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A Tale Of Two Janitors

Here’s a startling story for Labor Day. The New York Times reports on the fates of two janitors, and what it says about capitalism in our time. [1] Marta Ramos is a janitor at Apple’s headquarters. Gail Evans held the same job in the 1980s at Eastman Kodak. Excerpt:

In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.

The $16.60 per hour Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages. Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.


Phil Harnden was coming out of the Navy in 1970 when he applied for a job at Kodak, and soon was operating a forklift in a warehouse. He made $3 an hour, equivalent to $20 an hour today adjusted for inflation. That is roughly what an entry-level contracting job testing software pays.

The difference between the two gigs, aside from the absence of heavy machinery in Apple’s sleek offices, is the sense of permanence. Mr. Harnden put in 16 years operating forklifts before he left in 1986 to move to Florida. When he returned 10 years later, he was quickly rehired and even kept his seniority benefits.

In interviews, tech industry contractors in Silicon Valley describe a culture of transience. They can end up commuting to a different office park that houses a new company every few months; in many cases 18 months is the maximum a contractor is allowed to spend at one company.

“I would rather have stability,” said Christopher Kohl, 29, who has worked as a contractor at several Silicon Valley companies, including a stint doing quality assurance on Apple Maps. “It’s stressful to find a new job every 12 to 18 months.”


As you drive around Rochester, the role of Eastman Kodak in the city is evident everywhere, in the Kodak Tower that looms over the center of town, in the Eastman Theater on Main Street, and in the hulking buildings and empty parking lots of the manufacturing center known as Kodak Park.

In reading the company’s old annual reports, you get a sense that its executives thought of the jobs created and the wages paid as a source of pride and achievement. On the first page of most years’ annual reports was an accounting of how many employees the company had in the United States and worldwide, and the total pay and benefits they received.

Apple, with a spaceship-like campus about to open, looms large over Cupertino in its own way, accounting for something like 40 percent of the jobs in the city, and investing $70 million in local environmental and infrastructure upgrades. It is no middle-class enclave; the median home price is $1.9 million.

“We definitely feel a sense of pride to be the home of Apple,” said Savita Vaidhyanathan, the mayor of Cupertino. “But they consider themselves a global company, not necessarily a Cupertino company.” She said she has never met Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive. “We would have a hard time getting an audience with anybody beyond upper-middle management,” she said.

Read the whole thing. [1]

I have a predisposition to see Silicon Valley giants as villains, mostly, I think, because they give the impression of having immense self-regard. But that’s my prejudice. To be fair to Apple, how are things at Eastman Kodak these days? It went bankrupt a few years ago, but has now emerged [2], much smaller. It’s simply not fair to blame this entirely on corporate greed. There have been massive structural changes in the economy over the past few decades, as we all know.

What’s the solution? I don’t know, but I do know that the leader who figures this out is going to own the next era in US politics. One thing I’d like to see: economics become an issue for religious and social conservatives. Economics doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m going to have to work to overcome that somehow. “I would rather have stability,” said the young contractor who has to find a new job every year, year and a half. How is that man ever supposed to be able to marry and start a family?

If this isn’t an issue for religious and social conservatives, what is?

UPDATE: Reader Axxr:

For reference, I’m an experienced mid-late career white collar worker in senior management. I started out of college at the white collar entry level in the early ’90s.

I have been with my current company for two years. That is the longest I’ve ever been with a single company; in general, my resume is a long list of one-year stints of increasing seniority.

I’ve lived on both coasts and in the midwest, in just about every major American city. Not by choice—but because that’s where career took me. You’re either climbing (and moving) or you’re out on your ear.

I got married midway through, but the stress of career and location moves destroyed the marriage. I now have kids and am stuck (for the first time) in one place to try to keep them in the same school.

But immobility is creating serious risk for me; it is seen as evidence of “complacency” and implicitly signifies that you are a lesser asset. Because I have been at the same company for over two years now, I am watching my career crumble; my current employer increasingly sees me as complacent, especially since I won’t relocate and/or take on increased travel responsibilities, and is promoting people past me. I am currently mentoring the person that I suspect to be slated as replacement within a year.

Other employers suspect that there’s something wrong with me for having been “stuck” for over two years in one position at one company with no movement.

Explaining that I’m trying to keep the kids in one school doesn’t help; that’s seen as a huge liability. Once you admit that you have kids and you care what happens to them, you are virtually unemployable.

I would kill just to be told that I can keep my current job for the rest of my life. But I don’t see how that’s possible. It’s not that I can do a good job; I’ve earned a lot of money for my company.

