Article 43



Monday, June 10, 2019


image: amazon honor system

Jeff Bezos’ Corporate Takeover of Our Lives
How Amazon’s relentless pursuit of profit is squeezing us all - and what we can do about it

By David Dayen
In These Times
June 10, 2019

Amazon is an online retailer. It also runs a marketplace for other online retailers. Its also a shipper for those sellers, and a lender to them, and a warehouse, an advertiser, a data manager and a search engine. It also runs BRICK AND MORTAR BOOKSTORES. And GROCERY STORES.

There are OVER 100 MILLION AMAZON PRIME SUBSCRIBERS in the United States - more than half of all U.S. households. Amazon makes 45 PERCENT of all e-commerce sales. Amazon is also a product manufacturer; its Alexa controls two-thirds of the digital assistant market, and the Kindle represents 84 percent of all e-readers. Amazon created its own holiday, Prime Day, and the surge in demand for Prime Day discounts, followed by a drop afterward, skewed the nations retail sales figures with a 1.8% bump in July 2017.

Oh, it’s also a major television and film studio. Its CEO owns a national newspaper. And it runs a streaming video game company called Twitch. And its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services, runs an astonishing portion of the Internet and U.S. financial infrastructure. And it wants to be a logistics company. And a furniture seller. It’s angling to become one of the nation’s largest online fashion designers. It recently picked up an online pharmacy and partnered with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Warren Buffett to create a healthcare company. And at the same time, its competing with JPMorgan, pushing Amazon Pay as a digital-based alternative to credit cards and Amazon Lending as a source of capital for its small business marketplace partners.

To quote Liberty Media chair John Malone, himself a billionaire titan of industry, Amazon is a “Death Star” moving its super-laser “into striking range” of every industry on the planet. If you are engaging in any economic activity, Amazon wants in, and its position in the market can distort and shape you in vital ways.

Elizabeth Warren’s PROPOSAL to break up Amazon, along with the FTC’s NEW OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATION, has spurred a conversation on the Left about its overwhelming power. No entity has held the potential for this kind of dominance since the railroad tycoons of the first Gilded Age were brought to heel. Whether you share concerns about Amazon’s economic and political power, or you just like getting free shipping on cheap toilet paper, you should at least know the implications of living in Amazons world - so you can assess whether its the world you want, and how it could be different.

Booksellers were the first to find themselves at the tip of Amazon’s spear, at the company’s founding in 1994. Years of Amazon peddling books below cost SHUTTERED THOUSANDS OF BOOKSTORES. Today, Amazon sells 42 PERCENT of all books in America.

With such a large share of the market, Amazon determines what ideas reach readers. It ruthlessly squeezes publishers on wholesale costs; in 2014, it DELIBERATLY SLOWED DOWN deliveries of books published by Hachette during a pricing dispute. By stocking best-sellers over independents and backlist copies, and giving publishers less money to work with, Amazon homogenizes the market. Publishers can’t afford to take a chance on a book that Amazon won’t keep in its inventory. The core belief of bookselling is that we need to have the ideas out there so we can discuss them says Seattle independent bookseller Robert Sindelar. You don’t want one company deciding, only based on profitability, what choice we have.

These issues in just the book sector are a microcosm of Amazon’s effect on commerce.

The term RETAIL APOCALYPSE took hold in 2017 amid bankruptcies of established chains like The Limited, RadioShack, Payless ShoeSource and Toys R’Us. According to frequent Amazon critic Stacy Mitchell, more people lost jobs in general-merchandise stores than the total number of workers in the coal industry in 2017.

Amazon isn’t the only cause; private EQUITY LOOTING must share much of the BLAME, and a shift to e-commerce was always going to hurt brick-and-mortar stores. But Amazon transformed a diverse collection of website sales into one mammoth business with the logistical power to perform rapid delivery of millions of products and a strategy to underprice everyone. That transformation accelerated a decline going back to the Great Recession (and much earlier for booksellers). Analysts at Swiss bank UBS estimate that every percentage point e-commerce takes from brick-and-mortar translates into 8,000 store closures, and right now e-commerce only has a 16 percent market share.

Take Harry Copeland (or, as he calls himself, “Crazy Harry” ) of Harry’s Famous Flowers in Orlando, Fla., at one time a 40-employee retail/wholesale business. Revenue at his operation has shrunk by half since 2008, equal to millions of dollars in gross sales. “The internet killed us,” Harry says. “I was in a Kroger, this guy walks up and says, I want to apologize. It’s so easy to go on the internet.” I said, “I did your wedding, I did flowers for your babies, and you’re buying [flowers] on the internet?” Even Harry’s own employees receive Amazon packages at the shop every day. In January, tired of the fight, Harry sold his shop after 36 years in business.

“Amazon was particularly deadly to the original everything stores,” the department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney that anchor malls. When the anchor stores shut down, foot traffic slows and smaller shops struggle. Retailers are planning to close more than 4,000 stores in 2019; the 41,201 retail job losses in the first two months of this year were the highest since the Great Recession.

Dead malls trigger not only blight, but also property tax losses. The broader shift to online shopping also transfers economic activity from local businesses to corporate coffers, like Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle.

Some of these failed retail spaces have been scooped up, ironically, by Amazon’s suite of physical stores, such as Whole Foods. Amazon also skillfully pits cities against one another and wins tax breaks for its warehouse and data center facilities, starving local budgets even more.

Amazon, of course, argues it is the best friend small business ever had. Jeff Bezos 2019 annual letter indicated that 58% of all sales on the website are made by over 2 million independent third-party sellers, who are mostly small in size. In this rendering, Amazon is just a mall, opening its doors for the little guy to access billions of potential customers. “Third-party sellers are kicking our first-party butt,” Bezos exclaimed.

It was a line I repeated to several merchants, mostly to snickers. Take Crazy Harry. In late 2017, Amazon reached out with the opportunity for Harry’s Famous Flowers to sell through its website. Sales representatives promised instant success. “We went live in November,” he says. I made three transactions, [including] one on Valentine’s Day and one on Christmas. The closest delivery to his shop was 34 miles away. By the time Harry paid his $39.99 monthly subscription fee for selling on Amazon and a 15% cut of sales, his check came to $6.92. “The gas was $50,” he says.

It wasn;t hard to find the source of the trouble: “When Harry searched on Amazon under flowers in Orlando,” his shop didn’t come up. Without including his name in the search, there was no way for customers to find him. Before long, Harry closed his Amazon account.

Crazy Harry’s troubles could be a function of Amazon running a platform that’s too big to manage. Two million Americans, close to 1% of the U.S. population, sell goods on Amazon. “There’s so much at stake for these sellers,” says Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee who now runs the consulting site They’ve left jobs [to sell on Amazon]. They are supporting themselves and their families.

THIRD PARTY RESELLERS have been a great deal for Amazon - unsurprisingly, since Amazon sets the terms. Sellers pay a flat subscription fee and a percentage of sales, and an extra fee for “Fulfillment by Amazon,” for which Amazon handles customer service, storage and shipping through its vast logistics network. Fee revenue grew to nearly $43 billion in 2018, equal to more than one out of every four dollars that third-party sellers earned.

In other words, Amazon is collecting rent on every sale on its website. This strategy increases selection and convenience for customers, but the sellers, who have nowhere else to go, can get squeezed in the process. Once on the website, sellers are at the mercy of Amazons algorithmic placement in search results. They must also navigate rivals’ dirty tricks (like fake one-star reviews that sink sellers in search results) and counterfeit products. And if you get past all that, you must fight the boss level: Amazon, which has 138 house brands. Armed with all the data on sellers businesses, Amazon can easily figure out what’s hot and what can be cheaply produced, and then out-compete its own sellers with lower prices and prioritized search results.

Any failure to follow Amazons always-changing rules of the road can get a seller suspended, and in that case, Amazon not only stops all future sales, but refuses to release funds from prior sales. And all sellers must sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prevent them from suing Amazon. Several consultants I interviewed talked of sellers crying on the phone, finding themselves trapped after upending their lives to sell on Amazon.

While retail workers lose jobs, Amazon picks up some of the unemployment slack, hiring personnel to assemble its packages, make its electronics, and deliver its goods, with a U.S. workforce of more than 200,000, and another 100,000 seasonal workers - though 2018 research from the Conference Board confirmed the jobs created by e-commerce companies like Amazon do not make up for the loss of millions of retail jobs.

