My current job–a call center gig–revolves around verbal communication, a skill in which I’m significantly lacking. It also revolves around relatively quick auditory processing and high energy–skills which I’m also found wanting.
This past Monday, during a team huddle on WebEx, I leaned to the side of my work desk to look at my notebook as I momentarily paused to gather my thoughts to write something down. After a second, the idea I had to write down evaporated in my mind. Toward the end of this brief, awkward maneuver of my body, my boss, working from home like most of the rest of the team, asked me if I was Ok. I responded briefly to the effect that I was checking my notes. She then told me to set up straight, with face forward. She may have also added a little chuckle.
A fuller explanation of my bodily contortion that apparently annoyed her is that my desk is a dining table stationed horizonataly against a wall. My set-up is two computer monitors, a laptop and keyboard–this takes up virtually the entire space between the keyboard and the wall. It seems easier for me to place my notebook to the side of the table if I need to make a note or consult the notebook.
I felt my boss was possibly treating me in a patronizing fashion. In relatively mild fashion, it fed into my insecurities about appearing to be awkward and looked down upon. Perhaps she would have said something similar to a neurotypical co-woker if the latter appeared to her as being in an awkward body position during a WebEx chat. I also was upset that my wit was incapable of giving a fuller explanation of how the set-up of my computer equipment and desk make it desireable to have my notebook situated at the side of the desk and thus cause me to lean to the side, apparently awkwardly from my boss’s perspective.
As I continue in training, I worry greatly that I will be unable to handle the very heavy multi-tasking, auditory procesing and sensory load the job requires. I fear that I will be too slow in terms of understanding the requests of callers, especially those who use imprecise language or have accents. My trainer is an extremely hyper, fast talking gentleman. He is highly personable and his earnest and wholesome demeanor has its appealing side but his nasal, nerdy voice can also be grating. He talks non-stop and it is hard to keep up with him. I’ve had a hard time with the executive organization necessary to organize the notes and other training materials necessary to provide me with the knowledge to do the job. In the second half of the day, my eyes frequently get fatigued from constant staring at a computer screen. The trainer, in his aggressive way, constantly peppers me with various questions about topics he has gone over with me and I frequently can’t remember the right answer. I’ve made a much stronger effort this weekend to go over my notes so as to reinforce my knowledge. I only wish that I can have more control over my own training, learn in the ways I learn best rather than being lulled into a near stupor by being forced to listen eight hours a day to the never ending stream of fast talk of my trainer. The trainer seems congentially incapable of being concise in his speech; the other day I gave the wrong answer to a topic he quizzed me on for review purposes. He then went into a lengthy tangent about why the answer was wrong and why people might reasonably think the wrong answer was the right answer. I remember my attention span weakening as my mind desperately tried to pick out clues in his discourse about what the right answer might be.
On Friday, I was upset that some of my co-workers were apparently slightly irrirtated that I unwittingly shared my computer screen with them as interacted one-on-one with my trainer. I’m sure that my reaction to this incident has been at least a little over-sensitive–but that is the way I am. I have great difficulty in brushing unpleasant incidents off. Sometimes I’m paranoid but often my fears our well grounded. I’ve been treated abrasively and looked down upon in the past more times than I can possibly count because of my flat demeanor, learning disabilities, etc. Masking in order to have adequte verbal communication with the neurotypical world is extremely exhausting–I’m not wired internally to engage in such communication in a “normal” way.
I picked my dad up from the hospital in the middle of the afternoon after his nearly week long treatment for Valley Fever. I was substituting in this duty for my step-mother who has had cold/flu symptoms for the past few days–she could have Covid for all I know. He walked gingerly, even a little decreiptly and spoke in a weak voice. He seemed relatively clear in mind but was in an intense, slightly angry mood. He asked me to drive him immediately to McDonalds, which he craved after days of only being offered hospital food, which he described as unbelievably awful. I was somewhat cowered by his initially intense demeanor. As I drove through the drive through he ordered me several times to maneuver the car closer to the wall where the drive through windows were and otherwise gave me specific directions as I drove him around about what lane I should be in, etc. This was because I was rather unfamiliar with the area. The situation caused me a fair amount of sensory overload as the area we were in is a suburban area heavily congested by cars. At one point, I obeyed his direction to switch from left to right lane and but did not see a car in my blind spot. Normally in such circumstances I would look over my right shoulder rather than merely look in the rearview mirror but his presence in the passenger seat–I very rarely have passengers when I drive–disrupted my instinct to look over the shoulder and I nearly hit the car. The car honked very loudly and the driver gave me an ugly look. My dad took this situation rather well and offered me a few encouraging words after I uttered some profanity. Before I picked up my dad, I had attempted to pick up a number of prescriptions for myself at a pharmacy in this same area but the business was closed for Easter. I then attempted to navigate my way to the hospital but got lost for a time which added to the stress.
After we drove a while and he ate(he reported that he has lost his sense of taste and that the McDonald’s didn’t taste anywhere near as satisfying as he hoped), he became somewhat more relaxed and talkative. He added a few tart remarks about my step-mother–he refered to her control freak nature and expressed anger that she had taken his wallet from the hospital back home. As we approached the new residence of my father and step-mother, he asked me to stop at Wallmart to buy some orange juice, for which he felt a craving.
While I was inside the store, the McDonalds which he had just forced on his out of wack digestive system began to put intense pressure on his system and he asked that we go home quickly so he could relieve himself. But as we passed a hardware store, he asked that we stop there so he could use their restroom–however the store was closed for Easter. He then urged me to drive toward the neighborhood of their new house where there is much new housing construction and thus honey buckets for construction workers. However, he kept directing me to drive in areas full of completed houses and thus short of construction workers and their honey buckets. Eventually we made it home to their new house although it seems my dad possibly didn’t make it to the toilet in time.
