The bins

Work is strange these days because we’re playing that musical chairs game where managements says, “the music is going, sing along everyone, but just to let you know, at some point, it will stop and we’re going to remove somewhere between 5 and 22 chairs.  Enjoy!  It could be today, or it could be another day, but soon.  Anyway, get back to work everyone!”

That really brings the best out in everyone, as you might imagine.  People spend a lot of time eying the remaining chairs and making a subtle case for how their butt is deserving of at least one of them.

We know this game so well, because we’ve been downsizing for years – from 400 people a few years ago, to 100 now, and each time, we go through the same exercise, which involves endless speculation and scenario-building. Due to the union contract, layoffs are entirely based on seniority, but there are complicated rules, like Calvin Ball, so it’s never clear-cut.  Everyone has gone through this scenario so many times that sadly, we pretty much have everyone’s adjusted union membership date memorized.  We speculate on who might or should retire. Twenty seven percent of our office consists of people over age 60 now, and after this next round, it seems like they may need special accommodations for walkers and pill storage.

Rumors circulated that the music would stop Wednesday, and we did observe the now familiar pre-layoff behavior, which involves all the Big Guys going into each other’s offices and closing doors and not making eye contact with anyone, but nothing happened, so we were hoping it would happen on Thursday. At the end of the day, we learned that they’ve sent the names for “pre-approval” downtown, which sounds good, right?   Like, “based on your outstanding record, you’re preapproved!”

It’s hard to explain the whole workplace without delving into way too much minutiae, but just picture a cross between The Emperor’s New Clothes, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hunger Games.  Sort of a sketchy post-apocalyptic, drug-induced fantasy without the drugs, if that clarifies it.  I know, that’s a little hard to wrap your brain around, so let me just give you an example. 

Anyone who’s worked in a bureaucracy before knows that there’s some level of dysfunction built into the system, and you find little ways around that.  The thing here is, we’ve stopped working around it.  

As an example, we have a copy room that has two large recycling bins in it. That’s convenient, right? Recycling in the location where some paper is generated?  But last August, the recycling bins were observed to be upside down, making them impossible to use.  Someone, probably trying to be helpful, righted them.  In a household, this would be the equivalent of replacing the toilet paper – something you see needs to be done, and just do it without being asked.  But this act was followed by a global e-mail explaining that we aren’t to do that without proper authorization, and it won’t be authorized, because the recycling contractor finds it inconvenient to empty the bins from the copy room.  Of course, I do recognize that as public servants, we’re here for the convenience of the recycling contractor, the contractor who emptied these bins from this location for the previous 10 years.

But something changed, and now we’re allowed to have one barrel right side up, and one remains upside down.  I guess they’re willing to be mildly inconvenienced to do the recycling.  Let’s remember that this is a bureaucracy that requires everything to be submitted in triplicate.  Our barrel fills quickly.

For a few days, people were curious about that, but now, it’s just how it is.  Huh, we have two bins, one over-turned, don’t wonder about that.  

There are so many weird things that we really don’t have the strength to get worked up about most of them, but here’s another example.  A few weeks ago, they sent e-mail out saying that we’re down 22% in permit volume from last year, so they’ll need to lay off accordingly.  Staff, though, looked at the permit history, which is a public record, and noticed that we’re actually up in numbers from last year.  Here’s how that went down:

Staff:  Hmm, why did the e-mail say that we’re down in permit volume when the numbers are actually up from last year?

Mgt:  Ohhhh.  Where did you get that, that we’re down in permit volume?

Staff:  From the e-mail that management sent out. 

Mgt:  OH.  So you thought that when they said we’re down 22% in volume that we actually had fewer permits.  OHHH. 

Staff:  Uh-huh.

Mgt.:  OH.  No, that’s not it at all.  We’re just actually down 22% in complexity of review required.  So even though permits are up, complexity is down.

Staff:  Really?  How would you know that?  No one has really asked us about how complex anything is.

Mgt:  Well, we have a formula to figure it out.

Staff:  Wow.  Can we see the formula?

Mgt:  Well, actually, it’s embedded in an Excel spreadsheet.

(At this point, N. turns to me:  “Do they call that a logarithm or an algorithm?”