Plus, the experience of being a cog in Amazons great machine is, shall we say, unhealthy. We know much about the HORRORS OR BEING AN AMAZON WAREHOUSE WORKER IN THE UNITED STATES. These workplaces are aggressively anti-union. Amazon sets quotas for how many orders are fulfilled, monitoring a worker’s every move. Poor performers may be fired, typically over email. The daily monotony and pressure to perform has pushed workers to suicidal despair. A Daily Beast investigation found 189 instances between October 2013 and October 2018 of 911 calls summoning assistance to deal with suicide attempts or other mental-health emergencies at Amazon warehouses. And even these grunt jobs are insecure; Amazon had to reassure people this year that it wouldn’t turn over all warehouse jobs to robots, even as it rolled out machines that box orders.

Amazon’s other jobs, while less scrutinized than the warehouse workers, can be just as brutal. Thousands of delivery drivers wear Amazon uniforms, use Amazon equipment and work out of Amazon facilities. But they are not technically Amazon employees; they work for outside contractors called delivery service partners. These workers do not qualify for the guaranteed $15 minimum wage Bezos announced to much fanfare last year.

Contracting work out lets Amazon dodge liability for poor labor practices, a trick used by many corporations. At one such contractor in the mid-Atlantic, TL Transportation, one former employee (who requested anonymity) described the work as running, running, running, rushing. “There was no break time.” According to pay stubs, TL built two hours of overtime into its base rate, which is illegal under U.S. labor law. Other workers reported they always worked longer than the time on their pay stubs. Driver Tyhee Hickman of Pennsylvania testified to having to urinate into bottles to maintain the schedule.

Amazon runs plenty of air freight these days as well, through an “Amazon Air” fleet of planes branded with the Amazon logo - but these are also CONTRACTED OUT. At Atlas Air, one of three cargo carriers with Amazon business, pilots have been working without a new union contract since 2011. Atlas pays pilots 30% to 60% below the industry standard, according to Captain Daniel Wells, an Atlas Air pilot and president of the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224. Planes are understaffed. “We’ve been critically short of crews,” Wells says. “Everyone is scrambling to keep operations going.”

The go-go-go schedule leaves little time for mechanics; planes go out with stickers indicating deferred maintenance. One Atlas Air flight carrying Amazon packages crashed in Texas in February, killing three workers.

Maine’s largest shopping center, the Maine Mall in South Portland, has struggled to survive the loss of multiple anchor stores. Linens N Things went bankrupt in 2008 (only to reemerge the next year as an online-only retailer). (Photo by Doug Jones/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Even while driving workers at a frenetic pace, Amazon doesn’t always deliver on its promise of convenience and efficiency. Many products no longer arrive in 48 hours under Prime’s guaranteed two-day shipping. Its so challenging to reach customer service that Amazon sells a book on its website about how to do that. Whole Foods shoppers who have groceries delivered get bizarre food substitutions without warning.

Even as two-day shipping is creaking, Amazon has announced a move to one-day shipping, which will strain its systems even further while forcing competitors to adjust. Amazon’s one-day shipping announcement alone caused retail stocks to plummet on April 26, before any changes were implemented.

This feedback effect reveals how Amazon is not merely riding the wave of online retails convenience; only a company with ambitions as vast as Amazo’s could influence Fortune 500 business models across America.

Some retailers have given in. Walmart quickly announced its own next-day shipping. Kohls sells Amazon Echo devices. Target has bought up competitors to compete with Amazon on a larger scale. Call it concentration creep; one giant business triggers the need for others to get big, too. Corporate America is at once terrified of Amazon and reshaping itself to imitate it.

Take Amazon’s ever more sophisticated ploys to modify consumer behavior. With “personalized pricing,” Amazon uses the data of what someone has paid in the past to test what that person is willing to pay. The price of an item featured “in the buy” box on Amazon’s website may change multiple times per day, and can be tailored to individual shoppers. Amazon has charged more for Kindles based on a buyer’s location, and has steered people to higher-priced products where it makes a greater profit, rather than cheaper versions from outside sellers.

“Now, even big-box stores have electronic price tags that retailers can surge price” when demand increases. Amazon’s Whole Foods stores have become a testing ground for advancing this technique. Prices shown on electronic tags are tested, combined with discounts for Prime members, and relentlessly tweaked.

The potential damage to society from personalized pricing is significant, notes Maurice Stucke, a professor at the University of Tennessee. “It’s not just price discrimination, but also behavioral discrimination,” he says. Getting people to buy things they might not have otherwise purchased, at the highest price they’re willing to pay.

Amazon has plenty of options for this behavioral nudging, from listing a fake higher price and crossing it out to make it look like the customer is getting a deal, to its work on a facial recognition system using phone or computer cameras to authenticate purchases. With this tool, Amazon could theoretically read faces and increase prices when someone shows excitement about a product. Amazon has already licensed facial recognition software to local police units for criminal investigations, to outcry from privacy groups.

Then there’s Alexa, Amazons digital assistant, a powerful tool for manipulation. Alexa was designed to “be like the Star Trek computer,” said Paul Cutsinger, Amazon’s head of voice design education, at a developer conference earlier this year. Users can ask Alexa to play music and podcasts, answer questions, run health and wellness programs, set appointments, make purchases, even raise the temperature in the shower.

Psychologist Robert Epstein, who has pioneered research into search engine manipulation, has done preliminary studies on Alexa. “It looks like you can very easily impact the thinking and decision-making and purchases of people who are undecided,” Epstein says. “That unfortunately gives a small number of companies tremendous power to influence people without them being aware.” For example, Alexa can suggest a wine to go with the pizza you just ordered. It can also encourage you to set up a recurring purchase, the price of which may then go up based on Amazon’s list price.

The influence only increases as Alexa takes in more data. We know that Alexa is constantly watching and listening to users, transcribing what it hears and even transmitting some of that data back to a team of human listeners at Amazon, who “refine the machine’s comprehension.” The surveillance doesnt only happen on Alexa, but in the smart home devices it integrates with, and on the website where Amazon tracks search and purchase activity. Amazon even has a Ring doorbell and in-home monitor, which sends information back to Amazon. There is no escape. “Devices all around us are watching everything we do, talking to each other, sharing data,” Epstein says. “We’re embedded in a surveillance network.”

Even as it’s influencing our behavior, Amazon is transforming our physical world. Jos Holgun-Veras, a logistics and urban freight expert at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, estimates that in 2009, there was one daily internet-derived delivery for every 25 people. By 2017, he calculates, this had tripled. “The number of deliveries to households is now larger than the number of deliveries to commercial establishments,” Holgu-Veras says. In skyscrapers in New York City where 5,000 people live, it’s 750 deliveries a day.

Think of the difference between one trip to the grocery store for the week, and five or ten trips from the warehouse to your house. Our streets are too narrow and our traffic too plentiful to handle that additional traffic without crippling congestion. Plus, every idling car, and every extra delivery truck on the road, spews more carbon into the atmosphere. Our cities are not designed for the level of freight that instant delivery demands.

More deliveries also means more people staying indoors. “One thing I think about is how much we overlook the community and democracy value of running errands,” says Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “These exchanges - chatting with someone in line, bumping into a neighbor on the street, talking with the store owner-may not be all that significant personally. But this kind of interaction pays off for us collectively in ways we don’t think about or measure or account for in policy-making.”

In These Times asked Frank McAndrew of Knox College, who has researched social isolation, whether Amazons perfect efficiency could be alienating. He wasn’t ready to make a definitive statement but did see some red flags. I do think we’re sort of wired to interact with real people in face-to-face situations, McAndrew says. “When most of our interactions take place virtually, or with Alexa, its not going to be satisfying.”

For most of our history, Americans didn’t require a personal digital assistant to answer our every whim. Why are we now reordering our social and economic lives, so one man can accumulate more money than anyone in the history of the planet?

One answer is that Amazon has paid as much attention to capturing government as it has to captivating customers. Amazon’s lobbying spending is among the highest of any company in America. After winning a nationwide procurement contract, over 1,500 cities and states can buy office items through the Amazon Business portal; a federal procurement platform is on the way. Amazon Web Services has the inside track on a $10 billion CLOUD contract to manage sensitive data for the Pentagon, something it already does for the CIA. Thats part of the reason why Amazon moved its second headquarters (after an absurd, game show-style bidding war that gave the company access to valuable data on hundreds of cities planning decisions) to a suburb of Washington, D.C., the seat of national power.

Making the directors of the regulatory state dependent on your services is a genius move. What political figure would dare crack down on the behavior of a trusted partner like Amazon?