My step-mother, suffering from her cold/flu symptoms, indicated that she was a little piqued that my dad had called her on the way home and requested that she “draw me a bath.” She thought this was “demanding” behavior though, in truth, he can never make her wait on him hand and foot anywhere near the extent that he has waited on her throughout their relationship. She made faces about his bowel movement and indicated that dealing with his infirmity was a burden on her. She said, with her usual idiotic nervous giggles, that she would need my help looking after him and made a signal indicating that he was a little off in the head before saying she was just kidding. There are times when I truely loathe her but I can understand why she would make the crazy sign about him as he had displayed odd behavior during the previous night in the hospital, for example calling her in the middle of the night and informing her that he had changed out of his hospital gown and put on regular clothes. She offered me extravagant praise for picking him up today–and for delivering a bag of various things to the hospital for him yesterday. I talked to her later and her feelings toward him seemed to become more tender as he had collapsed from exhaustion into sound sleep on the couch and had asked her in a weak voice to call his mother for him as he was too weak to carry on the extensive telephone conversations that he and my grandmother have had nightly in recent years. My grandma has been very worried about him.
I’m, as usual, highly nervous about what the future might bring.
This past Wendnesday I had my first one-on-one with my boss and team lead at my new job.
I’d been advised by my job coach and step-mother as to what I should say about my disabilitiy. I expected the boss might bring up during the meeting some issue of me under-performing in the training but she did not. She merely delivered a set presentation about policies and procedures that she delivers to every new employee.
I eventually seized an opening to bring up my disability. My language was highly vague and hesitant as I was unsure what to say. Specific things that I struggle with–executive organization, sensory overload, ADD, auditory processing–will be prime challenges on this job. She did not initially understand my tortured explanation of how my disability affects me but eventually mentioned a term similar to sensory overload. I warmly agreed that this term applied to me. She asked me if she had triggered me in any way since I began the job. She actually did mildly trigger me a few weeks ago when she sternly rebuked me for not answering messages of hers on the chat system Jaber. I’d assumed that message alerts on this system are accompanied by a dinging noise but this is not true–apparently one has to regularly check the Jaber icon at the bottom ribbon of the computer screen for notice of any unread messages. However I said that she hadn’t triggered me because the effect of the triggering was relatively mild compared to other cases–and she is my boss who has much power over me and I don’t want to displease her if I can help it.
At the urging of my job coach (from a disability employment agency), I mentioned to the boss and lead that the job coach was available to acquire knowledge of my job so she may help train me. The boss and lead responded that the company provided so much overwhelming support in terms of training and constant feedback about job performance that there was no need for an outside job coach. My only response to this was to say “ok.” They possibly don’t want me to use the job coach because the time it would take to train the latter on aspects of my job would take too much energy away from producitvity priorities. They also perhaps don’t want an outsider gaining exposure to internal company business. Perhaps I genuinely do not need the job coach’s help with training; but the company is one which, in pre-hire documents, went out of its way to stress its accomodating attitude toward disabled persons.
The boss expressed suprise that I was Austistic. She said, with a show of friendliness, that I didn’t seem like I had it. In other words, she was saying that I seemed “normal” and didn’t conform to her stereotype of how Autistics act. She clearly innocently intended this as a compliment and is unaware as to how many Autistics regard it as disrespectful. I was not particularly warmed by it myself but supposed that she’d intended it innocently. In any case I have bigger problems at the moment than trying to raise her consciousness about the nuances of appropriate langauge directed at Autistics. She is my boss after all. It is not an issue I’d raise even in a situation where power relations between me and another were more equal.
The boss also mentioned that I was noticeably quiet at team huddles on Webex. I responded that I was still taking in quite a bit of my new surroundings. Besides, I’ve not actually peformed my job with live callers and am still unfamiliar with many aspects of the job–thus it is hard to make a contribution. Not that I would be particularly talkative if I was more experienced at the job.
The boss gave me a phone number to call so as to register with the company for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protections. I’m not sure if the person I talk to at this number will ask me to request specific accomodations. I shall have to ask for more advice from my job coach. My boss did mention one possible accomodation for me: if my skill at taking calls was too low, the phone software allowed her to list me as a low effeciency call center agent–the lower the rating, the lower number of calls agents receive. If I’m not taking calls, I would spend time doing slightly less uncongential activities like responding to e-mails. I probably will do better at taking calls than a low efficiency rating would merit, however much of a mental strain it is on me.
My dad has been determined to have Valley Fever. This is a fungal infection, with the majority of cases in the US ocurring in Arizona. He got back from Arizona around March 5 or 7th. He and my step-mother have a small second home in that state. I read online that most cases of Valley Fever show “mild symptoms”–however my dad’s symptoms have been severe. Curiously, my step-mother said that one of his doctors told her yesterday that his case was “mild, believe it or not.” Perhaps the delay in treatment caused by the inability of various doctors to diagnose his condition has worsened the situation, going back to early last week when an urgent care doctor ordered a test for Heptatitis C and last Monday when the doctors pronounced that he had some form of meningitis. Perhaps he dosen’t really have Valley Fever but something entirely else. The infectious disease doctor wants to do more tests on him tommorow.
For each of the days of this week he has alternated between seemingly being on the upswing and then going downhill. My step-mother seemed upbeat about his conditon earlier today. She stated that he continued to have trouble consuming solid food without vomitting and was being fed through a feeding tube, although he seemed to be making a tiny bit of progress in that he was able to consume a shake with a straw. My step-mother encouraged me to call him this evening which I did. I called his cellphone but received no answer. About twenty minutes later he called me and appeared to be in a considerable state of confusion and was barely awake. He had hallucinated/dreamed that I had just called him to invite him to go bowling. He asked me if I had indeed issued such an invitation; I told him that I hadn’t; he said that he must have been dreaming or that it had been “the voices in my head.” He remarked that he was “in no condition to go bowling tonight.” Overall, he spoke with me very briefly in slurred fashion, then declared he was going back to sleep. My step-mother just called me to report that she too had spoken to him, that he was obviously in a very severe mental haze and that he quickly ended their conversation. He told her that his headache had returned after he got up from bed too fast to go to the bathroom. She was very worried.
