Needless to say, after the events detailed in my "Lowered Expectations" series I was getting pretty desperate for work. My parents were helping me financially as best they could but if I didn't get a job soon I'd be destitute. Student loan payments were coming due. Unbeknown to me, my girlfriend was paying her part of the rent with cash advances from her "Canadian Tire" Mastercard. If we didn't score some paying gigs soon, we'd be buried under an insurmountable weight of debt that would see us smothered even before we had a chance to breathe.
Then something miraculous happened. One of my resumes and subsequent interviews actually paid off. In August of 1994 I was offered a part-time job with "Sears Canada Catalog" as a Telephone Sales Associate (TSA to try and avoid the carpel tunnel). I leapt at it like "TMZ" on a Miley Cyrus sighting.
Too bad I didn't know the back story to my hiring until much, much later.
In the late Eighties, "Sears Canada" was heading down that same grim path that would eventually consume it's massive retail brethren "Eatons". The signs were undeniable. Yearly reports of profit loss. The price of shares plummeting below the ten dollar mark. The massive infrastructure that had evolved to drive the venerable catalog enterprise had become antiquated and inefficient. It's employees were still writing up customer ord student loansers on paper whereas other organizations had embraced computer technology to link directly into warehouses to expedite availability, ETA, packing and shipping.
To make matters worse, the early Nineties brought recession. Unemployment was rife, wages were low and "Sears", with its comparatively weak buying power, high costs and dramatic mark-up's found itself unable to compete with unethical discount giants like "Wal-Mart".
In order to survive, "Sears" was forced to embrace the purveying climate at the time and begin the process of downsizing. At once, rumors began to swirl in outlying warehouses like the highly lauded facility in Halifax, that such locations might close in lieu of a new ultra-modern structure being built in Belleville, Ontario. Management was quick to quell the talk of the time, insisting that because of it's exemplary service record, the Halifax site would undoubtedly be spared.
But that was not to be. In 1992 the rumors were confirmed. Seven-hundred plus veteran warehouse staff were told that everything that had been whispered about was true. A promise came from the company to offer something new to those disenfranchised staff members caught flat-footed by the announcement. A new venture was in the works for Halifax, a high-tech in-bound call center on par with other modern operations.
This direction was the brainchild of a new generation of "Sears"-brand Chief Executive Officers, led by the newly appointed Paul Walters. Young, aggressive, and undeniably visionary, Walters promised a cadre of still-eager investors that Sears would return to it's former prominence in the Canadian retain battlefield. The keystone of the recovery would be a thorough trimming of wasteful departments, refurbishing and modernizing the still-strong retain market and an aggressive embrace of new technology and add-on sales. The call centers would become the flagship for this last venture.
With existing retail space still idle in Halifax, "Sears" courted the Nova Scotia government for incentives to construct the largest of several proposedin-bound call centers designed to assist customer with catalog ordering. Starved to provide the public news of job creation instead of loss, the Tory government at the time offered "Sears" a $100,000 grant to get the operation started. Tax breaks are alleged as well, a six-figure sum for each year of operation. In fact, then-Economic Minister Gordon Balser confirmed in May of 2000 that the province gave Sears "roughly one million dollars between 1992 and 1994".
There was another resource at the company's disposal as well. Hundreds of unemployed Nova Scotians, including the displaced warehouse staff, flocked to the job postings. Despite vague promises of how many part-time hours would be available and offering a benefits package so costly it was impractical, applicants were lured by the slightly-above average starting wage and the call center's willingness to schedule for those people forced to work two, sometimes three other part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.
It was into this I unwittingly walked. I didn't know anything about this at the time. All I could think was: 'Wow, for the first time ever I'm working for a real company, not for some dubious, fly-by night, pack of snake oil salesmen.' As a Newfoundlander, working for "Sears" was like working for "Microsoft". Almost everything I owned as a kid came from Sears since we really didn't have many physical stores where I lived.
My role as a TSA would be to process in-bound sales orders, address customer service inquiries, and preform add-on promotional sales. Training was a very brief affair, but even at the tender age of twenty-four I'd already figured out that this was going to be par for the course for the rest of my working days. One odd and creepy thing did occur during training which I should have considered to be a sign of things to come.
As part-time workers we would normally only be working four or six-hour shifts at a time with one fifteen-minute break. Now, I'm not sure what the exact rule was back then but it wasn't dissimilar to the current Labor Standards Code which dictates that "employees that work more than five consecutive hours are entitled to a half-hour lunch break." In a surreptitious move during training, we desperate and impressionable trainees were asked to sign a document waiving our rights to this. So, in other words, we'd only have fifteen minutes of total break time for a six-hour shift.
I remember a creeping chill come over me as I looked at this curious document. It stunk to high heaven. It was crushingly disappointing to me that a major corporation like "Sears Canada" would engage in the sort of greasy, cost-cutting chicanery more nominal outfits were passing off as an attempt to be "globally competitive during this time of recession."
But I'd been hired by this company with an otherwise stellar reputation and I would reward their trust with unwavering, unquestioning loyalty. I unwittingly signed my rights away with a song in my heart. I took my little orientation binder home like a good little doobie and bragged to all my friends that I was gonna be working for "Sears".
I was pretty nervous my first day on the phone, but the trainers took good care of us. Pretty soon I was processing orders, helping customers and putting my best foot forward for the GREAT PROVIDER.
And then I got my first schedule and I was completely aghast. I was scheduled to work eight hours my first week and twelve the next!
What was I going to do? I couldn't live on that, pay off my student loans and try to advance my life such as considering home ownership or kids, especially while earning only about $7.00 an hour!
What would happen to me? *Dun-dun-duuuuun!*
Tune in next time for another thrilling episode of "You Can't Get There From Here" featuring:
- The horrors of Christmas retail are eased somewhat by my first decent paycheck.
- "Sears" bounces back financially, thanks in part to some hard-working Haligonians
- I begin to realize that I'm actually paying my own wages!
- I find myself amidst a loving and supportive working family all united against a greater evil.
- I become a leader of men! Actually a leader of a lot of women, which I think is actually a lot cooler.