In fact, Amazon has relied on government largesse since day one. No sales taxes for online purchases gave it a pricing advantage over other sellers (while a 2018 Supreme Court ruling changed that, the damage had been done). No carbon taxes helped Amazon build energy-intensive businesses dependent on fossil fuels for transportation and server farms. A lack of antitrust enforcement created a path for Amazon to super-size into an e-commerce monopoly. Weak federal labor rules let Amazon stamp out collective bargaining and rely on independent contractors. Mandatory arbitration locked third-party sellers inside Amazons private appeals process. Favorable tax law allowed Amazon to apply annual losses in previous years to its past two tax returns, paying no federal taxes on billions in income.

Of course, these rules helped all corporate giants and made executives filthy rich, often at the expense of workers. But Amazon tests the laissez-faire system in unique ways. In a future where Amazon broadens its control over our lives such that citizens have nowhere else to shop, businesses have nowhere else to sell, workers have nowhere else to toil, and governments have no other way to function, then who actually holds the power in our society? Avoiding that dark future requires leaders with the political will to stop it.

Elizabeth Warren;s plan to break up Amazon would rein in what she sees as unfair competition by preventing Amazon from selling products while hosting a website platform for other sellers. Warren also suggests splitting off Whole Foods and the online retailer Zappos, which Amazon bought in 2017 and 2009, respectively.

Fostering competition is a good start, but regulation must also prevent Amazon from bullying suppliers and partners. Lawmakers must force Amazon to pay for the externalities associated with its carbon-intensive delivery network. The company must pay a living wage to its workers, including its so-called independent contractors. It must be accountable to the legal system rather than a corporate-friendly arbitration process. It must not profit from spying on its customers.

If Amazon has caused this much upheaval today, when online shopping is still only 16 percent of retail sales, the future is limitless and grim. We have time to reverse this transfer of power and make it our world instead of Amazon’s. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.

David Dayen is the executive editor of The American Prospect. He was a 2018-2019 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting Fellow.


Posted by Elvis on 06/10/19 •
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Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Made In China

image: your job is next to go to china

No, Mr. President: China didn’t steal our jobs. Corporate America gave them away
Trump’s trade war points the finger in the wrong direction. China behaved normally; corporate CEOs betrayed us

By Cody Cain
May 19, 2019

China is not stealing American jobs.

President Trump loves to blame China for the job losses that have devastated American workers under globalization. But the truth is that Trump is blaming the wrong party. Trump’s reckless trade war against China is misguided and amounts to a colossal charade that will not solve the actual problem.

Yes, it is true that numerous American manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas to China, thereby leaving American workers jobless and suffering. But China did not steal these jobs.

No. These jobs were given to China. It was all legal and legitimate. China merely accepted the gift.

What would anyone expect China to do? Accepting these jobs was a perfectly rational course of action.

China was an underdeveloped nation with a large population of poor people willing to work for a fraction of the hourly wages of American workers. And then corporations came along and presented China with an attractive offer: We would like to build manufacturing plants in China and hire droves of your unemployed people to work there. What was China supposed to do? Naturally, China said yes.

This is hardly stealing.

It is true that these new jobs in China were intended to displace American workers. But does that concern belong to China? Does China have the responsibility to care for the well-being of American workers? Is China supposed to prioritize American workers over its own workers?

Of course not.

China is supposed to look out for itself and for its own workers, not for American workers. Thus it was perfectly proper for China to allow the manufacturing plants to be built in China and employ Chinese workers. China did not steal these jobs.

So if China is not at fault, then who is to blame for the devastation caused to American workers?

The answer is plain to see, and it lies within our own shores. The fault belongs squarely with corporate America.

It was corporate America that made these decisions. Corporate America decided to close their American plants and open new plants in China. Corporate America decided to lay off multitudes of American workers and ruin entire American communities.

And who profited from the destruction to American workers? It was the wealthy executives and shareholders of American corporations. They earned millions of dollars for themselves by cutting the costs of their workforce.

This is part of the larger trend of economic inequality that is eroding the entire middle class in America. Wealth is being shifted away from the workers down below and transferred up into the hands of the wealthy executives and shareholders at the top.

Trump blaming China is nonsense. China is not at fault. To be sure, China is hardly an angel and indeed engages in improper trade practices. But even if China agreed to whatever bone-headed demands Trump is seeking, the problem still would not be solved. The truth is that America cannot possibly compete against China on labor costs. The standard of living is much lower in China and thus Chinese workers are willing to accept wages far below living wages in America. So corporate America will continue to transfer more and more jobs to China and elsewhere. If we do not address this fundamental economic reality, then we will never solve the problem.

Trump blaming China has an insidious aspect to it as well. Focusing all the ire upon China is a grand misdirection that conceals the true culprit, namely, the super-rich corporate executives and shareholders in America.

This is part of Trump’s standard playbook. Trump falsely proclaims to be fighting for blue-collar workers, when in truth, Trump acts entirely in favor of the rich at the top.

Surprisingly, this seems to work. Some of the hard-working Americans who are being crushed by Trumps idiotic trade war and who should be denouncing Trump, nonetheless praise him for standing up to China, believing that Trump is fighting for blue-collar jobs. It is painful to witness such good people falling victim to Trump’s despicable con job.

In order to actually save the middle class, we need to focus on the true cause of the problem. We must direct our great powers of reform where they belong upon the wealthy executives and shareholders of corporate America who caused this problem in the first place.

The nature of the problem is that corporate America has no incentive to protect American workers. In fact, corporate America has every incentive to harm American workers by shifting their jobs overseas.

So the financial incentives must be reconfigured. If corporate America is going to ship American jobs overseas, it must not be permitted to pocket all the profits themselves and leave their displaced workers with nothing. Instead, corporations that send jobs offshore must be required to sufficiently compensate their displaced American workers. Executives and shareholders must not be permitted to enrich themselves unless and until their workers are financially secure.



Posted by Elvis on 05/29/19 •
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Monday, May 06, 2019

We Want Foreign Workers

image foreqign h1-b worker

The OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING (OPT) program, in which the AMERICAN GOVERNMENT pays American employers to discriminate against American workers has grown rapidly in recent years, and during FY 2017 it used nearly $2 billion swiped from trust funds for the elderly to favor 240,000 alien college grads over an equal number of U.S.-resident grads.

It is hard to believe, but true; employers of FOREIGN STUDENTS who have a degree from a U.S. institution are given an 8.25 percent tax break if they hire an alien, rather than a U.S. college grad with the same skills, and paid at the same salary, as we described in some detail in a recent posting.
- Bifg Media Hides Truth On Immigration II

Do We Really Need So Many Foreign Tech Workers?

By Froma Harrop
Real Clear Politics
February 2019

Americans don’t usually think of technical professionals as “guest workers,” yet at any one time, there are more than a half-million foreigners holding tech jobs in the U.S. They are here thanks to the H-1B visa program. H-1B, so the official spiel goes, addresses an ALLEGED SHORTAGE of “highly skilled” Americans to fill jobs “requiring specialized knowledge.”

GROWING EVIDENCE, however, points to companies’ using the program to replace perfectly qualified American workers with cheaper ones from elsewhere. A new REPORT published by the ATLANTIC COUNCIL, DOCUMENTS the abuses. The authors are Ron Hira, a political scientist at Howard University, and Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Among their criticisms:

--Virtually any white-collar job can be taken by an H-1B visa holder. About 70 percent of them are held not by what we consider tech workers but by teachers, accountants and salespeople, among others.

(Denver Public Schools employs teachers on H-1B visas. During a strike, the district actually threatened to report participating foreigners to immigration authorities. It later apologized.)

“By every objective measure,” Hira and Gopalaswamy write, “most H-1B workers have no more than ordinary skills, skills that are abundantly available in the U.S. labor market.”

U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students in engineering and in computer and information science than are hired in those fields every year, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.

--Employers don’t have to show they have a labor shortage to apply. They don’t even have to try recruiting an American to fill the job.

Cutting labor costs is clearly the paramount “need.” In Silicon Valley, computer systems analysts make on average just over $116,000 a year. But companies can hire H-1B workers at a lower skill level, paying them only about $77,000 a year to do the same work, the report says.

And it’s not unheard-of for companies to ask American workers to train the H-1B workers taking their jobs. “60 Minutes” featured Robert Harrison, a senior telecom engineer at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. Asked whether training his replacement felt like digging his own grave, Harrison responded:

“It feels worse than that. It feels like not only am I digging the grave but I’m getting ready to stab myself in the gut and fall into the grave.”