His mental incapacity is perhaps due to the painkillers–he is getting a dose Oxycontin four times a day. My greatest fear is that this infection has permanently damaged his mind. He is 69 years old but has always been a bull of a man, fit, trim and looking perhaps ten or twelve years younger than his actual age. He has been my rock and perhaps the closest thing I have to a close friend. It is extremely upsetting to see him reduced to frailty and mental incapacity in a matter of days. As I’ve said before I don’t know what I will I do if I lose him, either to senility or death and am left alone with my step-mother.
Receiving bad news about his health on Tuesday prevented me from sleeping for more than an hour or two that night. It clearly impacted my performance in my training the following day at my new job. Now I will see if I can get any sleep tonight (Thursday).
After seemingly being on the upswing yesterday, my dad’s condition has taken a turn for the worse. The doctors no longer believe he has Meningitis but some rarer infection that my step-mom couldn’t prononounce when she relayed the news to me. His constant headaches are more excruciating and his back and neck are incredibly stiff. His food intake for the day was only one fruit cup. My step-mom says he has trouble carrying on a conversation. Her friends and relatives have urged her to push the doctors at this hospital to consult infectious disease specialists at nearby universities. The doctors have lifted the quarantine order on him because the sickness they’ve newly diagnosed is apparently not contagious.
After having my terror lessened yesterday, once again I’m faced with the prospect that my father’s mental and/or physical capacity will be permanetly substantially downgraded or that he may even die. I may be left alone to deal with my controlling step-mother. When she gave me the latest news tonight, I was greatly agitated and became even more so when she wanted to discuss what I was going to say during my scheduled one-on-one with my boss tommorow. She is a loud, excitable creature and I often find her hard to bear even during normal times.
In the middle of last night, my father went to the emergency room and finally received a diagnosis for the excruciating headache, chills, blurred vision and other symptoms he’d experienced for the previous ten days: Meningitis. Actually the doctors aren’t completely sure that it’s Meningitis; one of them suggested he might have Valley Fever. Early this afternoon, he reported via text that he felt substantially better, physically speaking, with only a mild headache and no other symptoms. It is not yet clear if he will experience any long term complications from this sickness e.g. mental confusion, irritability, hearing loss, coordination problems, etc. My step-mother reports that he seemed very much back to his old self. He has gotten very little sleep in the last ten days and hopefully a greatly improved ability to sleep will help him.
Regarding the ongoing training at my new job, my trainer today became even more wound up than usual at the end of the day, exhibiting his common trait of rapid fire discourse sprinkled with such extensive levels of extraneous detail that it is sometimes a severe chore to figure out what he wants me to do. Communicating with him overall is difficult for me because my verbal communication abilities are not strong. I get easily over-sensitized while in verbal communication with most people–it can be a real chore and really wear me out. I’m simply not structured to be substantially in sync with my fellow humans–I have no natural feel for human communication.
There are many little details to remember at my new job and I’m trying to learn from any mistakes I make. My boss rebuked me in a sternly worded email on Wednesday after I missed several messages from her the previous day on the Jabber chat system. She was trying to communicate with me regarding the problem of my inability to access any applications on a particular software. I apologized profusely and apparently said all the right words; she seems not to be holding a grudge over this incident as well as my sending her an incorrect number for a ticket sent to the company’s IT Department. The problem of my access to the software stumped the best minds in the IT Department until last Friday. Overall, the incident had me shaken for a day or two. It highlighted the fact that my executive organization was struggling while trying to take in so much sensory input on this new job–which will be a work-from home gig until at least August or September.
My trainer is a fast talking, earnest young gentleman who communicates with me via Webex–as we are working from home–and talks non stop. I’m new to the science of Accounts Payable, a subject which is not at the top of my personal interests and so this may aggravate my usual auditory processing issues. The trainer assured me that I will receive many different opportunities to reinforce the training material within my mind. My boss assured me that I will have as much time as needed to be trained. I don’t know if I will be a success at this job but I do appreciate the relatively extensive training. I learn best by repetition.
So far, my job coach has not intervened with my supervisor to request accommodations. It is unclear what accommodations I may need or what may be available to me. My greatest worry is being unable to execute all the job’s little details as well as the potential for me to have a meltdown if I get too overwhelmed. My lagging attention span while listening to my trainer ramble all day makes me wonder if I have what it takes to communicate with callers effectively.
To the stress of starting a new job has been added a highly distressing factor: my father has been afflicted by a fierce headache for the last nine days, along with other symptoms such as chills and blurred vision. The blurred vision was a new symptom that came on yesterday and caused my step-mother to take him to the nearest emergency room. His temperature was normal, his bloodwork was normal and the doctors could find no abnormalities in the MRI on his brain. They sent him away without relief except to refer him to a neuro-surgeon and neuro-opthamologist. My step-mother has remarked on his very visible mental lethargy, lack of appetite and inability to get much sleep. Today, she suggested that he was “losing it” as far as cognition was concerned. She implied the possibility of dementia when she asked me if I’d noticed any sign of increased irritability in him during recent months. I’d not noticed any increased irritation toward me; as for my step-mother she can be a highly irritating person, so any irritation he has recently expressed toward her is not unusual per se.
