two bottles to myself during the work week.
I had gone to therapy consistently for years before joining the firm; it was just part of how I took care of myself. And I had to actually stop for the first time when I joined the firm; the hours were so unpredictable that I didn’t even feel comfortable consistently blocking off one hour during the work week and saying, “Hey, I will be able to come back online later,” or “I should not have meetings on my calendar during this hour.”
What I found frankly extremely frustrating was that I would be running within five minutes to kind of throw together a lunch for myself, so I could eat something during the day between back-to-back-to-back meetings and models. And I would literally see my partners being served by their wives during their lunch breaks on their Zooms. Because most of the partners were men. That’s not always the case. But, pretty classically. McKinsey has done great in terms of diversity in recruiting at the junior levels. But I think in part because of the lifestyle and the expectations, that immensely drops off as you go more and more senior.
At McKinsey, it’s best practice to give feedback to the business analyst on a weekly or biweekly basis. So take a step back: Imagine how harrowing it is to have a new boss as often as every two weeks and knowing that you are going to get feedback from them on your performance. That could be just a dataset of 10 days. And that would be reflected in your review for that year, which would then impact your salary or your status. And they’re all weighed equally. So I was having feedback with one particular manager on a project, and he was giving me feedback that amounted to “You will never succeed at the firm. You’re not doing good enough right now. You’re not meeting the bar. And if you don’t meet the bar now you’re going to just circle down the drain.” He said—these were his actual words—“Everybody here is secretly working weekends and just not saying it so that they look better. But if you don’t work weekends, you’re gonna fail here.”
It was distressing. So I started to tear up. I felt so horrible at the time; I had already been so chastised that I wanted to save face. So I was like: “Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I’m crying.” And he goes: “Oh, it’s no problem. My wife cries all the time.” His wife, I should note, also works at the firm.
So I had to quit.
McKinsey has a list of values that is up on the website, and it’s referenced constantly within the firm. And this includes things like—I’m paraphrasing—we are a non-hierarchical organization to we are a firm with a dual purpose of both serving the client as best as possible, as well as developing the greatest leaders of tomorrow. And in a lot of ways I think that the macro levels of McKinsey accomplishes those things. But the individual bosses and managers do not and can be so focused on, frankly, their own success within the firm that they completely ignore those values, and will often be rewarded for that.
Gender inequality remains baked into the American ways of work and life. As of this year, an all-time high of 41 Fortune 500 CEOs were women—8.1 percent. You’ll find similarly abysmal men-to-women ratios among senior managers in lucrative sectors such as private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, and cryptocurrencies. Silicon Valley fares a bit better, with 14 percent to 20 percent women executives nowadays—but still. Such lopsided ratios result in gender cluelessness at best, and at worst, a toxic or predatory workplace. The following tale comes from a woman working in Silicon Valley circa the mid-1990s, when women were ruthlessly outnumbered and #MeToo had yet to come into being.
We were on a conference off-site, a bunch of us, and it was after the big dinner, and we were all in the bar playing pool. My boss came up behind me and stuck his hand down the back of my pants. Just out of the blue! I was just sitting on a chair and suddenly, here he is behind me and he just stuck his hand down the back of my pants.
I immediately jumped up and said, “What are you doing?” And he was drunk, but to cut to the chase, he eventually sort of backed away, and I was able to get out of there. When I got back to the office on Monday, I mentioned this to my officemate, a woman, and said this is just bizarre that this had happened. She said, “Oh, well, he’s been harassing half the women in the department. It’s been going on for a long time.”
I said, “Well, we’ve got to stop this. This is bad, and this is bad for him, too, because he’s got a wife and a baby. When he gets drunk, apparently he gets out of control—and maybe not even when he’s drunk.” So I convinced her and several other people to go to HR. We didn’t want to get him fired, but we wanted him to get help.
We also didn’t want to get exposed as the whistleblowers. Well, they promised not to expose us but they did immediately, and very quickly my boss realized I was the one who blew the whistle. He got a talking to of some kind by HR, but he wasn’t fired. Suddenly I was on a blacklist. He would not look at me. I was persona non grata. I clearly did not have a future in that group anymore. And so I had to leave immediately. I had to go find another job.
Now, these days, these kinds of stories—we’ve heard a lot more about them. But at the time I felt powerless. There was nothing I could do. The company wasn’t going to protect me or my job.
Finding a host family in the United States as an aspiring au pair from abroad is a little like going on a dating app, Jennifer Oliveira da Silva will tell you. After signing up with a private agency that has local affiliates in your home country, you create an online profile to introduce yourself, list your qualities and past experience, and wait for the other party to get in touch. You may exchange a few emails or have a couple of phone calls to get a feel for one another and spot any potential red flags. Then, if there’s mutual interest in sealing the deal, you have a match.
But here’s one big difference: When you end up on a terrible date, you can presumably find your way out of it and never see that person again. As a foreign live-in child care worker whose presence in the country is conditioned upon participation in the exchange program, you’re not only stuck with the other person but you have to keep helping them and their kids for up to a year. And also they’re your boss.
That’s how da Silva, a 22-year-old au pair from Brazil, describes it: a horrific, never-ending date.
At first, da Silva had a good feeling about the host family from Virginia she was interviewing with. The mother had a cheerful personality and didn’t seem bothered by da Silva’s basic English skills, which she hoped to improve before returning to Brazil to pursue a career in her major, international trade. They assured her she would be allowed to use their car and have access to the condo’s gym and pool. But when da Silva arrived in the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic in late February, “the lies started,” she says.
The host family had failed to disclose that their three-year-old son had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and that he saw a therapist twice a week. “It was really hard,” she says. One minute he could be very loving and the next he would pull her hair and kick her in the leg. “I felt very frustrated because I didn’t know how to handle him.”
On top of that, da Silva’s boss also denied her food. The host mother—whom da Silva nicknamed Cruella—reprimanded her when she ate leftovers that were going bad in the fridge without asking for permission. Another time, the mother refused to buy meat for da Silva, saying it was too expensive and “that’s why you have your salary.”
“My dad always told me that if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded, but I’m here working hard and can’t even earn beef,” da Silva says.
Under the State Department–run program, au pairs are entitled to a $195.75 weekly stipend and a $500 education allowance to pursue academic coursework in return for 45 hours a week and a maximum of 10 hours a day of child care work. That rate, which comes out to $4.35 per hour, is based on the federal minimum wage minus a 40 percent deduction to cover room and board. Each year, about 20,000 au pairs, mostly young women between the ages of 18 and 26, take part in the program and come to the United States on a J-1 exchange visitor visa. Brazil sends over more au pairs than any country. (In 2020, the overall number of visiting au pairs dropped to a little over 7,000 as a result of travel and visa restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
The State Department has 14 designated agencies, or sponsor companies, that place au pairs with US-based families. They advertise the program as a cultural exchange—as opposed to a domestic worker program—where participants can experience American life and “are considered a member of the family such as a big sister or brother.” But a 2018 report by a coalition of labor, migration, and civil rights organizations found that the “State Department’s continued mischaracterization of the program as a cultural exchange,” plus lax oversight allow, “abuses to persist.” (The authors recommended transferring the program to the Department of Labor to improve oversight, accountability, and enforcement.)