Why does this program continue without serious reform? Mainly because its big boosters include such marquee tech names as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg and Eric Schmidt. Big Tech has showered think tanks with funding to brainwash Americans into believing that their country is starving for tech expertise.

Are there rare tech skills that justify companies’ looking abroad? There are, but that’s the purpose of the O-1 visa. About 10,000 are granted each year to individuals with “extraordinary ability or achievement.”

I asked Hira whether we need H-1B at all.

“I think there’s a place for the H-1B program,” he responded. “The O-1 is a cumbersome process that requires a lot of paperwork, both in preparation and review. But we need to raise the standards of the H-1B program so that the quality and skills of the workers are much higher.”

Also, we should substantially raise the wages paid to H-1B workers and make employers show that they tried to recruit Americans and offered them positions. Other guest-worker and green-card programs have that requirement.

Finally, put in force an effective means of enforcement. Right now, compliance is driven by whistleblowing. A random auditing system would far more efficiently find abuses.

Apparently, the argument that “tech jobs need filling” has, in many cases, oozed to “we want cheaper foreigners.” The H-1B program demands a major overhaul.



H-1B Petition Denials Skyrocketing in First Quarter 2019

By Nick Kolakowski
April 22, 2019

The rate of denials for new H-1B petitions rose in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, according to new data from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

Some 32 percent of petitions for initial employment were denied, based on NFAPs analysis of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data. That’s a remarkable increase from 2018, when 24 percent were denied, and 2015, when only 6 percent were denied.

That accelerated rate also applies to petitions for continuing employment, some 18 percent of which were denied in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019. If the goal of the Trump administration is to make it much more difficult for well-educated foreign nationals to work in America in technical fields, then USCIS is accomplishing that goal,Ӕ the NFAP wrote in a statement accompanying the data (PDF). Whether the actions of USCIS are serving the best interests of the United States is a question that will remain open for debate.”

Moreover, these denials come despite no sweeping legal overhaul of the H-1B system. “The rise in the denial rate for continuing employment, where existing H-1B workers whose petitions have been approved before, show that adjudicators are applying a new standard to people whose petitions have already been approved before,” William Stock, a founding member of Klasko Immigration Law Partners, LLP, told NFAP.

The data from NFAP aligns with general trends reported directly by USCIS. For example, the agency’s recent data showed that approvals of completed H-1B applications hit with an RFE (Request for Evidence) declined noticeably year-over-year in the first quarter of 2019. Premium processing might have re-opened after a lengthy shutdown, in other words, but some companies are facing a heightened degree of additional scrutiny.

However, there’s a big change underway for the H-1B system, and it could radically affect the types of candidates who successfully land a visa. In the current system, applicants with advanced degrees enter a master’s cap pool of 20,000 visas; those who are rejected then enter the 65,000-visa “general pool,” which features applicants without advanced degrees. The revamped system will allow all applicants, including those with advanced degrees, to enter the “general pool,” and any who don’t land a visa during that first round can then end up in the master’s cap pool.

In theory, this gives applicants with advanced degrees two shots at landing a visa. But with USCIS clearly subjecting applications to far greater scrutiny, it’s an open question whether a revamped system will allow companies to secure all the visas they claim they need.

In the meantime, the cap for H-1B visas has been reached for fiscal year 2020. Even as USCIS tightens the system, thats clearly not dissuading companies from attempting to secure as many visas as possible. If that wasnҒt enough, these firms are providing H-1B candidates with all kinds of perks, including company-paid housing, funded relocation, travel expenses, and sponsorship for green cards.

Leading companies think about immigration strategically. For example - companies that offer foreign nationals benefits that allow them to remain in the U.S. longer are finding more success in retaining foreign talent, Richard Burke, CEO of Envoy Global, wrote in a recent statement. ԓWith heightened political scrutiny comes heightened anxiety among foreign nationals looking to work in the U.S. Companies that are able to provide their employees peace of mind by offering them a clear path to a permanent green card are getting ahead of the competition in retaining the best talent.

But that idea is enraging to critics of the H-1B system, who say that companies abuse the visas in order to secure cheaper labor from overseas. H-1B holders at consultancy firms (which aggressively petition for the visas) are often paid less than H-1B holders at tech firms such as Google and Apple. While some studies argue that H-1B use translates into a positive effect for company productivity, it’s certain the visas will remain controversial for some time to come, revamps or no.


Posted by Elvis on 05/06/19 •
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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Call Center Blues

image: call center

Nothing like being stuck in a cube smaller than a cattle pen for over eight hours a day, tethered to a phone like a cow chained to a barn. Humans are not designed to talk for eight hours a day. I will be shoveling cow manure or pig crap before working in a call center again.

[T]hey get on you about AHT “handle time” being too long. So you have to shuffle customers through and blow them off to have your “talk time"/handle time in line and not get yelled at. Also, there is always some nitpicking about how to speak, no matter how articulate you are
- City-Data

Criticising our work and PUTTING US DOWN is the norm. [M]istakes are shared by management both as an internal note on the ticket for all employees to see, and broadcast on an intracompany mail list… The LEVEL of negative FEEDBACK and MICROMANAGEMENT is SUFFOCATING.
- Can’t Find a Qualified US Worker - Redux 2

Negative feedback should be an unusual event: If you run your own business or are in a position of management, you should be aware that your behavior influences the environment of your company. If you and the people in your company criticize and complain a lot, maybe this is a sign that you are providing too much negative feedback, and the risk is that the work environment can deteriorate. Be aware that critiques should be delivered just once in a while, and not permanently, as too much critique ruins the relationships between your collaborators, and risk their disengagement and consequently their performance.
- 10 Good Ways to Give Feedback


The Worst Job I Ever Had: Working in a Call Center for a Cell Phone Company
It was four straight hours of listening to complaints, a lunch break, and then another four hours on the phone.

By Lucas McDaniel,
Bloomington, Indiana

How I got in

I was just out of college, struggling to find a job, and expenses were piling up - student loans, rent, utilities, food, car insurance. I felt the walls closing in and knew I had to find a job, any job.

I decided to apply for a job at a call center, answering customer service calls for a large telecom provider. The place had a bad reputation - a couple friends had worked there and told me, It sucks, but IT’S A JOB. Which was my exact mindset heading in.

All I had to do was walk in and fill out the application. The next week they invited all the new applicants in for a mass interview, and if you made it that far, you were basically hired.

We had about eight weeks of training, all of it paid at $8 per hour. The training consisted of the new crop of employees sitting in a room for eight hours a day, looking at PowerPoint slides and listening to recordings of people dealing with customers.

Fewer and fewer people showed up over the course of training. They got a couple paychecks, then bailed. It was demoralizing. I had just earned an engineering degree from a four-year university, and here I was among a bunch of high-school dropouts.

The last week of training was spent on the floor, where we watched customer service reps field actual calls from customers. I learned more that week than I did the previous seven. All the other training was a waste.

When I realized it was going to suck

That’s when I realized I was totally unprepared for the job. I watched the customer service reps log their call information in the internal software system, and quickly realized I had no idea how to use it. “What did you just do?” I asked them. “We didn’t go over that in training.”

“Ask your supervisor” they’d say.

The supervisor said if we had any questions, we should just look it up in the internal learning database and follow the script. But the database didn’t account for most of the situations the customers described. Or the customer would give a response not included in the script, and we’d be left flying blind.

I often had to put the customer on hold just so I could call over a supervisor and ask them what to say.

There were about 500, 600 people on the call center floor at once. It was a wide-open warehouse, with rows of cubicles, 10 to each row. The partitions between them were small, so our calls often bled into each others. I worked nights, and it was miserable going from fluorescent lighting to utter darkness.

Our base pay was $9.50 an hour, but you could make up to $12 if you stuck it out long enough. Promotions were on a merit system. You were judged harshly by the customer satisfaction surveys conducted after each call. If you weren’t able to fix someones problem, even if you followed the script, the customer would rate you low and ruin your chance for a raise or bonus.

One of the points emphasized in training was that we were to always keep the customer happy, whatever the cost. This meant giving them lots of free stuff - phone accessories like Bluetooth headsets or chargers, or upgrading them to a better plan.

I worked for the enterprise division - businesses that bought phone plans for everyone in their organization - and they knew they’d get freebies if they complained. Most of the calls were people not understanding their bills, and me having to point them to certain line items.

One time I made a mistake that caused a customer to be charged more than they should have. I was apologizing profusely, and the person on the other end kept saying, “How are you gonna make it up to me?”