My father, though I can be irritated by him, is probably my only close friend and certainly the most patient with me of any human being on earth. My step-mother, at her worst, is a loud, emotionally volatile, control freak who has access to my bank account, an opportunity which she seized after I went to live with her and my father after my open heart surgery in December 2017. For the three and a half years prior to the surgery, she and my father paid the rent for me to live alone in an apartment. She is the financial dictator of the family. She is obsessed with money and achieving the best deals on every little financial transaction in her life: her brother-law even felt the need to text her last Spring to inform her that she was not very fun to hang out with because of her loud fretting about money issues. She is a computer programmer and has always made good money. The brother-in-law also suggested in his texts that she treat my father as more of a partner and less as a servant. She was extremely indignant at these texts, shouted at her sister on the phone about them and declared that if anyone was a servant it was her.
I don’t know what I will do if my father dies or declines in mental capacity. God only knows exactly what it is that is afflicting him: the MRI apparently revealed nothing but perhaps it missed something or the doctors misread it. I have no close friends and to be left alone with my step-mother would be a nightmare. She has been relatively easy to deal with recently but her moods have been known to shift. Even when she is not being crudely bossy, she greatly over-sensitises me. Her voice is extremely loud and she is always talking. I feel nervous around people whom I sense are illogical and not in adequate control of their emotions.
She was at her worst one late evening last August where she denounced me vehemently for staying up late (during my paid furlough) and also eating at my computer which caused food debris to litter the keyboard. She went into a long rant about how she desired me to enter this local program which endeavors to help Autistic folks acquire a roommate, who would either be a potential friend or part time caregiver, I’m not sure which. She repeated what she had said several times previously, which was that since I had no close friends and wasn’t particularly close to any of my relatives, some sort of community needed to be in place for me in case something happened to either her or my father. In the end, it appeared that entering the program is a process that takes several years–but, of course, if “something” indeed is currently happening to my father, it is not impossible that she will afflict me again with ideas about arrangements to be made for me when she and my father leave this earth. I think it would be very nice to acquire close friends but, for one, my communication struggles and paranoia about other people’s views on my executive function, make it very difficult.
Of course, if my father’s health is permanently significantly declining or his life is in danger, listening to her ramble again about my future is probably going to be the least of my traumas. In her own way, she is a well meaning creature and when calm and reasonable, I often have friendly feelings toward her. But her sense of tact really needs more work. She doesn’t fully understand my autism and communicating with her about it is too much of a chore. I’ve resentment toward her but then again I’ve also felt resentment against my father for bringing her into my life.
I really don’t know how to handle what may be in store for my father. At least I’m in my own apartment at the moment and can be alone.
After two months of varying degrees of misery on my last job as a conference room furniture set up and take down person. I began what was to be a year long paid pandemic-related furlough from this job on March 10, 2020. In spite of pressure in the mean time to find another job and various hassles along the way, the year long paid furlough has been absolutely marvelous. It has given me time to catch up on book reading, take walks, grant myself extra sleep time in the morning and in other ways clear my head and pursue the activities that I want to pursue. However, this almost seemingly heaven sent year long paid vacation–which occurred after some really traumatic employment related stresses in late 2019 and early 2020–is now coming to end. Tomorrow, March 15th, I start a new job. This job is customer services related (answering vendor questions about invoices for a medical provider); thus I will be free from the physical labor of the furniture set-up job and its concomitant uncongenial co-workers and the requirement of the manual dexterity of which I’m so dismal.
However, my slow auditory processing is a challenge that I will face in any type of employment, white collar or blue collar. Many dreadful experiences in years past, going back to childhood, have me in a frequent state of worry, even paranoia, about situations where I’m to receive verbal instruction. I’m not only worried that my interlocutor will express annoyance at any inability I might show to fully grasp or execute instructions but that I will get sensory overload, the tears start welling up and I won’t be able to suppress them.
For especially complicated matters, it is always better for me to receive communication in written form–of course, this new job requires considerable verbal communication. I wonder if I will be able to process with appropriate speed and accuracy any information that callers give me–for example invoice numbers. Will I be able to keep up with my boss?–she seems to be a very brisk and business-like lady whose brain seems to move considerably faster than my own. Will my sleep apnea affect my performance, especially in the latter part of the workday? After perhaps three weeks of on site training, I will be allowed to work from home for the duration of the pandemic, which might be advantageous to me–or not.
A potentially great resource for me on this job is that I’ve procured job retention support from a disability employment agency. My job coach from this agency can potentially arrange accommodations on my behalf as well explain my peculiar facial expressions, taciturnity and other quirks that co-workers and supervisors may find odd or even disturbing. I’m not yet sure if this new employer has been informed of my disability: I got through the application and interview process on my own, apart from practicing responses to interview questions with my job coach and step-mother.
Of course, a job coach from a disability support agency (on contract with the state government disability employment program) is no guarantee that I will not suffer indignities. I remember being heavily intimidated and walking on eggshells after incidents of being treated brusquely by my supervisor Nicole during the early weeks of her training me in the art of the front desk receptionist. Nicole was a front desk manager at a manufacturing company that trains disabled persons for employment. I also remember my boss mistreating an autistic man at a different place of employment, one where I’ve had my longest employment tenure so far (35 months). He was a “supported employee” with a job coach who was placed in an important position in the business. Seemingly every one or two weeks he would make what the boss regarded as serious mistakes. The boss would call him into her office, sternly lecture him; his job coach would subsequently speak with him about steps he could take to avoid the error in the future. The boss was always throwing up her hands in exasperation and speaking to him and of him in unpleasantly harsh tones. For reasons unclear, in spite of all the mistakes, he remained–and probably to this day still remains in the position. This behavior went on a long time until one particular day, the boss got extremely mad and shouted at him in a bullying fashion in front of everyone. It turned out that she had incorrectly accused him of making careless errors. She subsequently seemed to make apologetic gestures toward him but she was fired at the end of the following day, seemingly as a result of this incident–after fourteen years as a manager with the company.