It was eye-opening when da Silva’s host family hired a nanny. The nanny was paid $29 per hour. “In four hours, she made almost half my weekly salary,” da Silva says. That’s at the high end of nanny rates, which in general fall somewhere in the $15–$20-an-hour range, depending on location. An hourly wage of $20 would shake out to an annual salary of nearly $41,600, whereas the au pair program costs roughly $20,000 a year.
Plus da Silva found herself performing tasks outside the scope of child care, even though doing so goes against the program rules. She would clean the house, the fridge, the garage, in part because the mess and filth bothered her personally. Da Silva says she also hoped to receive something in return, but the family showed little appreciation for her extra work. Recently, da Silva had to work all day cooking for 30 people during her mandated monthly weekend off because her boss decided to throw a Brazilian-inspired party. Da Silva spent $147 of her own money on preparations that she says she has yet to be compensated for.
“Normally, if you want a day off, you go home,” da Silva says. “Now imagine living with your bosses. Even if the family is great, you need a break.”
It doesn’t take more than a quick scan of popular Facebook groups with dozens of thousands of current and former Brazilian au pairs to find similar and worse anecdotes about host families, agencies, and the program itself. Emotional abuse, exploitation, threats of deportation—it’s all there. In a recent post in Portuguese, one au pair wrote: “anxiety and depression are part of the au pair package.” Another said she developed panic attacks during the exchange. Several said they started doing therapy because of it. On these Facebook groups, au pairs also share tips on how to boost their meager monthly income by as much as $1,000 from donating plasma.
Fernanda Coutinho, 26, joined the program in February through Au Pair Care, one of the biggest agencies in the business. When she had her initial match with a family in California, they said she wouldn’t have to work evenings or Saturdays. But once Coutinho arrived in the United States, the family gave her a different schedule, with days ending at 8 p.m. and including three Saturdays a month. Her boss also shared a set of house rules instructing Coutinho to “dress comfortably and conservative” and stating that “most communications will be through me instead of my husband.” (In Facebook messages, the host mother said it wasn’t “an easy decision to have a young lady living with us.”)
The family had also set up surveillance cameras around the house to monitor her. Soon, the boss was using the two-way audio system to give her orders. “I felt very uncomfortable,” Coutinho says. “She talked to me all the time, including when she wasn’t at home. That scared me.”
Coutinho, who has a law degree from Brazil, worked 50 hours a week for $240. She says the family routinely asked her to look after their two children and do other work on her days off so they could go get a massage or play tennis. “I was the housekeeper,” she says. During the pandemic, she could barely leave the house because the host father, a doctor, was strict about following COVID-19 precautions. When Coutinho wanted to get a state driver’s license to have more independence, her bosses opposed the idea. “They said there was no need,” she says. “The mother said if I wanted to get it, she wouldn’t help me because it was something that didn’t benefit them and that I would have to pay for the car insurance. They wanted to have control over me.”
In June, Coutinho quit. If an au pair chooses to leave their current placement, they have two weeks to find another host family to take them before their visas become invalid. Her local consultant, the agency’s mediator between the au pair and the family, told her she could stay in the home while she looked for a rematch. But for Coutinho the situation had become unsustainable. When she communicated her decision to the family, her boss lashed out. “She said I was selfish and heartless and said that was my last day,” she says. Coutinho barely left her room for the next couple of days. She packed her things, returned the phone they had provided, and bought a plane ticket to Texas to go be with her boyfriend. Later, the host mother posted about the “very bad ending to our relationship” on a Facebook group for families.
“It was frustrating to get here, a country that talks so much about tipping and valuing work, to do so much without getting properly paid,” she says. “We are just very cheap labor.”
In December 2019, a federal court ruled that au pairs in Massachusetts are covered by the state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights regulating minimum wage ($13.50/hour in 2021) and overtime. The decision affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit brought by the agency Cultural Care to block the law from applying to au pairs.
For Ingrid Almeida Robison, who worked as an au pair in Massachusetts from October 2017 to November 2018, the change came too late. The first family who hosted her refused to pay the 75 cents she was owed under the stipulated federal weekly stipend. They also had a hard time respecting boundaries between work and personal time and used post-it notes to signal what food she could or couldn’t eat. When she changed families, she was so fearful of going through the fridge and pantry and cooking that she lost a lot of weight. Robison reached her breaking point with her third host family, who she says had had six different au pairs over the course of two years and had her constantly working overtime. When she texted them to say she was leaving, they threatened to report her to immigration authorities.
“I still do therapy today and many things come up,” she says. “I keep thinking about how I could have handled situations differently and left before they made me feel so bad.”
Da Silva recently asked for a rematch. She says the family yelled at her and called the agency, Au Pair in America, to try to get her kicked out of the program. She has since left the house to stay with a friend. Da Silva knows it’s a risky move and that she may end up with another “bad family.”
“I’m away from everyone and everything I love,” she says. “I have nowhere to go. If something happens, who can I run to? My bosses?”
Right after Trump was elected, a reporter at the Intercept was reaching out to tech companies and asking if they’d help the Trump administration build a list of Muslims in the United States like Trump had said he would. This was around the time of the Trump Muslim ban. Nitasha Tiku, who was at BuzzFeed News at the time, was doing her own story on it, and she reached out to us. I was doing policy comms for Google at the time. Her inquiry ended up coming to me, so it was my job to give advice to the company on if and how we should make a statement on it.
I thought it’d be better to make a simple statement that we wouldn’t help make a Muslim list, so I made that suggestion. The story would have gone away, and by not commenting we were adding fuel to the fire. It just made sense—of course the company wouldn’t provide a list to the US government of every Muslim who uses Google in America. I wasn’t emotional. I brought it up matter of factly, which is what my job was—to provide counsel on policy comms for the company. It’s what they pay you for.
Twitter made a statement. Facebook and Google decided not to comment.
I kept my manager updated as the story gained traction, and the company continued to decline on making a statement. Then Nitasha got an email that was sent to her by accident by a Facebook PR person, who apparently thought he was addressing a colleague. He called the idea of a Muslim registry a “straw man.” Nitasha’s story about the email forced Facebook’s hand, and the company eventually issued a formal response: “No one has asked us to build a Muslim registry, and of course we would not do so.”