After each call, we had two minutes to enter the details into the system and get a quick breather. But there was never enough time for a break. It was four straight hours of listening to complaints, a lunch break, and then another four hours on the phone.

How I got out

I lasted only a month on the floor. I had had a line on an IT job at Indiana State University, and it finally came through. The day I got the offer, I told my supervisor I quit - no notice, effective immediately. He didn’t bat an eyelash because the turnover was ridiculous.

It was the only job I ever got sick of, and that’s including delivering newspapers as a kid. I would sit in my car before each shift started, trying to psych myself up before walking in from the parking lot.

The job forever cemented in my head that its an actual person on the other end of your customer service call, and to treat them with the according respect, no matter how frustrated you are.

Every other job I’ve had has been a cakewalk relative to working in that call center. Whenever I’m feeling down at work, I just think, I could be stuck answering customer service calls all day. Maybe this mandatory lunch meeting isn’t so bad after all.



Toiling Away in ‘White-Collar Sweatshops’ - aka Call Centers

By Maria Verlengia
CRM Buyer
ECT News Network
June 9, 2009

Sarah Betesh’s career in customer service began in box office call centers at venues such as the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. She moved on to and Vertical Alliance, at one point becoming a call center manager.
Toiling Away in ‘White-Collar Sweatshops’ - aka Call Centers

However, in spite of her success, Betesh left her call center career behind in 2003. She now teaches autistic children at a middle school in Bucks County, Penn. The high stress levels she experienced in the call center environment left her feeling burned out. Ultimately, she found the work unsatisfying because she did not feel she was accomplishing anything.

High Stress, High Turnover

“I worked for for two years,” Betesh told CRM Buyer. “It’s a really high-stress job. You don’t get a lot of money. The only time people call you is if something is wrong. They’re mad. Phones would ring off the hook. Phone centers are typically very busy.”

Another difficult aspect was the repetitive nature of the work. Betesh likened it to a factory. “It gets boring. That’s tough,” she said.

Betesh’s story sheds light on some of the factors leading to the high turnover rates typical of the call center industry. People take on the typically minimum-wage positions hoping to move on to something else, she said. It’s a good way to enter the customer service field.

“They’re using it as a stepping stone, or it’s their second job,” Betesh observed.

Most people consider a call center position as a way to break into a company or field—not a long-term career, echoed Karl Bonawitz, division manager at firstPro, which fills call center openings.

“People look at it as a foot-in-the-door process,” he told CRM Buyer.

Recession Effect

In spite of the historically high turnover rates at call centers, Bonawitz has seen a tremendous slowdown over the past six months—at least in the IT call centers he staffs in the Philadelphia area—which he attributes to the poor job market.

“I think it’s the economy. The economy has everyone scared,” he said. The moving around that typically occurs in the call center industry is not happening as much.

Will turnover become high again once conditions improve?

“That’s the $10 million question,” he said. Once the job market improves, he foresees people once again moving on to bigger and better opportunities.

Higher Pay, Better Training

Working conditions are a factor in the high turnover rate—especially for people who are not prepared for or suited to customer service work, said Bonawitz. “I think it can be a stressful job. Every single call is tracked. Customer satisfaction is tracked. The volume is high. It takes the right kind of personality. You need a little bit of a thicker skin.”

Additional training would help retain people, he suggested. “People in those roles don’t want to feel stymied. They want to continue to learn.”

Higher pay would also help retain the right employees, Bonawitz maintained, but companies are resistant to the extra expense that would entail, typically viewing call center staffing as a low priority.

That is a mistake, he said, because contact with a call center staff member is frequently the first impression a customer has of a company. A bad attitude can have a negative effect on a customer’s opinion.

“I think it makes a huge difference,” said Bonawitz.

High-Turnover Costs

In the long run, high turnover is very costly, said Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CALL CENTERS (NACC).

“The hiring costs are huge,” he told CRM Buyer.

In fact, the cost of attrition was US$5,466 per individual, Stockford noted, based on a 2008 survey of 70 call centers conducted by Furst Person, a company that specializes in call center staffing.

Solutions to the Problem

Impersonal workspaces, tightly controlled staff, and some methods of monitoring performance such as critiquing calls and measuring call times all factored into the high turnover rate, said Stockford.

“It’s pretty much like a white collar sweatshop,” he remarked.

In her experience, companies kept a close watch on the performance of call center employees, observed former CSR Betesh.

“All of your calls were tracked,” she said.

When she moved into a managerial position, she recognized the pitfalls of overmonitoring employees. “No one likes to be micromanaged.”

Some companies are taking steps to improve working conditions, such as measuring performance based on successful outcomes of calls, which Stockford believes is a better indicator of performance.

Some are offering telecommuting to call center employees.

“It’s happening more than you realize,” observed Stockford. “That’s a way of keeping employees.”

JetBlue and Veterans2work are two companies offering work-at-home options for call center staff, he noted.

Still, there aren’t many companies offering an option to telecommute yet, firstPro’s Bonawitz said, likely because companies think they cannot adequately monitor employees who work at home.

Although companies may believe that, the perception is unfounded, Stockford said.

“A lot of monitoring is done online anyway,” he pointed out.

Signs of Change

Surprisingly, Stockford does not believe increased training will help alleviate the call center churn problem. Training is currently highly variable among call centers, depending on the complexity of the product. In a survey of NACC members and newsletter readers Saddletree conducted last year, participants were asked asked if they would like additional training. Half the respondents expressed no interest.

Improving the work environment, however, can help reduce churn. Some companies have less than 10 percent turnover per year, Stockford commented—usually, they are companies that understand the value of customer service.

Yet many call centers are resistant to change; Stockford attributes that to a lack of leadership in the industry and calls for more innovation and initiative.

Although firstPro’s Bonawitz reported a definite slowdown in call center staffing, Stockford has not noticed a drop in the turnover rate or many layoffs during the recession in the call center hot spots he monitors such as Phoenix, Dallas and Florida.

That is because companies are doing everything they can to maintain their customer base, he suggested, and they want to keep their call centers running efficiently.

“I think attrition is still an issue,” he said.

The Right Fit

Although working in a call center was ultimately not the right career for her, Betesh acknowledged that a call center job could be the right fit for some people.

Working in a well-managed call center can be a pleasant experience, especially with respect to the social aspects.

“For some people, it’s their niche,” she said. “There’s definitely camaraderie if the office is run right. Huge camaraderie. We had fun.”



The Last Bullying Frontier
Call center representatives take a beating.

By Guy Winch
Psychology Today
March 31, 2011

Bullying of LGBT youth has received well deserved attention over past months and raised public awareness about every other societal manifestation of bullying-except one.

There is one group that contends with bullying with alarming regularity and although no lives have been lost as a result, the psychological, emotional and financial consequences of their bullying is staggering in scope. They are CALL CENTER REPRESENTATIVES.

Call-center representatives are the people who answer the phone when we call customer service or municipal hotlines to report problems, make complaints, or request technical support. They are entry level employees who receive a few weeks of training before being deployed to the front lines of their industry where they encounter an impatient and highly aggressive public.

Many of us associate call-centers with out-sourced facilities in India or the Philippines but there are thousands of call centers across every state in our nation that employ hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

How Abusive Do Callers Get?

In doing research for my book The Squeaky Wheel I interviewed many call-center representatives and heard many stories of terrible verbal and emotional abuse (the most dramatic of which is described in detail in Chapter 7 of the book). “People burst into tears here all the time,” a woman at one call-center said. “I was cursed at, called stupid, slow, moron, retard and idiot so many times a day-I cried myself to sleep every night.” Why didn’t she quit? She was a single mother and she needed the job.

Call-center employees can average up to 10 hostile encounters a day in which they are subject to vile and personal insults, screaming, cursing and threats. Imagine being treated abusively in your job numerous times a day, every single day.

While in-store employees can call security if a customer becomes threatening or belligerent, call-center employees enjoy no such back-up. They are required to stay on the line and ‘salvage’ even the most abusive and hostile calls as best they can. Further, they are forbidden to ‘fight back’ as responding in kind to such provocations can cost them their jobs.

The Bullying Power Dynamic

This grossly uneven power dynamic between caller and call-center representative is something of which we the public take full advantage. After going through automated menus or waiting too long on ‘hold’ we take out our anger and frustration on people whose job prevents them from fighting back-in doing so we are bullying them in every sense of the word.