In terms of attention deficit issues and talking to myself (usually under my breath) as a kind of tic (while sometimes blurting out words when I remember traumatic incidents and I’m out of earshot of anyone), I share similar characteristics with this co-worker. These characteristics on my part seem to have increased in the past few years, but especially during my paid furlough. In spite of the marvelous opportunity of having time to do what I want to do, a fear for a future where I’d have to return to the workplace as well as deal with other stressors always loomed beneath the surface. This low level anxiety during the furlough–where I’ve often been left alone to be deep in my thoughts, pleasant and unpleasant–has seemingly exacerbated certain tics. I hope these tics don’t become an issue at this new job.
To be successful in the capitalist marketplace, companies must maximize productivity in order to maximize profit. They are required by law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to persons with disabilities and are granted a generous tax credit, at least in my state, on a disabled person’s wages. I only hope that I can somehow, someday find a relatively comfortable niche as an employee in that marketplace. I also hope that I can make a living or at least achieve a modicum of recognition for the sort of activities I’ve enjoyed doing during this year long vacation, specifically writing, including producing book reviews on Amazon.com. But the latter hope is definitely a more distant possibility. What I really want most of all is to feel a decent level of dignity as a person.
In the Spring of 2016, I began work as a full-time employee with benefits at a brand new Amazon.com warehouse. At Amazon, I was assigned to the Inventory Count Quality Assurance Department (ICQA), standing by myself at a workstation while robots brought pods—which were six and a half feet tall, filled with numerous small, rectangular bins, each containing a variety of Amazon products. Directed by a computer, I took items from a particular bin, counted them, entered the count into a handheld device and put the items back. Then I repeated the process for an entire day, an endless stream of robots carrying pods travelling past my workstation. It was repetitive and could get dreadfully mind-numbing and physically exhausting. Nonetheless my accuracy in counting the correct numbers in each bin allowed me to obtain metrics substantially above the minimum threshold set by management. Moreover, working by myself at a workstation—with an occasional visit by a manager—was something that suited my loner personality just fine. After a few months, I made the decision to quit the Amazon gig and return full time to a former employer—in hindsight probably not the wisest decision.
In July 2017, I was ready for a change of scenery: I left that employer and returned to the same Amazon warehouse, again as a full-time employee with benefits. I thought—incorrectly it turned out—that I’d obtain the same level of comfort and success as I did during my 2016 tenure. I was assigned to the most difficult department in the warehouse: order picking. In this warehouse, as with ICQA labor, the order picker stands at a workstation while robots stream by with pods containing many small rectangular bins filled with the wonderous array of items sold by Amazon. A computer directs the picker to pick an item in a particular bin on the pod, the picker puts the item in an adjacent tote, and–after appropriate scanning is performed on barcodes on the item and near the tote–the picker punches something on the hand held and the computer moves onto the next pick. Once the tote is filled with an appropriate amount of picked items, the picker sends it down one of roughly five gateways to a conveyor belt system spanning the entire warehouse.
At the outset, we new pickers were informed that we were expected to reach a pick rate of 1 pick per 8.2 seconds over the course of a six-week learning curve. Failure to reach milestones towards the rate over the six weeks would result in a first written warning, a second written warning, a final warning and then termination.
The work was even more physically grueling than during my 2016 tenure. My muscles were dreadfully sore at the end of each day and it was not uncommon for me to find myself dragging during the labor; sometimes I grew slightly delirious, uttering a great deal of profanity under my breath. For a substantial period, my pick rate hovered in the 14.5 to 17 second range. I quickly received my first and second written warnings and in consequence received frequent visits from my manager as well as co-workers who had the job of peer mentor as a result of their own superior order picking skill. These persons would watch me pick, offer tips for improvement and sometimes pick themselves for five minutes at my workstation to demonstrate superior technique while I watched.
Gradually my rate improved to twelve, eleven and ten seconds per pick. Toward the end of my tenure, I even spent parts of days working in the 9.5 to 9.1 second range. Sometimes the computer ordered one to pick multiple of the same item in a bin. Getting a multiple pick order did wonders for one’s rate. I remember late one morning when my computer kept popping up with an endless stream of orders of six, seven, eight or nine for a highly unusual item: a penis ring! That day was one of the instances where my rate skyrocketed up to 1 pick per 9.1 seconds.
However much my rate improved, the work remained dreadfully hard. Gradually, with repetition, one obtained familiarity with the outward packaging of particular items and thus could grab them on sight without having to waste time rummaging through all the items in a bin while trying to read their labels. However, it was often tough to maneuver boxes containing heavy items in and out of bins and into totes. Sometimes it was difficult to find the appropriate barcode on the item to scan. Covering each of the bins were two thin straps to keep the items from falling out. Reaching between, above or below the straps and frequently physically exhausted, I did not always possess the level of strength and manual dexterity required to retrieve the items within the bins in a speedy manner. I frequently found it difficult as I attempted to quickly rummage through the over-stuffed bins to not accidently cause one or more items to fall out of the bins onto the “robot floor” in front of my workstation. It was forbidden for us to attempt to pick up anything from the robot floor because of safety concerns—doing so could result in termination. In such situations, we were required to push an alert on our computer screen which summoned a co-worker wearing an orange vest from a department called “Amnesty” These co-workers would then pick up the fallen items on the robot floor. Late in one work shift, a department manager arrived at my workstation as I was picking to inform me that I was “in the top ten” among the warehouse’s associates in terms of the number of items I caused to be dropped onto the robot floor. This manager proceeded to watch me pick for several minutes to see how I removed items from the bins and the best advice he came up with was that I should reach between the straps to pick items within the bins instead of reaching above or below them. The advice was not particularly helpful—attempting to quickly rummage through so many items stuffed into a small bin made it particularly easy—at least in my case—for items to fall out.