Me:  Shush, N.  )

Staff:  So, could we see the formula?

Mgt:  Yeah, see, it’s embedded in this excel spreadsheet.  We don’t have enough paper in the building to print it out.

So anyway, you can kind of see how things are going down.  There was another little document available to the public, a financial summary showing that on January 1 we had $11 mil in the bank, and have make $100K since then, and permit volumes are on track.  N. had the same conversation with a different guy about that:

N:  So, it looks like we’re doing okay, based on this.

Mgt:  OH.  So you thought when it said we are making money and permits are on track that we’re doing okay.  Well, actually, that doesn’t take into account a lot of factors.  We’re actually losing money.

N:  So when it says we started with $11 million and now we have $11.1 million, we’re losing money? I’m confused.

Mgt:  Yeah, see there are a lot of factors that aren’t shown there.  Like our move.

N:  You mean the move that’s being funded by adding 5% to the cost of all permits?

Mgt:  well, actually, it’s going to be very expensive to move.

N:  Wait, but I thought we were moving in order to save money.

Mgt:  Well, we are. We will save a lot of money, but it’s going to cost a lot of money.  We’re going to need to take out a loan.

N:  So, do I have this right?  We’re moving in order to save money, but it’s going to cost so much that we have to take out a loan? 

Mgt:  Yeah, see, there’s a formula we’re working with. . . 

One of the questions that no one has asked, though, is why are we keeping these bins anyway?  They’re big and ugly and take up space, and we aren’t allowed to use them.  Like, wait, we finished the last olive.  Why is the jar of brine still in the refrigerator?  Are we saving that for something?  That’s the kind of thing I can think about.  No logarithms or algorithms, just  a tiny concrete little problem.  So I went around today and asked people what they thought.

I started with Tennis-Man.  

Me:  Hey, what do you think the deal is with the over-turned recycling bin?

T-M:  We just got an e-mail that they won’t be repairing the color copier that we all use.

Me:  Really?  What happened to “reduce, re-use, repair, recycle?”

T-M:  I think the County cars are next.  Next week, you’ll be driving a County car, and if something goes wrong, just leave it, get out your bus pass, hitchhike, whatever you need to do to get to your next field site. Be prepared for that.

Me:  Thanks for the tip. What about the bins, though?

T-M:  Yeah.

I leave and go over to Ms. Clicky Click, whom I sometimes borrow hair from. 

“I’ve got to know what you think about the overturned recycling bin,” I begin.  But asking that question drew a small crowd.  I was all, “I know.  You guys are as worried about the bins as I am.”

Everyone looks at me blankly, and someone says, “We aren’t thinking about those bins, Betsy.”

“Really?  Come on.  It’s pretty much all I can think about these days.”

My boss gives me that look (the "Medication.  She needs medication." look), and someone says something like, “Really, Betsy, why is this coming up now?  Those things were turned over last summer.”

I’m not sure if I should actually confess out loud to these people, but I go for it.  “Remember Hogan’s Heroes?  That doghouse wasn’t really a doghouse.  You know?  It wasn't actually a doghouse at all.  Do you see where I’m going with this?”

And everyone’s looking at me, shaking their head, and I can tell they’re thinking, wow, she’s gonna have a lot of trouble getting a new job.  

But really.  


  1. ... and the light over the chess/checkers board was not just a light .... I know nothing!

  2. I think your bureaucracy is much worse than the one I used to work for. This is crazy town.

    1. It is CrazyTown, Allison. Thanks for reading.

  3. Anyone who has worked for a company with more than three managerial levels feels your pain. Fingers crosed you keep your job in this nut house.

    1. Thanks! Yes, the number of layers of management is definitely correlated with the crazy factor.

  4. I so, so want there to be a cool Hogan's Heros tunnel under the barrel, and then when we climb down into it we can go over to the Black River "wilderness" across from the sewage treatment plant and climb out of an obviously fake stump. That would totally be the best thing ever!

    1. Pablo, I know! I think that's what's going on. What else could it be?

  5. I have that jar of olive brine in my fridge, but it is pickle juice. Never know when you might need it. hang in there!


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