What is striking from a psychological and sociological perspective is how common it is to hear otherwise decent people confess to treating call-center representatives in a manner they would consider verbally abusive and reprehensible in any other context. In fact, we are so desensitized to the plight of call-center employees, such stories are often related without a hint of remorse or recognition of the mental anguish the representative in question might have endured. In other words we demonstrate a problematic lack of empathy (read How to Test Your Empathy here).

Why We Dehumanize Call Center Representatives

There are several reasons why we allow ourselves to bully call-center representatives:

1. We tend to view them as literal representatives of the companies responsible for our frustrations and problems-thus we hold them personally responsible (even though they had nothing to do with our problem) and feel they are fair targets for our anger and frustration.

2. Never seeing their faces allows us to switch off psychological filters such as civility and empathy. As a result, we typically feel no remorse for our actions and have little sympathy for the plight of the call-center employee who was subjected to them. In other words, we are in denial about the emotional and psychological distress our bullying might cause.

3. Our complaining psychology is such that we are convinced (often erroneously) the ‘company’ will make it as difficult as possible for us to resolve our problem or get through to a live person. As a result we get into a veritable battle mentality even before dialing the toll-free number.

The Consequences of Bullying Call-Center Representatives

The impact of our bullying has severe consequences for call-center employees as well as the industry as a whole. Call-center representatives typically experience severe and chronic stress and have high rates of medical absenteeism, burnout and depression. As a result, call-centers have one of the highest employee attrition rates in any industry because few workers can manage our psychological and emotional assaults for long.

The annual costs to companies of having to regularly hire and train new call-center employees can run hundreds of millions of dollars or more. The rapid turnover also creates a vicious cycle in which a chronic influx of new workers increases the likelihood of us encountering hesitant and inexperienced representatives, which then frustrates us and inflames our tempers even further (read about Complaint Handling: Why Companies and Customers both Fail: here).

Dehumanizing call-center employees and treating them as emotional punching bags represents the kind of societal bullying that should be as intolerable as any other form of bullying we decry today. It is a behavior that causes staggering financial losses to companies and untold emotional and psychological ones to tens of thousands of our fellow Americans.

It is up to us as citizens and as consumers to acknowledge victims of bullying wherever they exist. Let’s remind ourselves that call-center representatives are there to help us and that treating them with respect and civility will make our encounters with them less frustrating for us, less painful for them and more productive for all.



The Social Science That Explains Customer Service Attrition Rates

By Daniel Weiss

High customer service attrition rates can sink an otherwise promising business, but this stubborn problem is solvable. Even if repetitive tasks, infrequent breaks, and irrational customers are unavoidable job hazards, understanding why this line of work often leads to burnout is the first step toward creating a sustainable team environment.

Fighting Back Boredom

Contrary to popular belief, BOREDOM IS NOT CAUSED BY A LACK OF THINGS TO DO. This all-too-prevalent mental state occurs when none of the things a person can realistically do appeal to them.

Outside of work, we might feel bored while sitting through a children’s piano recital - when listening to disjointed chords or discreetly checking your email no longer stimulates the brain.

Customer support can, unfortunately, feel limiting in this way. The repetitive nature of answering phone calls paired with mandatory scripts can lead to mental burnout.

Even if the work requires an attention to consistency, boredom can be equalized by incentivizing high performance. The promise of rewards and upward mobility within the organization will instill personal meaning into support agents work.

But boredom isn’t just a symptom, its also a mental reflex to tasks we find difficult. If a support representative doesn’t have the requisite knowledge or experience to answer customers inquiries, it leads to mental fatigue and self-doubt. Boredom, in this context, can be described as a “shield against self-confrontation.”

(There’s a reason why most high school students consider modeling advanced statistics boring.)

When a lack of knowledge creates an impasse, it means helping customers is no longer an option. Boredom (not to mention frustration) will kick in. The solution, however, is simple.

New agents may feel this way until they’re fully acquainted with company policies and operations, but it should be noted that training does not end when onboarding schedules are complete. More experienced and trusted agents can be given administrative “rights” to solve more complex issues without additional transfers or escalations. This way, “roadblocks can be avoided” and agents frustrations eliminated.

After all, customer support for all its stresses - is fulfilling in terms of person-to-person interaction and problem-solving. When support representatives are able to efficiently delight customers and resolve issues, boredom will cease to be an issue. Helping people will bring a more complete and genuine sense of satisfaction.

Addressing Social Exhaustion

Customer support is, at its very core, about human interaction. Support representatives are contacted because self-help resources, website content, or message boards have all come up short. Each inquiry represents a conversation that requires social tact, empathy, and critical thinking.

From a social and emotional perspective, these conversations can quickly add up, and its usually the hardest working employees who feel this burden the most. In fact, the highest performing agents are usually the most negatively affected.

A 2004 study found a correlation between employee conscientiousness (i.e. how committed an employee is to their position) and the effect to which emotional stress impacted work. Essentially, agents who value their positions and take pride in their jobs work slower and make fewer calls when emotional stress builds-up.

Ironically, the main culprit behind emotional burnout amongst support agents might be a lack of genuine emotion. False displays of amicability and empathy have been shown to encourage mental fatigue and employee burnout. Support agents who were instructed to follow strict rules when interacting with customers (e.g. an overtly friendly tone of voice) reported greater overall emotional stress than those who were allowed “display” autonomy.

Relieving the social stresses of the support industry can take many forms, but there are a few steps that will help your agents better manage the human-aspects their work.

For one, scripts are a great tool for training, but they won’t always be appropriate given a callers individual case or emotional state. By giving agents autonomy to veer from the script, you can promote genuine empathy - eliminating the canned-emotion that leads to stress in the long-term.

Also, if emotional stress negatively impacts your best employees call volume, consider giving equal importance to NPS/CSAT scores when conducting performance reviews. Top performers should be able to relate to customers on a personal level, in addition to fielding an adequate number of inquiries.

Defending Against Angry Customers

Emotional fatigue is a large-scale problem for support personnel, but everyone who has worked a service job knows disgruntled customers are part of the terrain. Your representatives are often the first available target for upset customers, eager to vent their frustrations to an actual person. Rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly), support ops absorb the blame for seemingly all client-facing issues.

When heated situations arise, have an action plan to cools things down.

Broadly speaking, research supports a three-step system to defuse hostile situations. Agents should:

Listen empathetically to the customer
Practice blame displacement
Offer an apology on behalf of the company

Step one should be straightforward. People want to be listened to, especially if they feel they’ve been wronged in some way. However, when contacting support, customers only want to be listened to once. Representatives should take thorough notes so any transfers or follow-up conversations can avoid repetition.

Blame displacement involves shifting a customers anger from the individual representative to the problem at hand. If possible, this should be an explanation of exactly when the issue happened and what went wrong. Providing insider-details lets the customer know you respect them as a customer and their anger isn’t baseless.

Finally, if appropriate, consider offering an apology on behalf of the company. A solution (or a timeline for a solution) can be offered as a service-gesture in order to maintain the brands image. Repeat customers and retention are keys to success for any business. A negative experience can have far-reaching effects, especially in the age of message boards and review sites.

But beware anger is contagious. For support representatives to avoid burnout and stay stress-free, its vital to deflect hostility and decompress in the right way.

Contrary to popular belief, venting anger only tends to make it worse. In one study, participants were asked to hit a punching bag while thinking about someone who has made them angry. Another group (who were also angry at a specific individual) was instructed to hit a punching bag in a way geared toward exercise. The exercise group showed lower levels of anger post-experiment, while the venting group ended up even angrier.

Superior customer support is the hallmark of brands consumers trust, but managers need to recognize the strain it puts on individuals. If these obstacles are lessened by stress-reducing measures, customer support becomes a personally and professionally rewarding field, incorporating critical thinking, problem-solving, and person-to-person interaction. Burnout and attrition become a thing of the past.



Dear Customer Service Centers, Please Stop It With the Scripted Empathy

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
March 23, 2016

Youve been on the phone trying to reach customer service for 10 minutes, pressing buttons and entering account numbers. Finally, a real live human being picks up the phone. You explain your problem briefly. LetҒs say your cable service is out.

But instead of a quick resolution, you spend another minute listening while the customer service agent says something like this:

Let me begin, Mrs. Lewis, by thanking you for being a customer for the last five years. We certainly appreciate your business. Now, I would like to first take a moment to say how sincerely sorry I am to hear your cable is not working. I can tell you as a cable customer myself who loves watching TV, sports, and lots of movies with my family, I certainly understand how inconvenient this must be to not have your systems working. I get frustrated, too, when this happens to me, Mrs. Lewis. So to be sure I understand, the purpose of your call is to get technical support because your cable is not working, correct?Ӕ

The response is so long and carefully formulated, you could be forgiven for thinking that you hadnt actually reached a human being. And this attempt to scriptempathy is clearly on the rise, according to customers and call center workers alike.