We were worked very strenuously. Along with a half hour lunch, we were granted two fifteen minute breaks—but the time for those events always began when we clocked out of our workstation meaning that the frequently lengthy walks to and from the breakroom were included in the break times and lunch times. We were supposed to remain signed into our workstations even if we needed to leave them to use the restroom or had to stop working because a manager stopped by to chat. That meant that the time you spent walking to the bathroom, doing your business and then returning to the workstation counted against you—your pick rate decreased all time you were away. Similarly your rate plunged when a manager stopped by to offer a critique of your work—or in one case, on my last day in the position, a manager from another department stopped by to chat about issues among order pickers with which his department might be able to help. While he discoursed for fifteen minutes about his vision for inter-departmental cooperation within the warehouse, my rate plunged and it could not be improved for the rest of the day.
I didn’t finish a full shift that day—about an hour after lunch, my manager—I’ll call him Jackson—arrived at my workstation and said to me: “sign out and lets take a walk to HR.” Having earned a final warning, for several weeks I’d been expecting to be terminated but nonetheless was a little shocked—I’d recently won a prize for showing significant improvement in my pick rate during the last quarter of my shift compared to the last quarter of my shift the same day a week earlier. Seeing me sigh with disappointment, he gave me a stern look and motioned me to follow. I knew what our trip to HR would be about—I would be fired—but not once in our walk to the HR office did he refer to my impending termination. Instead, he tried to sound cheerful and made small talk about what plans I had for the weekend and discoursed about his own plans.
Once we sat at a desk in front of an HR official—who looked very tensely at me as if she expected me to utter abrasive remarks or perhaps do something violent—he announced that I’d been fired for failure to reach the pick rate of 1 per 8.2 seconds. He started to say that I’d be allowed to work again at the warehouse as a temp in a few months but the HR lady interrupted to say that I’d be allowed back as a temp in a year. I was asked if I had any remarks to make and I replied no. Jackson escorted me to a time clock so I could clock out, then through the security gates by the front door. He wished me well and turned around back into the building with the satisfied and relieved look of someone who’d just successfully completed an unpleasant task.
I’m not a fan of Amazon.com. Its CEO is the richest man in the world while many of its temp workers are eligible for food stamps and other welfare services. It’s in a prime position to exploit the large number of low wage, under-employed workforce in this country, which is probably why it was so easy to fire me. It’s a leader in tax avoidance and threatens withdrawal of its jobs to municipalities which try to make it pay its fair share—for example in Seattle where it successfully terrorized the city council to overturn a recently passed “head tax” to fund homeless services.
In some instances its power to bully local governments may be less potent than it seems: after all the company did announce plans in late 2019 to establish office space for 1500 workers in Queens—albeit with a fraction of the jobs it previously planned–even after state and local government officials had successfully quashed the massive tax giveaway to the company offered by New York City mayor Bill De Blasio and New York governor Andrew Cuomo. If the company decided to move operations out of Seattle in protest of tax increases, the costs of moving might be prohibitive—after all one reason for the company being in Seattle is that the city and its surrounding municipalities house the knowledge workers upon whom the company crucially depends. The costs would be prohibitive to try to pay for those workers to be moved and rehoused in some other region.
After my involuntary termination at Amazon, I subsequently obtained warehouse jobs that I found to be much worse. I came to miss Amazon: my job had been straightforward, if incredibly difficult; communication with management was relatively easy and plenty of opportunities existed to receive training at aspects of order picking with which I had trouble. Compared to the many chaotic workplaces at which I’ve worked, the efficiency of the Amazon warehouse was admirable. Clearly defined structure in terms of policies and procedures is always something that I cherish in a workplace.
In December 2017–two weeks before my 39th birthday–I was compelled to have double bypass surgery on my heart and had to lay low for several months. In March 2018, seeking a route back into the workforce, I enrolled in an office skills training and job placement program offered to persons’ with disabilities. This program is offered by a non-profit manufacturing company which also offers a much larger course training disabled persons–who are paid minimum wage–in different aspects of manufacturing machine parts for the transportation industry.
For my first several months in the program, I attended an office skills class, which offered training in Microsoft Office and customer service skills. I completed my training in Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook with flying colors; I earned a certificate–not a certification–from the company in each program. Obtaining these certificates was absurdly easy, especially when compared with my own unsuccessful effort to obtain Excel certification from the official Microsoft Office certification program. Employers appeared to regard these certificates as almost worthless when compared to Microsoft’s official certifications.The certificates might have been more valuable in advertising myself to employers if I’d had even a modicum of previous white collar work experience.
The certificates also might have been of more value to me had I been placed in an office job soon after completing the program. I’d have been able to retain the knowledge I’d acquired of Microsoft Office programs by putting them to use in a real life job. However my vocational counselor with the company–lets call him Jonathan–believed that my acquisition of a job requiring the use of Microsoft Office was unlikely given my near total lack of previous white collar work experience and not lengthy work history in general. Jonathan decided that I’d work part time for minimum wage at the company’s front desk under the mentorship of the company’s receptionist–lets call her Nicole. This job would involve no use of Microsoft Office.
On my second day with Nicole, as she discoursed about the various tasks I’d be expected to perform, I was overwhelmed by something like a nervous breakdown. Verbal communication was ( and is) one of my major weaknesses. The prospect of being compelled to learn all the proper protocols for dealing with different types of callers and visitors and then verbally communicating those policies seemed like an unbelievable nightmare. In particular, I thought that my learning disabilities would make acquiring the proper knowledge a very rocky process.
I was called to a meeting with Jonathan while in the midst of this mental suffering. I unsuccessfully tried to maintain my composure and hold back tears. Jonathan, noticing my discomposure, attempted to subtly advise me about it. He knew that I’d been to the emergency room two days earlier complaining of chest pains; he argued that these pains were anxiety and not heart related. “You had heart surgery five months ago ; You’re cured! I suggest you look into getting counseling for the anxiety.” It soon turned out that a nearly total blockage in one of my coronary artery had returned, a highly unusual circumstance so soon after surgery. Later that month, I had a stent placed in the artery.