Google finally made a statement saying they wouldn’t do it, either, and the story went away.
Shortly afterward, in my review at the end of the year, my manager didn’t give me the top performance rating. When I asked for specifics on why, she gave me one example: One of the things that stuck out to us, she told me, as I remember it, was that we know that your wife is Muslim. You got very emotional about the request for comment about the Muslim list. You really shouldn’t be bringing personal politics to work.
I thought that was a shitty thing to say, using this personal attack on me when I had gone out of my way to not be emotional about it. They interpreted that as “because he’s married to a Muslim he thinks Google shouldn’t build a Muslim list.” There’s a double standard at play here.
Carl Owen spent most of his adult life working for the United States Postal Service. Unlike other workers in our Bad Bosses series, he wasn’t unjustly fired. He wasn’t sexually harassed. He wasn’t forced to quit. He made it to retirement.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have bad bosses—specifically, bad bosses beholden to a massive bureaucracy. As Owen wryly noted in his initial email to us: “Remember when we go postal we only shoot the bosses, never the customers.” Then he added a little smiley face.
I’m from central Oklahoma. I was gonna be a cop but found out real fast I didn’t like getting into fights with people I didn’t know. I went to work for the post office in November of ’86, which was about four months after Pat Sherrill did the first postal shooting, in Edmond, Oklahoma.
The bosses were pretty good at first. I got to talk to some of the older hands, and they told me their horror stories about how bosses had acted in the past. The shooting was a real wake-up call for them. I transferred to being a letter carrier about a year and a half later and did that until I retired 29 years later.
It was a good job here in Oklahoma. We work on a national contract. I made the same as letter carriers in New York. I live in a 2,500-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bath house with an in-ground pool in a nice neighborhood. And, of course, it had good benefits. I enjoyed the job. When I went to work in ’86, everything important went through the Postal Service. Now, it’s pretty much down to junk mail.
Progressively, the bosses got back into the old habit of bully and intimidate and harass. The standard joke every time we’d get a new supervisor was, Who’s going to be the new whipping boy? The new boss would look around and find somebody they didn’t like.
I was a union steward for a number of years. I would sit down and tell workers who were being targeted to calm down. I’d say, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, all this is is harassment.” The managers very rarely get fired. They have a union called the National Association of Postal Supervisors. I just love that acronym. NAPS.
I took over a route that had historically taken 10 to 12 hours every day. I got it down to eight hours a day. I was pretty proud of myself. Look, I’m saving the Postal Service two hours of overtime every day, and my customers are getting taken care of. The boss decided to adjust my route. Then he began to beat me up, like, “Why are you now using 30 minutes of overtime every day?” It’s like, “Boss, you changed my route. I can’t do it in eight hours anymore.” That’s when I realized that you get punished for being efficient.
One of my station managers was always seeking some magic silver bullet that would miraculously reduce the time it took carriers to either prepare for delivery or to deliver mail. They always failed. His explanation was we carriers were guilty of “malicious compliance.” The first time he uttered the phrase I was reduced to howls of laughter.
They had a program called DOIS. Basically it’s a really simple little system that said, on a certain day, you had X number of pieces of mail and it took you seven hours to do your route. Therefore you have an hour of downtime and we’re going to give you an hour off another route. We expect you to do your route that extra hour and be back in eight hours. Now it may have been sunny and 72 degrees on the other day. Today it’s 104 degrees. It may have been different mail types that were easier to handle. They don’t figure in weather or anything like that. It’s just determined by how many pieces of mail and past performance.
I’m a retired major out of the Army Reserve. I was an engineer officer. I’d try to tell the boss, “It’s unworkable. I’ve done much more complex tasks with much better tools and your system won’t work.” But it didn’t matter. That’s what comes down from the big boys. Their philosophy is very simple. If I don’t crack the whip on you, they’re going to just fire me and put somebody else in here who is going to crack the whip on you. So we’re going to be jerks and hold you to a standard that can’t be met.
We had a guy who tried to fire me twice. Our standard joke is you’re not a good steward unless you’ve been fired at least once. The first time, I used foul language in his presence in his office, which he found out by law I could do. The other time we were doing an investigative hearing on a carrier who had left two trays of letter mail sitting out by an apartment box and drove off. I said, “Man, it just sounds an awful lot like Pat Sherrill in Edmund.”
Soon after, my boss said, “I’ve spoken with the station manager, and we feel that what you said was a threat of violence. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” He took my keys, took my postal ID badge, and escorted me off the property. This is Saturday. He said be back at 7 o’clock Monday morning and we’re going to have a pre-disciplinary interview. We go through the little hearing. He said, “Go home and await a call from the Postal Inspectors.”
I knew what was going to happen. I’m going to spend 30 days on paid leave sitting around and getting paid to watch Oprah and Dr. Phil, then I’m gonna get my job back. I was just starting to get comfortable—having a beer—when I got a call from a new supervisor.
She said, “Carl, I need you to come in tomorrow morning.” I said, “Do you not know that he fired me?”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I need you to come in tomorrow to work your day off.”
Toward the end, there was this manager who was 22 years old. He got hired and, once he got through probation, he immediately applied for management. Most of the supervisors, they’ll tell you they were the greatest carriers on earth. Then you talk to carriers who worked with them and it’s like, no. The reason the boy is in management is the boy just didn’t like to work.
I was 90 days away from retirement. The 22-year-old told me that I had an hour of downtime and gave me an hour off another route. I’d been medically restricted for seven years at this point. I’ve had an ACL replaced. I’ve had arthroscopic surgery on the knee. Tore a rotator cuff. Carrying mail is slips, trips, and falls. I’ve had carpal tunnel on both hands. I’ve got an artificial right thumb joint. I literally wore out the thumb joint on my right hand. All this is the Postal Service. The only thing the military gave was bad hearing and a pension.
So, my boss said, “Here’s an extra hour.” The rules under our union contract are real simple. In the morning, when he told me that, I said, “I cannot do that. I have eight hours of work on my route. I’m going to bring back this extra hour. You’re going to have to find somebody when I come back in at 3:30 to take it back out and carry it.” So I came back at the end of the day and said, “Here’s the hour. Where do you want it?”
He looks at me and says, “You’re no use to me.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You should have done it.”
It’s because his little system said I had an hour. By that time, we were all tracked by GPS. I was like, “If you don’t believe me, you can sit there at your little desk, look at your computer monitor, and watch me from the time I clock out of the station and start my route to the time I clock back in. You’ll know where I am every two seconds of the day. If you think I have dead time, pull it up and we’ll review it and see where you think I could have picked up an extra hour.” He just shook his head and walked off.