Companies have turned to these kind of scripts in hopes of appeasing the 60% of Americans who walked away from an intended transaction in the previous year due to a poor service experience, and the 38% who believe that companies are paying less attention to providing good customer service, according to a recent American Express survey.

Unfortunately for the companies employing canned empathy, experts say itҒs a misguided attempt to improve the customer experience quickly, without taking the time to hire well and train employees.

You canӒt scriptempathy, says Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group, a customer experience consultancy in Boston. ԓThe right way to do it is to teach the agents about why youre trying to show empathy, what is it, and why is it important.Ҕ

For empathy to be genuine, Temkin says. the agents must have autonomy over how they respond, and choose what course of action to take and what words to say. After all, even the best actor will sound wooden after 10 repetitions of a similar script.

If youӒre chatting in or calling in and youre upset, you donҒt want to be greeted with a robotic response, says Arthur, an IT professional in Pennsylvania who asked to be identified without his last name so he could speak freely about past employers. ԓIf you use real human interaction, unscripted talk, youre going to get to the heart of the problem, youҒre going to calm the customer down quicker.

Unfortunately for Arthur, in his previous roles at Apple @aapl(AAPL)and Comcast (CMCSA) customer service support, he was required to give specific answers depending on the customer complaint and type of interaction. When he joined Apple in 2012, he said the company prided itself on not using a script. But by the time he left earlier this year, he says, the electronics giant had rolled out a program with three explicit steps for each call. While not exactly a script, the conversational path employees were supposed to follow left little room for detours.

ԓWithin the first 60 to 90 seconds, youre supposed to understand whatever the customerҒs calling in about but also have a path of resolution in your mind, he says. ԓOnce you have that, youre supposed to immediately start in with aligning the customer, assuring them youҒre going to get this fixed and letting them know you feel the same type of way.

Arthur said that Apple trained him to identify customer personality types: thinker, feeler, director, and entertainer. (An Apple spokesperson said that the company does not use a customer matrix.) Depending on which type the caller was, the agent was supposed to respond in a certain way. Arthur found that, rather than helping, these responses tended to irritate. ԓOftentimes, those customers end up super pissed off, he says.

Bad as that was, Arthur describes his experience working with Comcast as even more scripted. ԓIf you didnt say it a very specific way, you got dinged on it and your team manager was notified,Ҕ he said. If you got dinged three times in a month, you had a meeting with your area manager and might get fired.Ӕ

Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury said that the company does not give scripts to its call center employees. We do give them suggested guides for how to handle various calls and on-the-job training to make sure they are helping our customers with whatever they need,Ӕ she says. We emphasize the need to listen to our customers, politely answer their questions and always treat them with respect.Ӕ

A spokesperson for Apple also said the company does not scriptcustomer engagement, instead giving advisors access to tools and guidelines to address product issues more quickly given the technical nature of AppleCare calls. The same spokesperson pointed to Apples No. 1 ranking for tech support by Consumer Reports, which goes back to 2007.

Redway Havens, the pen name of the author of a forthcoming memoir on his call center experience, Thank You for Calling, also worked for Comcast and found the empathy scriptrang false. ғThey were really trying to create the appearance that they cared about the customer when in fact they really dont,Ҕ he says.

According to Havens, some of the most meaningful interactions in his call center career came in completely unscripted moments with customers. That aligns with the 69% of consumers surveyed by Software Advice who said their customer service experience improves when agents dont sound like theyҒre reading a script.

Take the lady in her late 80s who routinely called at Havens newspaper call center job to ask the carriers to prop her paper up against her door because she couldn’t physically bend down to pick it up from the ground. “She would always call me directly and talk about the paper and her life,” he says. She would always tell me how much she loved the newspaper but it was getting hard to pay for it. She had to choose between the newspaper and her meds and the electric bill. (In the end, Havens said, she stayed a customer until her death.)

Employers should give customer service reps multiple examples of opportunities to show empathy and let them have some control over the interaction, Temkin says. They also should empower agents to actually help customers through follow up actions, rather than merely repeating their concerns, says Micah Solomon, a customer service trainer and consultant.

Arthur recalls a heartbreaking support request from a mother on the day of her daughters funeral, looking for help downloading photos from the girl’s iPhone to use as part of a slideshow in the ceremony. She had already tried to chat with three other people and “just disconnected on them,” he says. In that case, genuine empathy did well in “calming down the customer.”


Posted by Elvis on 11/28/18 •
Section Dying America • Section Workplace
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Monday, September 10, 2018

Fake Recovery

image labor force participation september 2018

See that chart above?  It’s not a pretty picture.

It’s the CIVILIAN LABOR FORCE PARTICIPATION RATE that shows in one easy-to-understand graph the PERCENTAGE OF AMERICAN adults that are working.

Remember the JOBLESS RECOVERY they pushed on us five years ago? What the heck is THAT supposed to be?

Today we may as well call it a fake recovery, because there still is no recovery, yet it’s all over the news that the economy has NEVER BEEN BETTER.

It’s more of the SAME FICTION I’ve been reading and reporting about for years - PROPAGANDA AMERICAN STYLE.

Check out some of the headlines.


“Great financial numbers being announced on an almost daily basis. Economy has never been better, jobs at best point in history.”


“The August jobs report shows continued, strong job growth with 201,000 jobs created and an unemployment rate holding at 3.9%.  More than 4 million jobs have been created since November 2016.  Since 1970, the unemployment rate has registered below 4% just nine times; four of those months have been recorded during 2018.

“It is remarkable to see steady positive news regarding job growth month after month.”


The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment aid fell to near a 49-year low last week and private payrolls rose steadily in August, pointing to sustained labor market strength that should continue to underpin economic growth.


Now, recruiters say, the tightest job market in decades has left employers looking to tamp down hiring costs with three options: Offer more money upfront, LOWER THEIR STANDARDS or retrain current staff in coding, procurement or other necessary skills.

Let’s look at some more charts BEFORE WE BELIEVE the DOL and Reuters news reports.

LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYMENT is still over 20% of the total unemployed - that’s almost one in four unemployed that’s jobless over 27 weeks.  (Soon after that they STOP LOOKING, AREN’T COUNTED as unemployed anymore, and move into the NOT IN THE LABOR FORCE category)

image: BLS table a-12 September 2018

The LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYMENT rate is easy to calculate because the BLS breaks down the statistics each month in the EMPLOYMENT SITUATION SUMMARY. The number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more is in TABLE A-12. It also calculates the percentage they make up of the total unemployed. This table gives you the data for the previous three months, seasonally adjusted. It also allows you to compare the last two months and year-over-year, not seasonally adjusted.
- Failure, March 15, 2018

How many are out of work (and counted as not in the labor force) that want a job?

More than 20 years ago:

image: bls chart people that want full time job

IF JOBS WERE SO PLENTIFUL - long-term unemployment wouldn’t even be a vocabulary word, never mind over 20%, and employers would be banging on our doors begging us to work for them.

We need over 200k new jobs per month to keep up with POPULATION GROWTH. And DECENT jobs to be reasonably happy.

image: gig economy

I didn’t even touch on the GIG ECONOMY that’s turning us all into SERFS - on track to be near HALF OUR WORKFORCE in a few years.

As usual - the complete story isn’t what THE NEWS is telling us.

image: no longer counted as unemployed

More Jobs Fictions

By Paul Craig Roberts
September 7, 2018

According to today’s payroll jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy created 200,000 new jobs in August. These jobs, assuming that they exist, are reported to be in low paid domestic service jobs such as transporting and selling goods, ambulatory health care services, and waiting tables and mixing drinks. There are none in manufacturing or in the “high tech” clean fingernail jobs that neoliberal economists promised the American work force in exchange for letting the industrial and manufacturing jobs go to Asia.

The great mystery is how these jobs can possibly have been created when the Bureau of Labor Statistics HOUSEHOLD DATA (TABLE A) reports that the civilian labor force declined by 469,000 in August from the level in the previous month (July); that employment declined by 423,000 in August from the previous month; and that 692,000 Americans dropped out of the labor force in August. Year over year (August 2017-August 2018) 1,531,000 Americans have left the labor force. This is inconsistent with a booming economy at full employment.