I was actually very grateful to have the stent placed because it gave me an excuse to take a few days off work. My first weeks with Nicole were a nightmare. Intense anxiety burned inside me, exacerbated by Nicole’s exceedingly stern manner. One of Nicole’s previous trainees wrote in a Google review of employment at the company that working under her was not advisable unless one desired to be treated like a five year old–an apt description of how I felt treated. Nicole’s intent was perhaps well intentioned; it was her belief that her trainees had to be put through a sort of boot camp in preparation for becoming efficient and reliable employees for future employers. Clearly, another part of her mindset was stress; she later apologized to me and indicated she was feeling excessively burdened by the need to train me during the morning in addition to the young autistic man she trained in the afternoon. This stress perhaps contributed to her sometimes abrasive manner.
I received my first review from Nicole a month and a half after I started. She stated that though I was a quiet individual who had little to say my demeanor was calm and pleasant. She also said that I clearly lacked self-confidence and needed to improve my communication skills.
Reading this report, Johnathan, my job counselor, endeavored to advise me about ways to improve my self-confidence. He directed me to work on assuming a persona that was extremely assertive and fully confident in my abilities, regardless of any mistakes I might make. At the time, I felt this was a nearly impossible task but said I would try. Curiously, he then attempted to connect the subject of self-confidence with porn addiction. The latter was apparently on his mind because he’d been counseling gentlemen struggling with that problem as a volunteer counselor at his church. Porn addiction, at least in the way he discussed it, seemed extremely remote from any subject relevant to my struggles. I was full of my usual anxiety but as he solemnly discoursed about this peculiar subject, I couldn’t help but temporarily turn into Beavis & Butthead. I was unable to suppress a smirk and a very slight giggle. It seemed absurd that he was speaking of porn addiction when he was supposed to be addressing my self-confidence issues.
At our next meeting several days later, he said to me “You know sometimes I’m not sure that all my advice registers with you.” I replied that everything he said registered with me; the constant, typically autistic “flat” expression on my face perhaps gave him the incorrect impression that I wasn’t properly understanding his wisdom. He seemed impressed with my use of the word “flat” and in the future would use it in several instances to refer to the unimpressive initial impression I might give job interviewers.
Those first three months with Nicole supervising my front desk training were very stressful. I remember one incident about a month into my tenure. One of my tasks at the end of my duty of picking up and dropping off mail throughout the building was to place a set of papers at the bottom of a pile of other papers in a wire basket. Placing the papers at the bottom of the pile ensured that paperwork related to orders for the company’s manufacturing products would be processed in appropriate sequence by order date. In this instance I fumbled with the stack to be put in and the stack already in the basket. Many of the papers were encased in slippery plastic covers and I ended up dropping some on the floor and getting the two different piles mixed up. I greatly worried that I’d messed up the paperwork and that this would cause serious problems for the company. The man responsible for this paperwork sat half a foot way looking benignly in my direction–he was a deaf mute and legally blind. In my anxiety, I didn’t feel I had the emotional strength to try to communicate with him so as to try to address the problem–and I feared getting my head bitten off if I brought it up with Nicole. So I said nothing. In addition, during that day, I made several mistakes in the organizing of different sets of invoices, packing lists and shipping documents. I’d recognized my mistakes earlier but was scared to bring it up–but did so at the very end of my shift. Nicole started to make an exasperated gesture, frowned and then said with the first real glimpse of humanity I’d seen in her: “It’s ok. You’re still learning. Don’t worry; tomorrow will be better.” I still worried that I’d be caught for my mistake in messing up the piles of papers–I worried about getting fired and, subsequent to that, being subjected to sensory overload from the fallout of such a termination.That evening I experienced the most serious mental health strain of my tenure at the company.
At the end, my mess-up of the papers proved to be no issue; I later learned that it didn’t matter if the papers were placed out of order. The following day, Nicole endeavored for the first time to make small talk with me; she asked about my favorite TV shows and discoursed a great deal about her own. Through the strain of my nerves, I did my best to converse with her.
From this point on, Nicole seemed to become less unapproachable though she still maintained a somewhat gruff disposition. There were instances where she indicated dissatisfaction with the speed in with which I learned my job tasks. I remember one incident where she called down to me from a second floor halfway which opened upon the first floor lobby and reception desk (where I was). I looked up and scanned the railing of the hallway but did not spot her for about four seconds. During those four seconds, she continued to guide my wandering eyes to the spot where she was leaning over the railing; as my eyes finally spotted her, she was rolling her eyes and shaking her head.
Things began to get better when I reached the end of my 11 week training period in the position. Surprisingly, the company allowed me to continue working in the position–at part time for minimum wage–while one of the company’s “job developers” worked to help find me a full time, permanent job. The work environment may have gotten better because of an increase in my anti-depressant dosage: over the course of a month I went from 75mg of Effexor to 150 mg and finally to 225mg (where I’m today). My symptoms of depression and psychomotor retardation declined significantly while I started to acquire more energy and self-confidence. I started to get the tasks and procedures of the job down to the point where Nicole told me she trusted me to perform the front desk duties by myself for as long as two hours. My performance was particularly impressive when I was tasked with assisting Nicole on the registration and provision of paperwork to a group of about 60 persons participating in registration for the company’s training programs for disabled persons. I believe the latter incident encouraged Nicole to nominate me for the company’s “Worker of the Month’ award given to participants in the company’s training programs. I was nominated along with two other persons–and I won!!!!!