I learned after I retired in 2015 that he joined the Army. I was really tempted to find out where he was going through Basic. I was going to grab one of my dress uniforms. Major Owens was going to pay him a visit. But he ain’t worth the gas money. Before he even graduates, they found out he had a bad knee. They gave him a general discharge under fraudulent enlistment because he told them he was in good health. What does the Postal Service do? Bring him back and make him a supervisor again.
One might hope and expect that a union, of all employers, would nurture a healthy workplace culture for its staff. But that’s not necessarily the case, as Ellen (a pseudonym) discovered after accepting a job with a California union during the late 1990s.
When I was in my late 20s, I took a research position with a local labor union. The union’s mission was to help low-wage service workers, including cleaners and food servers, organize for better working conditions and dignity on the job. The only problem was, our bosses didn’t care about the dignity of their own workers.
In some ways it was the best job I’ve ever had: meaningful, challenging, lots of great people. The union was badass. The workers we represented were loyal and devoted. They were militant when called upon to strike or boycott employers. Prevailing local wages and benefits for their jobs were among the best in the country. The union would run a precision operation of buses from job sites to the union hall for votes or grassroots mobilizations, with participation rates exceeding 90 percent. Our campaigns were no joke.
But the leadership ran the place like a cult. They separated us from our families and blurred the lines between work and not work.
Early on, I traveled out of state to meet other union staff and get trained. They inexplicably took me to a funeral. It was tragic. A researcher I didn’t yet know had lost a baby to sudden infant death syndrome. I found myself crying in church in front of an open casket—it was a Catholic service and the poor baby was in a frilly white gown. I was meeting new people while offering condolences. Then I was whisked back to the office to finish the work day. Talk about whiplash.
I soon realized the trip was more than a one-off. We union staffers were fully expected to sacrifice our personal lives and put in long hours, including most nights and weekends, to help the working class rise up.
One time, after I called in sick, a supervisor still wanted me on a spontaneous conference call. That same guy called me at home months later to ask me to move to a less-union-friendly city to work on an organizing campaign. I had just bought a house with my boyfriend. The deep roots I was putting down allowed me to dodge that bullet. But this boss made clear I would have to work harder to be considered “down” for class struggle. I wasn’t worthy!
The sacrifices seemed reasonable at first to the naive younger me. I walked picket lines at lunch time and at night, and met with co-workers for strategy sessions or went door-knocking for political campaigns on weekends. We were expected to pay union dues to show solidarity with the workers, even though we weren’t technically members.
I was getting more accustomed to the union’s cultlike personality, but I was still taken aback when not one but two male staffers hit on me at work. One of them would softly chant under his breath, “You and me, you and me,” until I finally worked up the guts to tell him there was no “you” with me.
Later a married man with influence over my work awkwardly suggested that we have an affair. Really? We worked in a place dedicated to shifting the lopsided power dynamic between bosses and workers. But I knew that telling the leadership I was being propositioned by men who had already proved their worth to the cult would probably result in my having to leave the union. On top of my failure to match their devotion to the cause, this all happened more than 20 years before #MeToo. I politely declined his offer, which had made our work relationship unbearable, and kept working. But the shit really hit the fan when I decided to get married.
I was set to take a three-week honeymoon around the same time that a labor contract involving the largest employers in our sector was about to expire. My supervisor had approved my vacation request well in advance. But when the union president found out, he flipped. He called me into an empty office. He was agitated and said he wanted to block my honeymoon plans, but couldn’t do so in good conscience, given the prior approval. He said it was up to me to change my plans myself. Dumbass that I was, I agreed.
But my boyfriend saw the request as a litmus test for the rest of our lives together. He asked me not to delay our honeymoon for the union. I went back to the president and tearfully told him I couldn’t.
After this act of insubordination, I became the target of a subtle campaign to teach me that the union must come first. The president denied my request to leave the union hall—on a Saturday—to pick up my wedding shoes from a nearby shop. When I finished my assignment and left at the end of the day to run wedding errands, I was summoned and reprimanded for leaving before the rest of the staff had finished.
I pointed out that we didn’t normally need to be dismissed. The boss responded by criticizing me, but in a way designed to hurt a lefty do-gooder the most. He said that by questioning instructions and therefore implying that they weren’t clearly delivered, I was disrespecting a union leader whose first language was not English. I knew he was playing me, but I was still devastated.
I got married and enjoyed my honeymoon. Then I busted my ass for the contract campaign. I wanted to stay in the good fight, but my employer’s miserable work environment was too much. The final irony? The union staff actually had a staff union to which we also paid dues, but it did nothing to protect us. Not long after the contract was settled, I broke up with my job. But at least I’m still married.
When Kaitlyn Ramirez Borysiewicz decided to take a job at a reproductive health nonprofit in Washington, DC, she was spurred by social injustice, devastated by the escalating hatred and racism of the 2016 election cycle that swept a white supremacist pseudo-Christian into the Oval Office, and determined to do some good.
The job was a job, sure; she had bills to pay, and capitalism doesn’t slow down for idealism. But the mission became entwined in her identity. “I always really wanted to work for nonprofits. I grew up watching my mom work for a nonprofit,” she says. “I had just kind of that aspirational dream that most people have when they come to the social sector to change the world and give back to your community.”
It was only Ramirez Borysiewicz’s second job out of college. She made just $38,000 her first year and now laughs uncomfortably when she recalls her salary in the expensive metropolis: “The words coming out of my mouth sound so gross. I can’t believe that.” After she started, it quickly became clear to Ramirez Borysiewicz, who identifies as a biracial Filipina, that she was doing twice the amount of work as her white colleagues just to be perceived as covering the minimum required.
Still, she wanted to excel, because the work intersected with her values and her sense of morality. So, at first, she rarely questioned the workplace. Such behavior is not an uncommon phenomenon among those of us who work at mission-driven rather than profit-driven organizations. But this can also make nonprofit employees particularly vulnerable. Such an environment can easily turn abusive with the wrong leadership, especially when you care about the work beyond the minuscule paycheck.
For a year, her strategy for surviving was to keep her head down and focus on the work, which she says kept her from being targeted by anyone, but it didn’t prevent her from noticing that something wasn’t right. “Our executive director, this white man, would really go out of his way to kind of target this one Black woman in particular,” she remembers. “As staff, we had this front-row view to watching all of her work products being berated, her being belittled, seeing all these personal attacks. But being fairly new to the workplace, you kind of chalk it up to like, ‘Okay, this is just an individual thing, right? It’s not a pattern.’”
She soon discovered that it was not “just an individual thing”—the executive director had a tendency to direct his ire at a rotating cast of staff members who were women of color. It simply hadn’t been her turn yet. When he turned on her, she wrestled with his critiques, which felt more personal than professional.
Were they legitimate? Was she overreacting?
