Avon calling… from hell!!!

A tale of toil by Donald Phillips, a worker in an Avon factory.

My life took an abrupt turn for the worse after I graduated from Miami University in the spring of 1987. A liberal arts major with poor grades, I couldn't maintain a set of accounting books, design hair dryers, or trade commodities. The help wanted ads didn't look very promising. There was a large demand for nurses, engineers, cost accountants, security guards, and little else. None of it interested me in the least, but I had to apply for something.

A few small-to-medium-sized factories were advertising for unskilled laborers, and I certainly fit the bill. After failing to get a job after applying with them directly, a "friend" suggested that I check out temporary agencies. Another "friend"referred me to Olson Temporary Services, claiming it has the "best" assignments. Olson had placed his girlfriend at General Electric's jet engine plant in Cincinnati and she ended up getting into GE's executive management trainee program. I didn't believe I was capable of landing such a position owing to a basic defect of character--a complete lack of the work ethic, at least a positive one. But at this point, anything would do.

The nearest Olson office was in Fairfield, a Cincinnati suburb in the Forest Fair Mall, the largest mall in the United States, probably containing almost as much concrete as the Hoover Dam. A monument to consumer excess, its developer went belly up and wrote off$1.5 billion-worth of junk bonds that had been used to finance its construction on a couple hundred acres of former corn and soybean fields. Its combination of highly polished marble, loud, abrasive music, and flashing lights had given half a dozen children epileptic fits.

Forest Fair Mall is Fairfield's largest minimum wage employer, and Olson Temporary Services is strategically placed within it, right between the Jiffy Lube and the State Farm Insurance office. The mall's architectural style was "lowest common denominator"--as uninspiring as possible, particularly if thirty cents can be saved, and Olson's office was a perfect example of it. When I walked through Olson's door, I noticed a small waiting area with eight people in the typical uncomfortable plastic chairs. A few of their occupants were leafing absentmindedly through People and Reader's Digest; some just stared out into space with dead chicken eyes. My three-hour wait was thoroughly horrible. Making people wait needlessly is the petty bureaucrat's means of exerting a modicum of authority over the powerless.

Although I passed the basic skills and word processing tests Olson gave me, they didn't have an immediate job assignment, and told me to call the next day to check for openings. Being anxious to get out of the Olson office, I played the obedient, ignorant worker and left without asking any questions. This was neither the time nor the place to be antagonistic. That would come later.

Following my instructions to the letter, I called Olson at around 2:30 the following afternoon. After being on hold for half an eternity, subjected to the drone of a "light rock" station, a human voice informed me of a potential assignment at a nearby Avon cosmetics factory. The assignment would last for two to three weeks, and I was informed that it was considered "choice" because it didn't require you to wear a hard hat and steel-toed shoes. I accepted the assignment, which was to begin the next Monday, giving me one last weekend of freedom.

Not knowing what the early morning traffic would be like, I allowed plenty of time to arrive at the factory that Monday. Olson had stressed showing up fifteen minutes early to convey a "positive attitude." As I headed toward the factory, the gray-toned cover of early dawn prevented me from getting a very good look at the other drivers barreling down the expressway. They all looked the same: silhouettes taking gulps of coffee from spill-proof containers, looking for another radio station or just staring ahead while negotiating the umbilical cord between home and job. Humans are alone when they're born and when they die, and also when they drive to work at 5:40 Monday morning.

The Avon factory sat on an expansive plot of land skirting two major interstates. It looked more like a vast office complex than the traditional factory replete with smokestacks and water towers. Of course, most funeral homes also conceal what actually goes on behind their closed doors.

The parking lot was already quite full when I arrived, with newer cars safeguarded in its outer periphery to prevent being scratched and bumped by the many don't-give-a-damn jalopies parked closer to the employee entrance. Probably half of many employees' weekly earnings went out the exhaust pipe of monthly car loan payments and repair bills. Which comes first--the job that necessitates having the car or the car that necessitates having the job? Either way, it's a vicious circle.

By this time, the sun was on the job, turning shades of gray into colors. As I parked my car I could see the faces of the people sitting in the relative safety of their cars, savoring those last few minutes of freedom. Not knowing where to report, I followed the herd heading toward an entrance, hoping to figure things out without having to ask questions. Like most factories, Avon's workforce was composed of two classes: the non-productive managerial and clerk class, most of whom dressed like appliance salespersons at Sears, and the workers, many also non-productive, who dressed like people who purchase appliances at Sears. Taking note of a few other confused people congregated around the security desk, I went over to try to glean some information from listening to their questions. One of the disinterested guards told a confused temp to sign in and take an identity badge, to be worn "in a prominent place" whenever on the factory floor.

