Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

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Exploitation: Silent and Destructive in the 21st Century

 Paula Kelseyby Paula Kelsey

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of the Vigilant, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia. It begins with the editor�s introduction:

Charles Dickens wrote about employers� mistreatment of workers in the nineteenth century. Dickens�s stories don�t usually come to mind when we visit Winchester, Virginia, a serene, small city at the top of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

When one travels through Winchester, as many of us do, it looks like a quiet, friendly, small city with many historic buildings, quiet residential streets, church bells greeting passersby, and of course apples. One would not see a hostile environment, a reminder of dismal nineteenth century factories that forced Paula Kelsey, corresponding secretary of our Winchester Chapter, to leave her job.

Like many blind people Paula wanted to work. In fact her desire to be a contributing taxpayer led her into a job that became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible. Why did this happen? Who let it happen? Did this mistreatment and exploitation occur because Paula is blind and therefore a minority employee? We believe that the answer is yes.

Twenty-first century exploitation and discrimination are more difficult to identify than they were before it became officially illegal to discriminate against blind people in the workplace. But this kind of oppression still rears its ugly head and still takes the form of neglect and mistreatment. We must never be lulled into forgetting the unpleasant face of contemporary exploitation and job discrimination against blind people. Here is Paula�s painful story:

Hello there, from the previously employed. Yep, that's right. Another blind person back to collecting a monthly check from good old Social Security. Why, you ask yourself. Here is my brief bio. My name is Paula, and I'm currently thirty-eight years old and a college graduate who earned a BA in sociology back in 1991. I was employed briefly (four months) back in 1994. I did not hold a paid job again until 2003. That's a long haul in the out-of-work world. By this point, I was thoroughly tired of being asked if I was looking for a job and tired of dealing with rehabilitation counselors.

Finally, in 2003, my counselor told me about a guy here in Winchester who ran a small nonprofit company with the sole goal of finding jobs for disabled people. Mostly he dealt with nonblind disabled people, but I said sure I'd meet with him. So I did, we talked, and WHAM! the next thing I knew I had an interview at Sears. I worked there three long years. I'm proud to say, without bragging, that I am a fast learner. My job was in the warehouse in the receiving department. I opened hundreds of boxes containing small kitchen appliances, bedroom accessories, sheets, pillows, clothing, shoes, etc., that came on trucks that arrived two days each week. Six workers opened, hung, and stacked for hours on end. I worked with three people from Mexico and two high school teens. My salary was okay, $7 an hour, part-time. I was part of a team.

Sounds great so far. But I received no benefits since I was part-time. Thank God I still had my Medicaid and Medicare benefits.
The first year flew by. However, during that second year, one by one, all my fellow box openers were either fired or quit. I found myself alone with hundreds of boxes (not to mention a fashion truck twice a week) --two box trucks and two fashion trucks every week. Think of it like this: you know how drycleaners wrap clothes in plastic? Think of hundreds of garments individually wrapped. My job was to strip the plastic, which took hours and hours. Then I ink-tagged certain items. We're talking hours and hours of sticking tags onto clothes.

Now that you have some idea of my job and the fact that I went from a team member to a solo artist, let me speak about the pressure. Keep in mind that my responsibilities increased, but my pay stayed the same. Sears has a policy that on employees� anniversary dates they get a pay raise. On mine I received a whopping twenty-one-cent raise. Three months later it zoomed up to $8 an hour. Unbeknownst to me that would be my last pay hike. And they kept saying, "We want all the boxes opened in two days." So I had the fashion truck on Mondays and Thursdays and the box trucks Tuesdays and Thursdays. I felt like an Energizer Bunny with the cheap battery inside. If you think this sounds horrible, it was. The closer Christmas came, for example, the more boxes and fashions came in. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I was a part-timer who worked forty-hour weeks. In one two-week block I worked close to ninety hours.

So why did I stay? I was miserable. I was being taken advantage of and given crappy hours--night shift, no public transportation after 5:00 p.m., and lousy taxi service. My friends worked days. Some months I had to pay some of my earnings back to Social Security because I made more than allowed under SSI. The main reason I stayed was selfish: I loved the feeling of affirmation when a family member or a fellow blind person asked me if I had a job. I would say proudly, "Yes, I work at Sears." I might have been miserable, but I had a job.

After close to two years of doing everything myself and driving myself to the breaking point, I started seeing a chiropractor. I now wear an elbow brace because of the damage done by lifting so many hundreds of boxes.

Enough was eventually enough; I couldn't handle it one minute longer. I left my job at Sears. Now Social Security tells me that I owe more than $300, and I have no income besides my SSI check. Sears still hasn�t conducted my exit interview to find out what I liked, what I didn�t like, and what could have been improved in the warehouse work I did.

When asked why I finally quit that job, I respond, �It's for the health problems. I was both physically and mentally tired.�
(Please note: this original story was written three months after I left Sears. I no longer have any of the health problems I did while working. And sometimes I want to work again, but definitely not at my former place of employment!)

Did I take my job seriously? Of course I did. Perhaps that was my problem. Maybe I should have become a slacker and continued to collect a paycheck. So yes, I am unemployed and frankly have no desire to work for at least a while. I'm not one tiny bit sorry that I left that godforsaken job! And yes, I'm looking forward to collecting SSI and SSDI, and I think I'll apply for food stamps. That�s what job discrimination and exploitation can do to quench a person�s determination to work.

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