“When that’s the environment that you’re in, when the executive director is constantly poking holes into your worthiness—not just like a worker but poking holes into your worthiness as a human—you’re eventually going to crack,” Ramirez Borysiewicz says. “Even his constructive criticism was personal.”
He began to communicate with her about her duties haphazardly, at all hours, via Facebook Messenger and text message in addition to company channels. It was overwhelming but there was no one to talk to about it. The HR department was one person who was balancing multiple administrative responsibilities, and former employees interviewed by Mother Jones say they faced retaliation when they brought problems to HR.
Doris Quintanilla, who worked alongside Ramirez Borysiewicz at the time, agrees with her account. The executive director, she says, “had a special hatred for women of color.” Time and time again, they saw white women promoted into positions with more power and responsibilities, while they felt their own careers remained stagnant, in part thanks to a cultural expectation in the organization that the women of color should also take on extra administrative work.
Then came the moment Ramirez Borysiewicz could no longer rationalize her boss’ behavior. At a conference in Colorado that was hosted by the nonprofit, she found herself operating as the executive director’s personal assistant, in addition to her regular duties as a communications and education associate. She barely ate for four days, and one night she was up until midnight assembling binders for a meeting the next day, despite having been awake since 6 a.m. registering attendees. “There were so many times I was thinking, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, because this isn’t my job, and no one has prepared me to do this,’” she says. “I’m literally being set up to fail.”
Then, one day, just 10 minutes before the executive director was set to deliver a speech at a plenary session, he turned to her and asked her to print out his remarks and bring them to him before he took the stage. She panicked and ran to the business center, but the conference wifi was spotty, and she struggled to download the document and send it to the printer. Ultimately, he had to go onstage without the printed remarks. He was seething.
Later, he demanded that she share a cab with him to go to the airport. He was insistent, and in desperation she lied and said she was going to visit family before she flew back. The blowup had been avoided for the moment, and she hoped he would cool off before they returned to the office. He didn’t. “He perceived me not being able to print out his remarks and then not taking a cab with him as a snub,” she says. “Things got really bad after that.” One day not long afterward, she was called into a conference room, where he launched “into a diatribe about my personal failings,” she says, though she doesn’t recall specifics; she just remembers sitting numbly before him in terror. “I was really internalizing these narratives that they were force-feeding to me, like I didn’t matter, like I was not good enough.”
Soon after that, the executive director seemed to ease up and recognize that she was stretched too thin. An opening for a communications manager was posted, and Ramirez Borysiewicz was asked to weigh in on the hiring process. She was relieved. When she began to notice that the first interviewee was being asked about specific parts of her current job, she brushed it off—it was probably just going to be a new structure, a way to redistribute the work and make it more sustainable. When the interview was over and the candidate left, a higher-up colleague said, “We should hire her.” Everyone began to get up from the table, including Ramirez Borysiewicz, until the executive director told her to sit back down and handed her a document informing her that she was being put on probation. “He made me interview my replacement,” she says.
Shortly thereafter, she was hospitalized—the stress her boss had placed on her led her to a nervous breakdown. Luckily, her insurance covered most of her stay in the psychiatric ward, but she paid about $800 out of pocket for the ambulance and the emergency room. Once she was released from the hospital, she quit her job.
The person in this story, who asked to remain anonymous, studied opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Several years after graduating, she wasn’t making enough money singing to support her family. So she took a part-time job at a boutique tax firm outside New York City.
In 1994, when I was about 34, I was doing an administrative assistant job three days a week outside New York. My boss was a tax attorney and CPA. He was very wealthy, just judging from his house. To own a house in that area, you have to have some money, but he had a very big house. He drove sports cars. The whole bit.
The clients were all extraordinarily wealthy people. He had a kind of specialty of dealing with people who had equine ranches. He specialized in getting wealthy people who intentionally went into the business of raising horses to lose a bunch of money so they could get all the farm write-offs. It was a tax shelter for them. I think almost all his clients had either foundations of some kind or horse ranching.
He seemed cordial and gregarious at first. It took two to three weeks to realize I was going to have problems with him. The first clue was that he’d stand over me when I worked. He would ask me irrelevant questions like, “Why is your Num Lock key on?” He would stay for quite a while.
Because this was 1994, we were trying to transition to Windows. He was frustrated with Windows and he would stand over my desk and watch me try to figure it out. He would stay for 10 to 15 minutes, but that’s an eternity when you’re trying to figure something out. He would come by three or four times a day at least.
He had a shelf specifically for packages that were coming in and out. I would place the packages on it, but he kept moving them to the floor. I actually saw him do it once. I was like, “Oh, you don’t want those on the shelf?” He said, it’s not convenient, or something along those lines.
One day, I was in his office, and he asked me to come around to his side of the desk to see something he was looking at. I looked up and I could clearly see my desk in the reflection of the print above where the shelf packages were supposed to be. His desk was in the exact same position as mine but in a separate office. When he would leave the French doors open, he could see into that print and it would reflect to me. I got a cold chill. I didn’t perceive this as a sexual thing. It was more of a control issue, that he wanted to know what I was doing every second of every day by watching me.
I kept thinking, wait, don’t you have something better to do? But he was afraid that someone in his employ was going to waste a microsecond of his paid time. I was the only one he could see all the time because of the way the office was set up.
The way he handled his displeasure was more disturbing than just asking me not to do something. My husband and I needed to communicate during the day. We had a 2-year-old in day care. If I was talking to my husband, he would come into the secretary’s area, which is where I sat, and he’d just stand right by the door. He wanted you to know he was eavesdropping.
I knew after a few weeks that I needed to leave. But my son was 2 and I was trapped financially. My husband and I had just bought a house in Putnam County and we couldn’t afford for me not to have an office job, even though I was also performing operas.
So I’d use the restroom to get away because that was the only place I could go where he couldn’t see me and where I felt like I had just a minute to breathe. One day, when things were really coming to a head, he asked me point-blank what took me so long in the bathroom. He actually was timing me in the restroom.
I just looked right dead into his eyes, and I actually used these words: “Would you like me to type up an agenda of what I did in there?” He had no answer. There’s no taking that back. Our relationship at work was not working. So I moved on.
I already had a position lined up. I told him I would not be back. I didn’t give him notice because I knew he would make my life a living hell, and he probably wouldn’t have let me stay. I just told him, “I’m not going to be back on Monday. Here’s the key.” I smiled at him and said, “I don’t think either one of us is happy with this arrangement.”
He seemed stunned by that. He said, “Happy?”
I said, “Yes. You remember happy?”
Lizzet Aguilar has worked for McDonald’s for nearly all of the two decades she’s spent in the United States since moving to California from Oaxaca, Mexico, as a teenager. On top of working at the fast-food chain in Los Angeles, she is a leader of the Fight for $15 and a Union, an organizing movement supported by the Service Employees International Union.