My gaining of this award took place in mid-October 2018; this was in the midst of a golden era of my employment at the company. Nicole no longer bit my head off, I was full of confidence and no longer afflicted by terrible anxiety. My overall employment situation seemed stable, although I knew that the company would eventually replace me when another office skills training program “participant” was determined by Jonathan and the company’s other vocational counselor to be a suitable prospect for front desk training. But the likelihood of another such participant being found was unlikely.
Meanwhile, the company was supposed to help me find a full time, permanent job. To this end, I was assigned a “job developer.” Lets call her Janice. Janice would help me look for jobs in the front desk field. When introducing her to me, Jonathan, my vocational counselor, asked her if she could use her connections with local employers to grease the wheels a little for me to get jobs in that field. Jonathan explained that I was a personable and pleasant person–however these qualities did not necessarily come out in job interviews where my facial expression might seem flat and I might seem less charming than I really am. Thus, if I were to acquire a front desk job, I’d need to acquire it through processes outside the normal job application procedure. Janice replied that she had connections among employers in the community with whom she could grease wheels and that we would get started.
I continued to work part time as a front desk worker for the company while receiving job development services from Janice. These services were not much. The contract the company signed with my state’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) called for my job developer (Janice) to find me a full time job with benefits. Initially, Janice instead offered to arrange an interview for several positions that were part time and lacking in benefits. As there was no guarantee that these jobs would evolve into full time, permanent work, I rejected them. It become clear that she wanted me to accept the job that was easiest for her to procure, so her company could be rewarded with a payment from the state DVR. In one case I remember her indulging in a burst of high pressure salesmanship as she urged me to take a part time “on call” job with a federal government contractor–this job had the possibility of turning into a full time job with benefits when one of my prospective co-workers left the company, whenever that might be. As there was no guarantee the opportunity would evolve into full time work, I rejected it.
Janice did construct a resume for me as well as a cover letter sample to use in job applications–unfortunately she appeared not to be a believer in proof-reading as the resume and cover letter had many noticeable grammar errors–as did an online job application she prepared for me. Perhaps she thought I’d proof-read them myself before I submitted them to employers. In her e-mails, she also showed a hostility to punctuation with many of her messages consisting of a single run-on sentence.
In any case, I submitted 60 or 70 applications for front desk work over the next five months. I spent endless hours pouring over job listings on Indeed.com. I was granted six interviews during this time period. Only one of these interviews was secured through string pulling by Janice–the rest were obtained by me submitting applications on my own, independent of her–though the resume and cover letter always contained her handiwork. Janice clearly had no special trick to obtain employment for me. I was unable to a obtain a job offer after any of these interviews for no doubt a combination of reasons, including inadequate experience and poor responses to the interview questions.
There was a lengthy period where Janice seemed to lose interest in me and concentrated instead on her other clients– those for whom she was more likely to land a job and thus allow her employer to be paid by the state DVR. Doubtless she was also overwhelmed with work in general for her many clients. In several instances, my step-mother–with my reluctant acquiescence–intervened to request that Janice focus greater attention on me. I eventually received helpful advice from Janice on answering interview questions and even more helpful advice in that same realm from one of her supervisors.
Eventually, my one year anniversary with the company approached and company policy was that disabled clients should not receive training or employment for more than a year. I received an inkling that I was to be let go late one Friday. Over the subsequent week-end, I coincidentally ran empty on my last refill of Effexor; the pharmacy experienced a delay in obtaining a new prescription. Thus that week-end, I went through the awful process of anti-depressant withdrawals: jittery, shivering with cold, wracked by brain zaps and emotional anguish alternating with feelings of euphoria. That Monday morning, after virtually no sleep, I received confirmation that I was indeed no longer employed by the company; still experiencing dreadful withdrawal symptoms, I stammered out the news to Nicole. It appeared she had no forewarning that my time at the company had come to an end. In a highly agitated state, I briefly said the appropriate words (e.g. “I enjoyed working for you”); she answered “ok” to all my statements and then I was off into the next chapter of my life–I received a bottle from my new Effexor prescription that afternoon and the withdrawal symptoms ended.
That night, I wrote Nicole an e-mail of thanks for her training of me and elaborated a bit on skills I’d learned from her. I also requested from her a letter of reference. I received no response to this letter as I also did not about ten days later when I sent one requesting that she merely agree to be an employment reference for me. It is perhaps understandable why she didn’t respond; my performance during my last two months on the job slackened as I felt the strain of Janice’s inability to help me procure employment as well as the general uncertainty of my employment situation.
Janice did come through several months later while I was unemployed and a client of another DVR employment vendor. She e-mailed me about a temp-to-hire position with a leading religious organization in my area. I accepted this job, which ended up being perhaps the most pleasant employment experience of my life–not that it didn’t present me with the usual autism related challenges. My co-workers were fervently religious but pleasant people. At the beginning, my supervisor stated that I’d be hired full time and permanently after 90 days if everything went well. However I was eventually informed that due to unforeseen circumstances, my labor would not be needed long-term. At the end of my tenure, my supervisor offered me some polite baloney to the effect that, at the beginning of the next fiscal year in one month’s time, his department would fight for full time funding for the position which I was vacating. He said he hoped I might return to the position if funding was procured; that I fit in well with the company; that everyone liked me, and that I should regularly check the company’s employment listings for future opportunities.
In any case, the company’s job listings have been scant with opportunities since I left and I’ve received no invite to come back and take my old position. Also, permanent employment with the company requires the presentation of evidence that one is a practicing Christian. A baptized Catholic, I’ve never truly been possessed of religious faith in my entire life, though I’ve sometimes resorted to prayer during stressful times. I’m no member of any church because I simply don’t have the faith.
As I’ve detailed in other posts on my blog, my employment history since I left this religious employer at the end of August 2019 has been full of little but stress and at times pure hell. It has been a god-send to have been on a paid furlough from my current employer since March 10th because of the Coronavirus. As the furlough becomes longer however, the chances of being laid off increase…..
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