It is not explained how during August the Household Survey found unemployment to rise by 423,000 and the work force to shrink by 692,000 for a total of 1,115,000 missing working people, but the economy created 200,000 new payroll jobs.

According to the financial presstitutes, we have a booming economy and labor shortages stemming from a 3.9% unemployment rate, which if it were real would probably be the lowest in my lifetime. Economists are puzzled why there is no upward pressure on wages when there are not enough workers to go around. All of this mystery is due to the fact that the unemployment rate does NOT COUNT workers who CANNOT FIND JOBS and have dropped out of the work force. If an unemployed person has not looked for a job in the past four weeks, the unemployed person is NOT COUNTED as unemployed.

The EMPLOYMENT SITUATION SUMMARY states that there are 4.4 million workers who are involuntary part-time workers because they cannot find full time jobs. So we have a booming economy in which there are more workers than full time jobs!

The Employment Situation Summary also says that there are 1.4 million workers who are not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.

The financial presstitutes are not doing their job. All the financial presstitutes do is to print the headline on the press release that is handed to them - 200,000 new jobs in August.

Consequently, considering all the contradictions in the BLS data and the inaccurate measure of unemployment, we really have no idea of the STATE OF THE ECONOMY.



Labor has lost much in past four decades: Fed threatens recent gains

By Mark Weisbrot
Tribune News Service
September 8, 2018

The vast majority of Americans who need to work for a living still have a long way to go before they recover what they have lost over the past four decades.

The real inflation-adjusted median wage is only about 10 percent above what it was in 1979.

As economist Dean Baker has noted, we can also see part of this transformation of the United States into a more shamefully unequal society if we look at the distribution of national income between profits and labor.

If not for this redistribution from wages to profits from 2000-2016, the average worker today would have an additional $4,000 per year in annual income.

This historic redistribution of income and wealth was the result of choices made by our political leaders and decision-makers. Among them:

They chose to maintain higher levels of unemployment and interest rates than necessary.

They subjected workers to increasingly harsh international competition while protecting highly paid professionals and CEOs.

They increased protectionism for patent holders, including pharmaceutical companies who charge tens of thousands of dollars for cancer drugs that would sell for a small fraction of these prices in competitive markets.

They changed labor law so that unions bargaining power would be reduced to levels not seen for most of the 20th century.

The Trump administration claims that workers’ long night is over, as evidenced by the current headline unemployment rate of 3.9 percent; and that it is responsible for the historically low unemployment.

But this reduction in unemployment is the continuation of an economic recovery that began under the Obama administration, and is overwhelming the result of policy decisions by the Federal Reserve, not the president or Congress.

Beginning in December 2008, the Fed kept short-term interest rates near zero for seven years and also created trillions of dollars during much of this period to push down long-term rates.

The Fed is the main determinant of the rate of unemployment; but what the Fed giveth, the Fed taketh way. The Fed began to reverse these policies in 2015; it has raised rates twice this year and is expected to raise them two more times before the year is over.

The Fed has had no valid reason for these interest rate hikes. The Fed targets an inflation rate of 2 percent, but its preferred measure of inflation is still at 1.9 percent. And inflation has been below target for almost all of the past 9 years.

Most Americans dont know this, but when the Fed raises interest rates it is intentionally slowing the rate of job creation, in order make unemployment higher than it would otherwise be; and thereby putting downward pressure on wages.

Since World War II, the Fed has caused all of the recessions in the US except for the last two, which were caused by the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000 and then the housing bubble in 2007.

Most immediately, the Fed threatens to reverse much of the gains in employment that we have made in the current economic expansion, even though real wages did not even grow over the past year.

For the longer term, Trump and his congressional allies have moved to continue the march towards greater inequality: for example with the tax give-away to corporations and the rich and Trump’s selection of anti-labor and right-wing judges for the federal courts, increasing inequality in education, and other policies.

Reversing labors losses over the past four decades will therefore require blocking the Fed from increasing unemployment - or worse, tipping the economy into recession and then undoing some of the structural changes that have created such obscene levels of inequality.



Trump’s Fake Boom: Growing Despair Amidst Insecure Economic Recovery

By David Rosen
August 31, 2018

It’s now almost a decade since the last fiscal crisis, launching what was dubbed the “Great Recession.” It wreaked havoc on the U.S. banking system and the housing market, leaving millions of Americans is desperate free-fall.  While many conventional economic indicators suggest that the economy has rebounded, a significant portion of the American public feel stuck, their futures looking bleak.

On August 6th, Pres. Trump tweeted, “Great financial numbers being announced on an almost daily basis. Economy has never been better, jobs at best point in history.” So, with such good news, why do an increasing number of Americans feel un-well?

Two recent studies point to the deepening despair shared by many Americans and unacknowledged by Trump and the mainstream media. The Federal Reserve study, REPORT IN THE ECONOMIC WELL_BEING OF U.S. HOUSEHOLDS IN 2017 [LOCAL COPY] and the GALLUP-SHARECARE WELL-BEING INDEX - detail this despair in complementary ways.  Taken together, they paint a disturbing picture of the suffering being endured by Americans, especially the nations most vulnerable.

While Trump seeks to dismiss all challenges to his empty bluster as “fake news,” there is a growing perception among Americans that the once proudly proclaimed “American Dream is over.” This perception is shared by critics of capitalism and some mainstream pundits as well as (incoherently) by those who back Trump and his call to “make America great again” - with its emphasis on “again,” a wish for what was once but nevermore.

The Federal Reserve report champions the slow economic recovery that’s marked the decade following the Great Recession. It notes that “fewer people are finding it difficult to get by, or just getting by, then was the case five years ago.  This decline in financial hardship is consistent with the decline in the national unemployment rate over this period.”

However, it warns - two in five Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense, and one in four don’t feel they are “at least doing OK financially.” It adds, more than one in five said they weren’t able to pay the current months bills in full, and more than one in four said they skipped necessary medical care last year because they couldn’t afford it.  These are signs of the decline in well-being.

The Gallup-Sharecare study was initiated in 2008 to gauge the overall well-being of adult Americans.  It’s a comprehensive poll involving interviews with more than 160,000 adults from all 50 states.  Its most recent 2017 survey found that between 2016 and 2017, the overall well-being score dropped 0.6 points, to 61.5 from 62.1.  As Gallup declares, “this decline is both statistically significant and meaningfully large.”

The Gallup-Sharecare study identifies a range of factors that make up its well-being metrics, including: experiencing significant worry, little interest or pleasure in doing things, clinical diagnoses of depression, daily physical pain, a decline in having someone who encourages you to be healthy and dissatisfaction with ones standard of living (compared to peers). Other symptoms of decline in well-being include unmanageable debt as well as increased obesity, drug addiction (e.g., opioids) and alcoholism.

Both the Fed and Gallup-Sharecare studies identify those suffering the greatest loss of well-being. The Gallup-Sharecare study notes: “Women have had a substantial 1.1-point drop in their Well-Being Index score, while the score for men is unchanged.”

The Fed adds: “Across the four major racial and ethnic groups, well-being has dropped the most among blacks and Hispanics, although it has also come down to a lesser degree among whites and Asians.” And it warns: “Americans living in lower-income households saw a significant drop in well-being, while their higher-income counterparts saw a smaller decrease, no change or a slight increase.”

The Fed furthers this perception, arguing, “The overall positive trend in self-reported well-being masks some notable differences across groups.” Adding, “More education is associated with greater economic well-being; however, at each education level, blacks and Hispanics are worse off than whites.”

Most revealing, the Fed finds that whites with only a high school degree are more likely to report doing okay financially than blacks or Hispanics with some college education or an associate degree. It concludes, “this pattern, combined with the fact that blacks and Hispanics typically have completed less education, results in substantially lower overall economic well-being for black and Hispanic adults.”

Gallup-Sharecare report makes sadly clear that many of those experiencing the decline in their sense of well-being are supporters of Trump and the Republicans.  Some 21 states witnessed significant declines in their relative well-being, including many Ӕred states strongly supportive of Trump.  Among those suffering the largest declines in the ostensible well-being are Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia; West Virginia had the lowest level of well-being.

Not asked by either the Fed or Gallup-Sharecare studies was what are the consequences of the loss of well-being?  In particular, whether the decline in well-being breads rage, a deeply-personal sense of revenge toward those who ostensibly ended their American Dream?


Posted by Elvis on 09/10/18 •
Section Dying America • Section Workplace
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