I was born in Oaxaca City, Mexico, and moved to California 21 years ago. I started working for McDonald’s about a month later. It was a good experience at first. I had a manager who was very understanding.
I started at the Marengo Street McDonald’s three years ago. I’d worked for a bunch of franchises by then. My colleagues and I weren’t getting enough hours. They’d send you home early if they didn’t need you anymore. You depend on the hours they schedule you for.
The first person who got COVID was someone I’d worked right next to. I didn’t know she had COVID. McDonald’s hadn’t said anything about it to us. We always worked shoulder to shoulder. We’d talk. We’d eat lunch together without knowing if one of us was infected. Four or five colleagues who I worked less than 6 feet from got sick.
They gave us two choices for masks: a reusable one or a washable one. I chose the washable one but it fell apart quickly. I had to buy my own masks after that. The managers kept the extra masks in the same area where they kept the cash. They never said, “Here, take one.” After we washed our hands, we had to put on the same gloves we’d been using before.
I posted a video on social media where I said we couldn’t socially distance at work. I talked about how we didn’t have enough protection from the virus. I don’t know how the store manager saw the video.
She started to retaliate against me: cutting hours, giving me tasks she hadn’t given me before, yelling at me about every little thing. “Go grab ice.” “Go sweep outside.” She’d tell my colleagues, “I don’t want you to help Lizzet.” I’d always been a good worker at that McDonald’s. I told her I couldn’t do what she was asking on my own. During breakfast, one person can’t handle the whole drive-thru area. I tried to do my job as best I could, but she’d always find a reason to yell at me.
I was scared that I’d end up infecting my husband and my son. When I got home, I’d basically go straight to the bathroom to shower. I didn’t share a bed with my husband or my son. I slept on the floor for five or six months because I was afraid of giving them COVID. My son was 5 at the time. One of the things I’ll never forget is him saying to me, “Mom, why don’t you hug me anymore?” I told him I couldn’t because my employer was being irresponsible.
I needed to work because my husband lost his job at the start of the pandemic. I had to support my whole family—rent, bills, insurance, basically everything. I didn’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t want to go to work. I want to stay home.” I knew every time I went into work, I was at risk. The managers weren’t forcing the customers to wear masks, either.
One of them came in without a mask while I was working the register. The store manager said, “What are you waiting for? You have to serve him.” I told her he wasn’t wearing a mask. She said, “Look, you have to do it whether he’s wearing a mask or not.” It was clear we didn’t matter.
After I took his order, my boss went to her office. Then I started to cry. My coworkers told me not to feel bad. I remember telling them that profits were more important to McDonald’s than their workers. I knew I had to do something. I decided to go on strike. We demanded better protection and professional cleaning. How much can that cost?
In June, three colleagues and I protested outside the restaurant. On August 17, we asked to return to work even though they hadn’t met our demands. We didn’t get any response until we found out they’d fired us. I remember it was September 10, 2020. I was on my way to work at another McDonald’s I also worked at when one of my colleagues from Marengo Street said, “A letter just came.” “Okay,” I said, “what does it say?”
She said it was all in English, so I told her to send me a photo. When I started to read it, I got a lump in my throat. I saw that they were firing her. I knew that meant the rest of us were fired, too. My colleague asked me what the card said. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to tell her.
When I lost the full-time job, I didn’t know what to do. The store manager at the other franchise ended up giving me more days. It’s a different owner. There’s gloves for us to use. They hired professional cleaners. If they see a worker with COVID symptoms, they send them home. It’s been a very different experience.
In October, the Labor Commissioner supported us and fined the franchise $125,000. But the franchise owners are fighting it. The money would be divided between the four of us. I want to put away some of the money for my son and use the rest to open a convenience store in Mexico. I want to go back some day, but for now my son wants to stay here. He was born here.
“Had a boss who tried to sound like he knew what he was talking about all the time. (He didn’t.) His catchphrase was ‘in reference to.’ He would sprinkle it everywhere. I think the record was three times in one sentence.”
“‘Yes, you’ve been excellent this year, but I can’t give you a 5 on your review because you need to have something to work for.’”
“When my boss was away, the next person in charge told me to spy on employees in the office. I was appalled and said no. When my boss came back he screamed at me, with the other person sitting there. (All of us were in the ‘scream tank’ with him at one point or another).”
“I applied for a job as a roller skate waitress. In the interview, the male boss asked, ‘How are your legs?’ I said, ‘Great…They work.’ Being a little on the chubby side, I was told I was going to be working onion rings.”
“When I had back surgery, my surgeon directed me as follows: physical therapy, back brace, sit-stand workstation, don’t ride a bus for eight weeks. My boss telephoned my surgeon’s office and demanded to see my records. When she was refused, she demanded that I do as she directed.”
“When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss gave it back to me and asked me to rewrite it to include how grateful I was to have had the opportunity to work there. I handed it back to her. I said, ‘That request is a perfect example of exactly why I am resigning.’”
Annika Bergsten worked her first-ever job at a local diner in a small Northeast Kansas town. Over her four years there, she started out as a host and then moved into serving. It was a difficult experience. She says sometimes felt afraid to even look at her boss out of worry she’d be lashed out at. Going to college, and then getting a job where “they treated me like a human,” helped her realize how bad her boss truly could be.
It’s a small town. Everyone knows everybody. Everyone knows everything about everybody. So, my boss at the restaurant was like, “We’re a family. We’re all best friends. If you ever need a place to stay, you could come to my house. If you ever need food to eat, I’m here for you.”
But it meant that you have to share your entire personal life story to your boss to get time off. It meant that I used to work 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and just eat a bite in between taking care of tables. I never got to sit down.
Most of the time, she was super sweet, but she just randomly switched and would just become malicious. We would, a lot of the time, just make stuff up to get the boss to go home. The minute she would be like, “I just have so much to do at home,” or, “Oh, I forgot to feed my cat,” we’d say, “Oh, no worries, go do that, we’re fine here. It’s super slow.”
When my father had a very, very serious medical issue, all of that family stuff was thrown out the door—because it was inconvenient for her. Someone had agreed to work for me. But my boss still refused.
She wrote a very aggressive and rude Facebook post about me on the business’ Facebook page. She knew what she was saying was untruthful.
That Facebook post had a picture of my paycheck with my personal information crossed out. And it was for like 20-something dollars, because at the time, we got paid $2.25 an hour. We kept all of our tips, too. And so she used it to say, “Hey, look at this girl, she’s complaining about how she works all the time. She actually doesn’t work. As you can see here, she’s just being lazy and making excuses and she’s just ruining my business.” Just terrible stuff like that. The paycheck that she had posted was actually my last paycheck. So, it wasn’t like a full payroll. It’s like 20-something dollars, and usually mine were around $50, even with that $2.25 minimum wage.