It’s just a cultural presumption that if you’re no longer moving all over the place as fast as you can that you’re not “hungry” anymore, and employers want “hungry.” And if you have a family, then you have “divided loyalties” and aren’t worth as much as people who “live and breathe our vision.”

If I had it all to do over again, I’d become a plumber or a mason or a general contractor. I look around and see those guys these days and I think they’ve got the good life. Stability, community ties, in a family-friendly industry doing real work. But I had a big brain and was shunted off into college by counselors and parents whose own experiences taught them that college was the path to “the good life” (as opposed to the path to precarity, rootlessness, and cutthroat hotshot-vs.-hotshot competition).

Our modern economy is no way to live.

UPDATE.2: Reader Mungling:

So I’m a young, newly-minted professional who just finished about six years of schooling to become a skilled healthcare provider. I can report that my employment prospects are just as precarious as the individuals you frequently report on. Jobs are often part-time, forcing new graduates to hold a few different jobs simultaneously (if they’re lucky, since there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to land another job). Almost every job is a one year contract, forcing individuals to continually move around.

The result is chronic instability. Now I’ve spent the better part of decade in university, watching friends come and go and communities be born and die. I will concede that there is something exciting about the possibility of new adventures and new horizons, but after a while I began to long for a sense of community. What I want at this point in my life is to really belong somewhere. To establish roots and relationships. To really become integrated in a community. Now, truthfully, I’m in a much better condition to do that than other individuals; with that said, however, I still don’t know when I’ll ever have that opportunity to really settle down.

I truly don’t think this kind of life is healthy for anyone. Even putting aside the impact precious employment has on health and finances, I can’t help but think that lack of stability is toxic for forming meaningful relationships.

I think most people — religious or secular, liberal or conservative, young or old — recognize that forming meaningful relationships is the most important part of being alive; one wonders when we’ll begin to make a meaningful decision to structure our society accordingly.

162 Comments (Open | Close)

162 Comments To "A Tale Of Two Janitors"

#1 Comment By Brendan On September 6, 2017 @ 9:34 am

These trends are complicated by the fact that we are living longer. Sure, companies did use to pride themselves on having long-standing employees who worked for decades . . . but then those employees retired in their fifties. Now, lots of people need to stay working until their sixties, seventies and beyond.

At the same time, we have a glut of younger people available to work. Well, how many jobs performed by, say, a 60 year old can’t be performed just as well, or at least “well enough”, by a 28 year old at a much lower salary? The answer for most companies is: not many. Even in fields where years of experience should be a plus — nursing and accounting, for example — there is no security once you hit 50.

This is essentially correct, and it’s true even in companies that don’t short(ish)-cycle their managerial ranks.

I work for a company that is one of the ones that still prides itself on having many long-tenured staff, and this is at all levels, not just at the managerial level. It’s the norm to meet people who have worked for 20, 30 years at the company. But that’s typically about as far as it generally goes. When these people reach their middle 50s they are pushed out — most of them get packages of some sort or other as incentives to do this, but it’s just something that is done. While we have lots of 20 and 30 year veterans around, we have almost noone who is 60 or older anywhere other than in the C-suite level.

So even though we don’t short-cycle people like many other companies seem to be doing (the 2-5 year stint, or even shorter as some others are writing here), we do push people out when they reach the mid 50s in almost all cases, so there’s a good deal of pressure to have your financial act together by then or at least to have a Plan B by then, and if you waited until you were 35-40 to have kids, well ….

#2 Comment By russ On September 6, 2017 @ 9:54 am

[NFR: I’m so sorry. The site seems to be getting worse by the day. I know they’ve been working on it, but people are still having problems. — RD]

Well, I’m sorry for falsely creating the appearance that the site was having a[nother] problem. I think it was just some browser wonkiness.

And it’s not a huge deal for me, because whenever I have a post that begins to get a little long, I move it to my work computer’s always open personal-notes.txt file. I’m in tech, so I expect other people’s software to break 😉 and my comments to be lost every now and then.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 6, 2017 @ 11:52 am

Nevertheless, my point stands — don’t look to “society” to create a structure in which you can live the life you want; look to yourself and God.

saltlick has a point — but he has moved his point out of context of what it takes to live at all in a “modern” society.

Most of us depend upon a complex system to delivery drinking water to our homes, and to remove our wastes via sewers, regular garbage pick-up, etc. These require regular payments, partly tax-funded, partly fees for service. We also depend on finding food at a variety of local grocery stores. Few have the means to grow all the food we need to cover periods of unemployment. To pay for these things, we must “get a job” because we don’t have the means to generate a cash income with our own resources. All this makes the individual life very much dependent upon “society.”

