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Skeleton Crew

Friday, 14 September 2012

My favorite waitress, JoJo, who works the non-smoking section at the sports bar we go to every Thursday night, works alone.  It does not matter whether there is only one booth with two people in it or an entire room full of long tables celebrating birthday parties with all of the side booths full, she still works alone.  This seems to work okay for her; she knows she'll make a lot of tips when the room is full and she doesnt mind it too much when she isn't so busy.

But if you are a customer, trying to get even a beer on one of those nights when things are packed can be a frustrating experience.  The sports bar doesn't seem to care.  They know you're captive.

Welcome to modern American life, the life of skeleton crews and understaffed operations.

Wal-Mart probably figured it out first.  Those super-low prices come at a cost (Well, many costs, if you research their operation), and that cost is your time.  For you can find the cheapest produce in town at a Wal-Mart, but you're going to pay for it with your time.  If time is in money, then I'm not sure what kind of a bargain we get when we wait in endless lines at a store that must have at least 30 checkout lines, but only 4 of them open, and one of those a self-checkout lane with spotty success.

But it isn't just Wal-Mart anymore.  Target,  the so-called "premium" version of the same kind of store, which used to have many checkout lanes open, and sales associates standing in front of you beckoning for you to come to his or her aisle, has gone more the way of Wal-Mart, with fewer open aisles and longer lines.

Even Chili's, which is becoming more a bottom-feeder itself, will have half of its restaurant closed during a lunch rush and its hostesses will ask if you would like to sit in the bar area where, of course, the bartender manages all of the tables.

Does it seem like there are fewer people in the parking lots or walking down the aisles of these establishments?  Maybe a little sometimes, and sometimes definitely no.  But outposts like these don't have work forces set up to adjust to different circumstances.  No, they are content to offer staffing more toward the minimum and to let the consumer adjust his or her time and expectations.  Grocery stores, TJMaxx, Barnes and Noble, everyone has cash registers that sit unused even at the busiest times.

Who knew that customer service was a luxury?  Who knew that speed and convenience were the trappings of a cash-bloated economy and a public confidence that things would continue as they were indefinitely?

I'm not smart enough to understand everything there is to know about economics and job creation (except to know that most of it is wrong), but I do know one thing:  these jobs ain't likely comin' back.  People and politicians like to talk about lost jobs like they vanished into thin air, as if the places that offered those jobs no longer exist, as if in a sleepy Southern city like ours all of the retail storefronts are emptier than they were four or eight years ago.

That is simply not true.  There are new places opening here all the time--restaurants, stores, and other commercial endeavors. 

What is true is that places that already existed or places that are new are simply making do with less.  Sure, there are places that can afford the extravagance of doing it or overdoing it, but most places you see few people doing a lot more, the owner or franchisee pitching in a lot more than he or she used to.  Employers who had to "trim the fat" to maximize the bottom line aren't like to revert to a more bloated staff, regardless of the state of the economy, aren't likely to reestablish people or positions that have proven to be non-essential.

I'm not so sure that this is a bad thing and I'm not sure that it isn't, but it does require some adjustments.  The worker who lost work will need to find something else to do, or someplace else to do it, perhaps with more work or less pay.  The customer is going to have to develop some patience that he or she might not have had.  Both of these are hard lessons, bitter pills to swallow, since we have come to recognize how valuable our time is to us and we have come to value our own ability to do good work.  And, all of a sudden, we don't have as much control over our time or our employment as we once did.

That's what I think about when I'm standing in line or sitting, waiting more than I once did.  When I see those fewer people doing more, though, I don't feel grateful for what I have, I feel sorrow for the ghosts of those who used to be there and what they brought with them when they were there.  Some will argue that austerity is necessary, but is it more civilized?  I don't know that you will convince me of that.

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