She never explicitly said my name, but everyone knew it was about me.
There’s also another employee involved in the same exact situation. It kind of happened to us together. Her husband found the Facebook post and deleted it. He called my co-workers’ parents and apologized to them for his wife’s actions. But I never received any kind of apology. I was never reached out to or anything.
After that there was an anonymous typed-out letter sent to the restaurant for my boss. I found out about this through friends who were still working there. The letter was basically saying: You’re a terrible person, you treat your employees wrongfully, you need to get things together. And it was kind of threatening her, too, like: If you don’t, then I’m going to do something. It was kind of a wake-up call for her. My friend said that after she received that letter she calmed down a little bit.
I believe that she believes that I mailed that letter, which I absolutely did not. To this day, no one knows who sent that letter, or who it was, and nothing happened after that.
So I quit the job.
It was so bad that after I quit that job, I got a job at the Walmart in town, and that was the job that taught me: Wow, my last job was absolutely terrible. They were like: “Take a lunch break.” I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I get a lunch break?” At Walmart, if you request off for work, you will get it off.
I currently go to the University of Kansas, and I work at a restaurant here. It’s great. I’m serving again, which I didn’t want to do after my first job traumatized me. But I realized that not all restaurants are that bad.
JuiceLand is a chain smoothie shop in Texas. Founded in 2011, it strives to cultivate “a fun, inviting vibe in our shops that is inspiring and welcoming to all.” Some workers, however, feel the chain hasn’t been welcoming. This past summer, they went on strike and used social media to detail what they described as an unsafe work environment. One worker talked about experiences that made them decide to join the strike.
I had recognized it was one of those very fake “We’re all family” kinds of businesses. Orientation is very culty. It’s like, “We’re a family. We love each other. We are inclusive and diverse.” But if you go into the shops, there’s no diversity really. Except for every once in a while there’s one or two people of color.
Whereas the warehouse is the most diverse place in the company—it just happens to be in the basement of the company.
But the other thing they say is, “Keep them hungry.” And they’re referring to not giving some people a lot of shifts. That way people are always hungry for shifts. So you’re never short-staffed. You don’t give them enough hours to live.
There’s a lot of small things I would notice, like the language they would use, the jokes that were always going around, the sexual harassment I would hear about. And then it’s just like, microaggressions. The way they would treat Black or brown or immigrant employees versus white employees.
When white people would not show up to work, they’d come in the next day and not get fired. Or like come in late every day and nothing would ever happen to them. There’s one employee, in particular, who was late, like, every single day—20 minutes late, at least, and nothing would happen to them. But if you were a Black employee and you were late, they will sit you down after a while, warning you about getting fired.
The worst thing they’ve done was fire a Black employee after he got in an argument with a non-Black employee. The Black employee came in to the other person watching a YouTube video of this YouTuber saying the n-word, like over and over and over again. When the Black employee told him to stop listening—don’t watch that in front of him—the other person said, “It’s okay to say.” And then he proceeded to say the full n-word, with the “r” and all.
They completely dismissed everything that happened with that employee. They knew about it, saw the video—supposedly sent it to HR. I spoke with HR about the racial bias in the company and how it’s a problem. I sat in the meeting and said that they’re not racially biased toward anybody. Then they fired the Black employee probably two weeks later.
The Last Business Eccentric
The New Yorker’s name for Gulf & Western CEO Charles Bluhdorn, infamous for his violent temper. Like other yellers, he was heralded as a crazed genius. Employees remember him being so angry he’d be “literally foaming at the mouth.”
One account tracks the phrase specifically to Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad magnate. The term was borrowed from feudalism to describe the new lords of the realm.
A nickname mentioned by one of our interview subjects for a supervisor whose sexual harassment led to a $1 million judgment.
I’m a teacher in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. I started off as a correctional officer, but I wanted to do something that was gonna have a more lasting effect: When I see students get their GED who’ve had the world against them, who never thought they’d achieve graduating, it really means a lot. And that’s normally their step to doing something better. I’ve seen so many people go from “I can’t get past the third-grade level” to enrolling in college correspondence courses. That’s the rewarding factor for me.
The issue a lot of my co-workers and I run into is that the bosses in DC, the supervisors in a position to make decisions, are out of touch. A lot of these inmates, the first time they are exposed to a computer is when they try to take the GED test. It is timed. And the problem is, there are very few institutions that have computer keyboarding classes. A lot of our resume-writing classes are done on typewriters. These typewriters are old. I have inmates instead writing handwritten resumes because the typewriters break, the buttons break, because it’s not as sturdy as a regular computer.
So it’s crippling that our GED system has now gone to computer-based testing. That automatically puts them at a disadvantage.
The agency likes to cite security concerns about computers, but there are ways to set up typing classes that aren’t linked to the outside internet. It can be done. The money isn’t being spent to allow it.
I work at a facility where we have an actual computer lab that has been shut down for a long time. Monitors and keyboards are just sitting there because there are no programs on those monitors that the inmate population can use.
I have tried on several occasions to bring things to the attention of management. I’ve been told, “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.” And I was told by an associate warden, “You’ll never advance in your career if you don’t learn the politics of what’s going on.” And I was like, what in the world does that mean? There’s no politics in saying, “We need A, B, and C, and this is how we can get them. This is where we can cut back.” But you get so much pushback.
They have this program called Ideas Are Dollars, and staffers could submit ideas, and if your idea was taken, you’d get an award. But nobody’s really doing that anymore. It’s hard to submit things because of the pushback. You’re considered a know-it-all. You’re considered out of touch with management. And then, you know, I sit and see managers spend money on laptops for themselves, or big-screen TVs. Every warden has a TV in their office. Every warden has a laptop. It’s not trickling down. One of the biggest expenditures is travel for directors and assistant directors in Washington, DC. It’s like, if you guys could have a meeting through Zoom or video, we could cut out half the travel budget and allocate that money back into the field.
I had a student who had been in the GED class for 14 years. He kept getting hung up on the testing, a point or two away, and the computer testing system really set him back. Luckily, he had some tenacity to get through it. But I mean, I couldn’t give you the number of times that somebody misses a test by a small margin. And the inmates don’t even try to do the essay portion because they know they don’t have the time. They don’t have the skills necessary to type the essay. So they try to make up points in other areas. That happens every day. And I tell them, “Put something in there. You’ll get something for something as opposed to nothing.” But that’s just a general rule among the inmate population: “Don’t waste your time with the essay portion.”
That’s pretty much a systemwide problem. There may be a couple of institutions that have keyboarding programs, probably contracted through a local college, but basically that’s a systemwide problem. Keeping up with the technology is tough for whatever reason.