I rented a room for a couple of years from a man who came to the U.S. as an Ethiopian refugee. He has family back home who expect him to send them money, because he makes what is, by Ethiopian standards, a fabulous salary. But, what they don’t grasp is he has to pay for the means of subsistence at American prices — and he lives in one of the highest price cities in the country.

If we were to return to subsistence modes of living, two thirds or more of the population would die, and the rest would be survivors of a vicious struggle for access to clean water, fertile land, wood, etc. One of the factors in the major atrocities committed as European powers took administrative control of the African landscape is that people who were happy living off subsistence agriculture were expected to go gather rubber, or dig in diamond and gold mines, or labor growing cash crops for export… and to make this happen, they had taxes imposed upon them, which made it necessary to work for cash.

We can’t go back, here or anywhere. Thus, we take a keen interest in how “society” is structured and organized. Even in a subsistence economy, most people were dependent upon being part of a group, a village, a clan, a people of some definition, for defense, survival, allocation of resources, resolving disputes among neighbors…

So there likely will be re-industrialization in America, but not return of large scale manufacturing employment. Theoretically, it is a good thing as these jobs were often monotonous and dangerous. The society will have to adjust somehow, but I don’t think any economist or politician has serious ideas on this matter. $15 minimum wage won’t buy a ticket to the middle class. We are in a messy transition.

And no matter how much you or I despise Brezhnev… the resolution of this messy transition will either be a horrifying oligarchy, or some form of socialism, so that EVERYONE shares in the fruits of automation.

Cash is right about so much evil and damage being Reagan’s fault… although I suspect Reagan already had early stage Alzheimer’s in his first term, and may not be morally responsible because he was incapable of discerning much of anything. How did he get elected? Because Democrats are a pack of infatuated cowards, incapable of putting forth a clear set of solutions either.

#4 Comment By First Deacon On September 6, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

“Case in point: Most employers now require an employee to sign a non-compete clause, essentially barring the employee from working for a competitor for up to two years after their termination of employment. So again, they can fire you for any reason at any time (in fact, it’s called Employment at Will in most states), but if you try to get another job with a competitor, you can be sued (and yes, employers do actually sue former employees as a result of these provisions).”

Thank you for pointing this out. And this hits specialists much harder than those with generic skills. In many cases, these legal documents are forced upon workers after a M&A (that was the case for me). That leaves one stuck where one is – good luck trying to flee a hostile or dysfunctional work environment. And tech employers that use non-comps generally have no qualms about regularly trimming their work force.

The one big exception to this is California. Outside of very narrow exceptions, non-comps are unenforceable there. Is it any wonder that Silicon Valley is so successful? Those with ideas and ambitions can try to realize their dreams. Up in Massachusetts, several times there were attempts pass bills to severely curtail non-comps, and they couldn’t get through the MA house and senate without getting hung up. That is what happened to the ‘Massachusetts miracle’ of the 1980s.

Funny that this issue never gets much attention from progressives. But then again, virtually all of the tech CEOs are progressives.

#5 Comment By amhixson On September 6, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

Seven Sleepers: I’m not a nihilist, not sure how you got there.

“Cosimanian Orthodoxy” is nihilistic.

Not a libertarian.

If you say so.

Your comments, whether you intend them to or not, seem to reflect a laissez-faire, libertarian-ish economic worldview.

Not sure what you are driving at.

That fatalism in the face of late-stage capitalism’s corrosive effect on society is neither necessary, acceptable, nor desirable.

That some degree of socio-economic stability and security is both achievable and sustainable. I.e. it can be done. Moreover, it should be done.

I have read all of Marx in my desire to understand redistributionist thought and if you can get to volume II of capital and still say economics is not like physics then you are gifted at math.

Physics is deterministic. Economics, in the real world, is stochastic. Nevertheless, prevailing macroeconomic theory (i.e. neoliberalism) is constructed as if it were deterministic.

Marx is the wrong reference point. Like Freud was in psychology, Marx was important, but got quite a bit wrong. Read the work of John Rawls (a philosopher, but critical to understanding the foundation of “redistributionist” thinking) and John Maynard Keynes, for starters. Going further back, I personally recommend learning the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes as an antidote to the just world fallacy, as well as its fancier sibling the “Efficient Markets Hypothesis,” that is the cornerstone of neoliberalism.

#6 Comment By JonF On September 6, 2017 @ 1:08 pm

Re: On a more serious note, outsourcing and globalization were caused by labor costs competition. It affected all rich countries

This is true, but… no other countries simply allow their workers to be tossed onto the scrap heap as a result. Many countries in Europe have laws that workers whose jobs have been offshored cannot be laid off but must be retained and retrained for other jobs. Other countries provide for that retraining at public expense– but with close involvement by private industry, and also provide a generous stipend for people during the retraining period, one far less stingy than our Unemployment Insurance, which inflation long ago eroded to a pittance. The US could be doing those things too- but we don’t.

