The Edge of the Wood

by John Messeder, Nemophilist & Ecological Storyteller

Where’s the money?

“Operator, will you help me place this call.” The opening line of a Jim Croce song reminds me of the days when my aunt was a Bell telephone operator – one of those women without whose assistance one could not make a telephone call to a town 15 miles away. Telephone operators in those early days had their fingers on the pulse – and the actual wires carrying the conversations – within their domains.

The first speed-dial telephone that hung on my wall was a 10-memory unit from Radio Shack with buttons you pressed to make a call to a number you called often.

The phone technology was faster in that telephone than out on the telephone lines. For instance, I would press the button to call my publisher, the phone would fire the code into the wires, and an operator would cut in. “What number did you call?” she would ask. “I don’t know,” I would reply. “I just pressed this button labeled Publisher and there you were.”

Fast forward a bit in the advancement of communications technology. For at least the past decade, any time we telephone an office, whether it be the doctor or tech support or some similar service, we can count on two messages:

“Please listen carefully as our menu has changed,” and “We are experiencing higher than normal call volume. Please be patient while our agents are assisting other customers.” The messages often are followed by an invitation to entirely avoid speaking with a live human but visiting the company website.

The menu has not changed, of course, and the company has been “experiencing higher than normal call volume” since it opened. The messages disguise the loss of the last vestige of the telephone operator –the friendly receptionist who used to answer with “How may I direct your call” is gone.

That message has bled into retail customer service with a new statement, a version of one posted at an eatery we patronized this week. The sign at the cash register said, as nearly as I remember it: “We are experiencing a shortage of help. Please don’t be short with what we have.”

The shortage of help, I hereby submit, is largely a creation of the businesses complaining of its effects. The sentiment, in various versions, is all over the evening news nearly every night as businesses complain to the camera: “We have increased our pay and give bonuses and we can’t get anyone to work.”

I drank coffee last week with a young woman, holding two jobs, one of them fulltime. She is able to pay her apartment rent because she shares it with someone who contributes to the cause.

Though the hourly wage has increased, the young woman explained, you apply for one of the “full-time and part-time” jobs and find out you don’t qualify for the full time position. Then they tell you they only need you two or three days a week,” she explained.

Wages increased, then the rent went up, but without a similar adjustment to state and federal income guidelines, she no longer qualifies for the government assistance that once helped keep the electricity on and food on her table. Even at $14 an hour, a three-day-a-week job – $336/week – does not pay living expenses.

Higher wages for fewer hours, do not combine to a more financially successful living situation for a parent who goes to work to earn money for higher-priced gasoline to get to work to earn money for higher-priced gasoline – rinse, repeat.

I have talked with other workers with the same story. Yet certain politicians point with pride to low unemployment, tell young people to just “get a job” and ignore the part about there are few real jobs even available, and too many of those are meant to discourage applicants.

Meanwhile, companies post record profits for their investors and pay their top officers as much as 1,500 times the wage of the workers who create their product.


  1. “You can keep the dime”!
    Thanks, John. This is happening for elder folks trying to cover health care before Medicare (or whatever it’s called) kicks in at 65.

  2. Those who pretend righteous indignation at the idea of working being paid and treated well make me see red.

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