It’s problematic in other ways, in the sense that the inmate population is familiar with the First Step Act. It says we should be offering all the programming we can and giving them credit for those courses that would advance them into society, like computer courses, programming courses, resume-writing courses, occupational training programs. And so they’re constantly asking staff, “What about this program? What about that program?” And the program basically doesn’t exist. I don’t know whether we’re telling Congress these things exist. But a lot of these programs either don’t exist, they’re depleted, or they’re not getting the proper funding. So it looks like they’re there on paper—it looks like the institution has GED, horticulture, culinary arts, custodial maintenance, all these vocational trades and apprenticeships. But if you actually go into the system, you’ll see no inmates are enrolled because a lot of them don’t have teachers.
Like, a big part of the First Step Act is dyslexia screening because a large part of our prison population has dyslexia. And the only people who can administer dyslexia testing are teachers who are certified, but it’s super hard to find any because management won’t put the resources there to offer an incentive or to give them the pay or whatever the case may be. So not only do you not have the materials but you don’t have the staff. But we’re checking boxes, saying, “Hey, dyslexia testing is getting done.” And that’s not necessarily the case.
If you look at the Bureau of Prisons, you’ll see there’s a lot of old-boy-network things going on. They hire their friends or relocate the ones who don’t agree with their way of thinking. That’s what I think about when I think about bosses: the administrative decisions being made. Year after year, the BOP is given more money through the congressional budget, but we end up having more issues. If we’re given more money, why aren’t we able to get staff? Why aren’t we able to provide adequate programming that fits the generation we’re currently in, the millennials, to help them get out and be productive citizens? Instead they’re using it to transfer their friends to higher levels in the BOP.
We have a good warden now but she’s not given the resources she needs. She’s a little more open-minded, but the rest of them, there’s just always been trouble. Some of the wardens or associate wardens before her were caught in sex scandals or drinking scandals, scandals that plague the bureau all the time among executive staff but are usually swept under the rug. It’s the culture in the bureau: What you can’t get away with, they can. You know, things that would jeopardize the average employee’s job or career mobility. There’s a phrase we use in the bureau: “F up, move up.” And that’s kind of how things go: You screw up and you’re promoted. So what you get is a bunch of screwups at the top making decisions that are out of touch with what’s actually going down on the ground.
I’m from the state of Puebla in Mexico. I’ve lived in the United States for 20 years and have three kids. Aside from one who’s 16, they’re all adults now. I’m 50 years old.
It can be hard for me to find work because I’m undocumented. Sometimes places will turn you away because you don’t have the right paperwork. So, for the past eight years, I’ve been cleaning peoples’ homes. I get work through friends who also clean homes.
At the start of the pandemic, most of my clients were paying me $11 an hour. When I clean it’s usually just me and the wife in the apartment. I wore a mask, but they didn’t. I’d always walk to work when I could because it was safer, but sometimes I’d have to take the bus. It was scary. I was worried about infecting my son.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I cleaned one apartment while the husband was quarantined in his room with COVID. I only found out about a month later when the wife told me her husband had tested positive. She was bringing food to his room the day he was sick. Luckily, I never caught COVID.
I needed to keep working because everyone else I live with lost their jobs during the pandemic. If I didn’t work, how were we going to pay for food?
In September, I learned about the Worker’s Justice Project because they were giving away food, masks, and hand sanitizer. They told me that employers aren’t allowed to threaten or intimidate their workers, that they can’t call immigration on you. I also found out that the minimum wage here is $15 an hour. I was surprised. There were much more protections than I realized.
After that, I started asking my clients for a raise. On weekends, I sometimes worked for an Italian woman and her kids. When I started with her a decade ago, I got paid $5 an hour. Eventually, that went up to $9. In October, she told me I wasn’t entitled to the minimum wage. I understood her to be saying that it was because I don’t have papers.
I told her I wasn’t going to work for $9 anymore. I said I knew my rights, that what she was paying me wasn’t fair, and that the minimum wage is $15. She insisted I didn’t have a right to ask for a raise and claimed that she also got paid less than $15 at the pharmacy she worked at.
It got to the point where I said that if she wasn’t going to give me a raise, I wasn’t going to work for her anymore. I showed her a document from the Worker’s Justice Project that explained what my rights are. I said I’m a member of this organization and they’re backing me up. I thanked her for the work she’d given me in the past but made clear that I was done. After she saw the card from the Worker’s Justice Project, she agreed to pay me $15.
I told the families I worked for on Wednesdays and Thursdays that I was willing to work for $13 an hour, but not $11. They said that was fine. But then they paid me $11 again. They backed out and said they couldn’t afford it. I told them I wouldn’t be working for them until they gave me a raise. They ended up firing me. This was November.
I’d worked for one of the families for six years and the other for three. During those six years, I’d gone from $10 an hour to $11. I’ve found someone for Wednesdays who pays $15, but I still don’t have anyone for Thursdays.
I showed the rest of my clients the card. They said $15 was no problem. I assume they knew what the minimum wage was but were paying me less because they could. People know that many immigrants don’t know anything about the rules here.
All my friends who do cleaning were making $12 or $13 before the pandemic, too. None of them was getting $15. They didn’t know about the minimum wage either. Now there are making $15 because they’ve asked for raises, too. If I hadn’t learned about my rights, I’d still be making what I was before. Nothing would have changed.
“Orientation is very cult-y. It’s like: ‘We’re a family. We love each other.’”
“We hope those who work in this facility would like to become part of the Walmart family.”
—a spokesperson after Walmart took over a DHL facility, laying off 511 and asking them to reapply for their jobs
“I think unions have had a positive impact on a lot of places, like if you’re working on an assembly line” but a union is not “the right idea” for BuzzFeed.
“If you’re working in a warehouse, it makes sense. But when you’re talking about smart folks who are using their minds for a very creative project, I don’t get it.”
—Politico founder Robert Allbritton in 2021, on unions
“Nothing…in all my life, before or since, wounded me so deeply.”
—Andrew Carnegie, on his role in violently stopping a strike at the Homestead steel mill in 1892, after saying unions were “sacred” throughout his life
Project bosses: Noah Lanard, Jacob Rosenberg
Reporters: Becca Andrews, Ali Breland, Isabela Dias, Andrea Guzman, Lil Kalish, Noah Lanard, Hannah Levintova, Michael Mechanic, Samantha Michaels, AJ Vicens
Editors: Tommy Craggs, Maddie Oatman, Jacob Rosenberg, Amanda Silverman, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Aaron Wiener
Web developer: Julia Smith
Art direction: Adam Vieyra
Top illustration: Rami Niemi
Additional illustrations: Grace Molteni
Additional art: Mark Murrmann, Michael Johnson