#7 Comment By bt On September 6, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

Raising the minimum wage maybe?

Let’s pass a bill through congress called “The Bring back 1968” Act. If the minimum wage had merely been raised to keep up with inflation from the year 1968, it would be $11/hour, right now.

But that’s not what we’re getting is it? We’re going to get another tax cut which will mostly benefit the wealthy, and which will create more budget deficits, which will keep interest rates high, which will create a strong dollar, which will make American manufacturing less competitive, again. As has been happening ever since Ronald Reagan did it the first time.

#8 Comment By JonF On September 6, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

Re: Has anyone mentioned Dave Ramsey? Doesn’t matter what your income is, live below it and do not take on any debt (except a home loan). No car payments

No car payments generally means no car, or at least not a reliable one– and in most places a reliable car is a necessity for holding down a job.

Re: no credit cards

Nothing wrong with credit cards– IF you pay the tab off monthly. Some people can’t do that, and they fall deeply into debt, and those people shouldn’t have credit cards just as alcoholics shouldn’t drink. But many of us can manage credit and no more need Ramsey’s one-size-fit-all puritanism than people who drink in moderation need an twelve step AA program.

#9 Comment By Jonah R. On September 6, 2017 @ 7:23 pm

Cash wrote: “Let’s see, under Reagan, we deregulated savings and loans.”

Eh, not quite. The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 was signed by Carter, who was himself quite the deregulator. He deregulated trucking, railroads, and airlines. He half-deregulated the oil industry. His administration broke up the phone company in a quest for more competition. Reagan continued these trends, but Carter was that political creature many people say they want: a social liberal and an economic/fiscal conservative.

I come not to praise or bury Reagan. I just think you need to start your story a little earlier.

#10 Comment By saltlick On September 7, 2017 @ 7:38 am

“JonF says:
September 6, 2017 at 1:14 pm

No car payments generally means no car, or at least not a reliable one– and in most places a reliable car is a necessity for holding down a job.”

We’ve never owned new cars, or even a car we had to make payments on, and we’ve held down jobs for 40 years.

America is used-car rich. If you’re concerned about reliability, you can find reviews of cars on the internet or in the library. They detail the reliability of each and every model.

America is also clothes-rich. My best blue suit is Italy made and I bought for $4.50 at Goodwill. My best winter goose-down vest was sold by L.L. Bean and I got it for $3.50. Both are in immaculate. My Columbia hiking boots I got for $3.50 also and they were almost new when I bought them. People die. People clean out their ex’s closet. People give away Christmas gifts that don’t fit. It goes to Goodwill.

Hopefully, those facts don’t show “pride and self-righteousness.” I’m just trying to help.

Someone mentioned Dave Ramsey. Yes.

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 7, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

His administration broke up the phone company in a quest for more competition.

No, that was done by the judiciary, in response to a lawsuit by up and coming competitors like MCI. MCI? Anyone remember them? Whatever happened to MCI? Anyway, the anti-monopoly court decree was an abysmal failure, as Southern Bell bought up a few other baby bells, then bought the hollowed out shell of AT&T, appropriating the name, and only a handful of phone companies are left.

#12 Comment By JonF On September 8, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

Re: We’ve never owned new cars, or even a car we had to make payments on, and we’ve held down jobs for 40 years.

Your situation is very unusual (outside of a handful of major cities like NYC)- and it is not generally applicable to everyone.
Two years ago my (long paid-off) car was stolen and totaled. I’m probably better equipped to be car-less than most people– I love bicycling and I live in a big city with some public transportation, indeed I use my bike and the Metro to get to work most days. I did seriously consider not getting another car, using Zipcar for weekend errand running and renting a car for any road trips. But there was one gap I could not fill: what to do about getting to work in inclement weather or if I were somewhat ill or injured? I could not connect those dots without a car– and last year when I broke my foot and had limited mobility for weeks, it was a very good thing I did have a car.
For the majority of the population a car is a necessity.

Re: America is used-car rich. If you’re concerned about reliability, you can find reviews of cars on the internet or in the library.

True, too. But good used cars cost serious money too– I was seeing prices in the 15K or more range even for ten year old cars with low-ish mileage and in good condition during my car search two years ago.

Re: Someone mentioned Dave Ramsey. Yes.

I consider Ramsay something of a cult figure. Like AA for alcoholics he is no doubt good for people with debt problems. But many of us do not need his tonic any more than we need a twelve step program.