I used to joke that the word “salary” was Latin for “free.” But it was no joke when I was working 50, 60 and sometimes 70 hours per week at the job I had for 10 1/2 years.
Today is the first anniversary of my freedom. One year ago yesterday was my last day as the supervisor/editor/manager of a small group of newspapers owned by a multimillion-dollar newspaper company. That job also included sometimes being a trainer, photographer, reporter, building manager, supply keeper, record keeper, fundraiser, public speaker and paper delivery person.
Oh, it didn’t start that way. I was hired by said multimillion-dollar newspaper company to manage three newspapers – a weekly, a bimonthly and a monthly. The job wasn’t hard and I loved teaching new journalists things like how to work a beat, localize national news, handle the always awkward and sometimes painful “victim interview,” and how to cover accident and crime scenes.
My supervisor hired me, she said, because the minute she read my résumé she knew I was the one that would make the papers better than they were before. She also once confided in me that she almost had to sit on her hands while interviewing me so she wouldn’t appear as excited as she was by my ideas and passion for news.
But it wasn’t all that long into the job that The Boss began to block me. I would tell my people how to do something and she would go behind my back and tell them otherwise, even when she and I agreed on the course of action beforehand. She also wouldn’t let me run things the way we had agreed I would. Maybe that should have been my first clue that at some point this job was going to go terribly wrong.
Or maybe I should have gotten a clue when less than a year into my employment, I had to have emergency back surgery. Two days later, when I got home from the hospital, a reporter brought me a CD with stories on it and instructions from The Boss that they needed to be edited. I did as I was told, but I was heavily medicated and even a week later couldn’t tell you what I had read.
A second emergency surgery two years later brought the same results. My hours, which I had been told would never be more than 45 a week at the extreme, began to increase before and after my hospitalization. And yes, I took phone calls, answered emails and edited stories just a day or two after that operation as well.
The three papers became four, and I ended up with responsibility for three weekly papers and one monthly, and four websites. Five-day weeks were extremely rare; I often worked six or all seven. No raise in pay. No extra benefits. In fact, I even was told when I could take my vacation, when I was allowed to take it at all.
The following years brought other disappointments – being told to come in when I was sick, not being given any time off after the death of my beloved dog, many more hours on the job over the agreed upon 45 per week. It also brought rude and nasty comments from The Boss about my weight and the weight of some of my staff members, never mind that The Boss weighed more than we did. Other inappropriate comments were made as well.
There was a 10 percent cut in my pay, followed within months with another 5 percent cut that extended to all employees. People began to leave and were not replaced. Oh, their jobs didn’t go away; they just got parceled out to others. And being the sole person on salary meant I could work as many hours as the company and The Boss wished.
Things really fell apart when we moved from an old, drafty, leaky building into much smaller quarters. We went from four bathrooms – two for the men and two for the women – to only one that would be used by all 25 of our employees, even though the city ordinance said you had to have one bathroom per 15 employees. When we asked before the move how we were going to get by with one bathroom, The Boss said, “I guess we’ll get friendly with our neighbors.” But our neighbors in the business park weren’t always there, and who wants to go to another nearby business to go?
Not long after moving into the new space, the toilet started clogging up. All. The. Time. Repairs had to be made that included replacing lines and other parts of the system. Sometimes, the toilet would be out for days over the course of several months. We all had to get in our cars and drive to the nearest McDonald’s or Target to go to the bathroom during the workday.
Sometimes, we would carpool to a public bathroom. If someone was leaving to go, he or she would announce it and take others along. I’ll never forget the day that I and one of my reporters left the building together and headed to the nearby Burger King, only to find signs on their restroom doors saying they were temporarily out of order. We would have laughed harder, but we really had to go.
Even when the toilet was working, you’d often have to stand in the hallway, legs crossed, praying you wouldn’t soil yourself while someone was in there for what seemed like forever. Or you would run back and forth from your seat to the bathroom door sometimes four or five times to check and see if it was open. Sometimes, when it was quiet and you could hear the door open throughout the building, multiple employees would rush toward the bathroom, resulting in awkward games of who had to go the most.
It wasn’t like I planned to stay so long at the job and be mistreated, but time has a way of getting away from you. And being an optimist, I always thought it would get better. The readers and my employees were the reasons I stayed, and some weeks were pretty great. But as time went on, they didn’t outweigh the bad.
When The Boss left and was replaced by a wonderful manager, we all got a bit of a reprieve. But when he started getting the shaft from the company, he headed out of there. I had to take on most of his duties, and got treated even worse. When I was ordered to come in one day while I was in the emergency room with a 103-degree temperature, I knew I had to leave.
Becoming a freelance writer has been as hard as it has been wonderful. It’s difficult sometimes to motivate myself. The pay is lower than I expected and I’m working more than I planned to in order to get it. I have to do without a lot of things to which I was accustomed. But I get to stay home with my shepherd if she is ill. I can stay home when I’m sick and not be harassed by anyone. I can work in my pajamas all day if I want to.
The funny thing is, I didn’t budget for or think about the added expense of the amount of toilet paper I go through these days, which is a lot more when you’re using your own bathroom almost 24/7. On the other hand, I get to go anytime I want.
Oh Kat, I’m ashamed you had to work under these conditions. I’m glad you got out of that toxic environment. I think you should do a glass ceiling review of this employer and perhaps even a yelp review. Here’s hoping you find more fulfilling and peaceful work. Your reward from the previous employer is in heaven as you know. That heavenly crown will have much sparkle!
Debora Buerk firstname.lastname@example.org (425) 281-1009