On my way to the assigned break area where the temporary employee orientation was to be given, I took a long look at the factory floor. It was clean, well-ventilated, and amply lit. Its large south-facing window overlooked a well-manicured lawn. Avon certainly defied the factory stereotype.

It was early October, and a production increase was in the works to meet the large influx of orders expected from Avon's legion of salespersons. From a business standpoint, hiring temporary workers to meet peak production needs makes perfect business sense--after all, temps receive rock-bottom wages and marginal benefits, if any. With that attitude, it should have been no surprise when most personnel departments changed their names to Human Resources.

Early in the history of this "modern" factory, the workforce went on a long and bitter strike that cost Avon a lot of money and taught its management the importance of minimizing the possibility of future strikes. Central to this new managerial philosophy was the replacement of tenured employees with a large pool of temps who would be trained to perform an elementary assembly line function in less than fifteen minutes--and summarily dismissed if they ever questioned the status quo. The remaining tenured employees were, in the meantime, pacified into a state of bovine docility and quite frankly didn't give a hoot in hell how the temps were treated.

A group of twenty to thirty temps sat or stood around, nervously spouting the mindless chatter of parrots or appliance salesmen at Sears. Many of them knew one another, having worked together on other temporary jobs in the past. Others, such as myself, didn't know anyone and just stood around looking as dumb as the machines to which we would soon be chained.

Everyone shut up as soon as two official-looking women walked into the break area. The first was frumpy and well into middle age, probably a company person who'd worked her way up through the ranks. Walking a few feet behind was a substantially younger woman who, while looking just as official (i.e., hollow eyed and mannequin faced), possessed the body of an aerobics fanatic who lived on yogurt and diet sodas. Her face was much more taut than that of the marshmallow-complexioned woman in front. I could tell immediately that the young woman was all business and saw her current position as a necessary evil to be tolerated only until something better came along. The older woman probably looked upon her current position as a career pinnacle, the fruit of twenty-five years with the company, something to brag about during Saturday morning appointments with the beautician.

The employee orientation was conducted on much the same infantile level as the one at Olson: very structured, very authoritarian, and very boring. Among the items stressed was the need to sign in and out at both the guard station and supervisor's desk, to promptly return from breaks, and to display a positive attitude at all times owing to the large number of "dignitaries" who tour the factory on a daily basis. The orientation broke up after fifteen minutes, and we were split up into teams of five temps each.

After fifteen minutes of "training," my team was assigned to a machine that was operated by a tenured employee behind a control console and watched over by a machine repairman. Our job involved snapping one plastic piece onto another as it passed our respective workstations on a conveyor belt to another temp who neatly arranged them in boxes. The assembly involved a simple pump that would eventually be attached to a perfume bottle on another assembly line. A highly indifferent, late-middle-aged woman controlled the assembly line's speed and initially kept it down to what was considered an inefficient pace while the temps acquired the basic rote skills and machine-like rhythms to accomplish the task at hand.

After less than five minutes, it was painfully boring and I was looking for a clock to mark the time until the first break, still two and a half hours away. The two temps setting on either side of me were engaged in some inane conversation through which they could perhaps make things go by more quickly. They covered such well-worn topics as missed daytime dramas, planned shopping excursions on the upcoming weekend, and anticipated purchases from the Avon Employee Store.

In spite of the finite nature of such conversational topics, they were able to sustain their chitter-chatter for a full two and a half hours until the first break, somewhere around 10:30, although I had completely lost track of empirical time. The temps sitting in the break area closest to my assembly line were acting like shell-shocked soldiers. The tenured employees didn't look any better, and in fact, looked shell-shocked all the time--both on and off the job. While earning almost double per hour what the temps earned and having slightly better jobs, they had the distinct disadvantage of having done it for years if not decades and wore the effects like fashion models wear skin-tight clothes: puffy faces, cream-cheese complexions, raccoon-like rings around oil-slick eyes, atrophied muscles, poor posture, deformed hands.

The temps returned from the break with the reluctance of cattle being herded into a slaughterhouse killing line. The tenured employees who knew what was in store were the last to come back, extending the break for another five minutes. I too was less than eager to return to that godforsaken assembly line, which was now being speeded up to a minimally acceptable production speed.

In front of each of the nine assembly lines was a desk. Behind each desk was a machine supervisor, whose job it was to see that production quotas and quality control standards were met. As long as everything was within acceptable production ranges, they didn't have to do very much, and indeed didn't do much besides standing around trying to look necessary. They didn't convince me. Sure, one of them would take periodic walks around the line, write on clipboards, and occasionally inquire how everything was going. I wasn't asked, but wouldn't have told the truth anyway; they didn't want to hear anything other than "OK."

By 1:30 I was working like a robot and paying no attention to the quality of my workmanship. Quality control was a luxury I hadn't the time or inclination to engage in. Frankly, I displayed the finesse of a drunken Russian coal miner. If the correct fitting was made, OK; if the incorrect fitting was made, OK.

With the buzzing of the end-of-shift signal, both tenured and temporary employees dropped everything and dashed for the exits with a reason for living that they otherwise lacked during the course of the working day. While leaving the Avon factory did signal the attainment of a degree of freedom, it also meant driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic, preparing the evening meal, washing dishes, taking children to sports practice, watching four to six hours of television, thinking about sex--maybe even going through the motions--and falling asleep on the couch by 10:00. By 9:30, I was thoroughly lost in dreamless slumber land.

Morning came around in much the same way it had twenty-four hours earlier, only I was more tired, two cups of jet black coffee notwithstanding. Arriving five minutes later than yesterday forced me to park further back in the parking lot and walk what seemed like half a mile to the employee entrance. As for my state of mind, I didn't really have one the second day, most of which was spent filling boxes with shampoo bottles and jars of facial cream coming off a conveyor belt with the velocity of machine gun bullets. Falling behind within fifteen minutes of the beginning of the shift necessitated my working like mad to avoid being the "weak link" in the chain. I shouldn't have given a damn, but did--a major character flaw I hope to eliminate soon.

This was only Tuesday morning, but the concept of weekends had lost its significance in my struggle to keep up with the mechanized beast. Unlike the two assembly lines flanking the one I was bound to, mine wasn't breaking down very frequently; it just kept on going. The two temps working near me had long since ceased talking and instead just concentrated on the task at hand, trying to survive until the next break. By quitting time I knew why Fred Flintstone shouted "Yabba Dabba Doo!" when his shift ended and he could get away from his drudgery.

Once home, riding my bike was still possible, but I mostly thought about the job while biking and didn't really enjoy myself. Reading was entirely out of the question. Watching television was stretching my capabilities, but was made possible by having a remote control unit within arm's reach. Falling asleep by 9:00, my night was once again dreamless.

Early Wednesday morning, while assembling lunch (the food in the Avon cafeteria was truly wretched) and dreading my appointment with yet another machine, I realized that this couldn't go on much longer if my sanity were to be preserved. At the same time, however, the alternatives seemed to be equally unattractive. There was really only one alternative--another shit job.

Wednesday morning actually started out OK, because I was pulled away from the assembly line and assigned to help a tenured employee construct boxes. The machine had broken down, and she told me to just act like I was working in the meantime. My holiday lasted until the first break, after which I was chained to the machine for which I had previously constructed boxes. This new job involved screwing lids onto jars of cold cream. It was another situation in which I immediately fell behind and had to bust ass to avoid falling behind even further. As luck would have it, the machine broke down again when one of the jars got caught in a chute and created a substantial traffic jam. After carefully listening to the repairman explain to the machine operator why the jam occurred, I made a mental note of his instructions.

Only then did I notice the sexual composition of the factory floor's two job classifications: repair (men) and operations (women). Because being a repairman was deemed more "difficult," they were paid more than operators, who, while earning more than the temps, earned about one-third less than the repairmen. The supervisors were predominantly female, but earned little more than the repairmen, who mainly stood around drinking coffee and making sexist remarks.

Once the machine was unclogged, it ran smoothly--except when I sabotaged it by creating a jam. But this provided only the most temporary relief. I could only break the machine down for about 15 minutes an hour without giving myself away to management; this meant having to work for 45 minutes an hour, which was intolerable as far as I was concerned. So as soon as the half-hour lunch break began, I casually gathered up my jacket and bag and took one last look around the place. There was really no need to sign out. I didn't believe I'd get paid by Olson anyway owing to some silly breach of contract clause in the employment forms. So be it!

The first object I noticed upon getting out of Avon was an enormous oak tree towering over the parking lot. Perfectly proportioned, it must have been seventy years old and possessed a dignity denied to the people bound to the hum-drum life inside. I marveled that it hadn't been bulldozed during the construction of the parking lot, probably a concession to '70s environmentalists designed to project a "good corporate image" while Avon's products filled up landfills across the nation and much of the ocean floor off the New Jersey coast.

As I walked towards my car, granted, I had almost no money and few prospects for getting any in the near future, but I was free for the afternoon--and that was enough for the time being.

--Donald Phillips