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‘Survival’ Hot Line Offers Help for Women With Troubles on the Job : Workplace Horror Stories

TIMES LABOR WRITER

The most hideous moments of office work are revealed inside a drab, darkened, 8-by-15-foot room in an old office building on the scruffy edge of downtown. A computer screen glows. A phone rings. Sharon Kinsella picks it up. A caller pours out her heart.

It is appropriate that the room is dark. It is appropriate that Sharon Kinsella is a fan of vampire novels. For this is a place filled with horror stories, Gothic ones in which the heroine is almost always imperiled by a powerful, ominous man.

There is the story of the teacher who was fired for too many absences, many of them because her kids were sick. There’s the secretary whose chores include finishing boss’ crossword puzzles. The clerk typist driven to tears by an productivity-obsessed supervisor who doesn’t allow talking in the office. The secretary who was fired for insubordination after she accused her boss of sexual harassment.

Such are the thousand desperate calls that come in each month to the National Assn. of Working Women’s toll-free “survival hot line,” operated from the office-worker advocacy group’s national headquarters.

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It is fashionable among employment specialists these days to proclaim that a shortage of qualified employees is putting new pressures on managers to abandon their authoritarian traditions and treat their workers better.

Do not suggest this to Kinsella, who has spent the last year running the hot line solo, taking six hours of calls a day.

“Unless you sit here, you don’t realize the extent of the jerkiness,” said Kinsella, a brash, quick-witted, heavyset mother of three who began womanhood by hanging out with bikers, but who quickly evolved into a radical feminist and strident working-class flag-waver.

The 15,000-member working-women’s group, better known as 9-To-5, had run short-term hot lines in the past to solicit calls on selected issues, such as computer monitoring or “bizarro bosses” who demanded secretaries trim their nose hairs or wear bikinis to office parties.

But it was only last year that 9-To-5 found the money to set up a permanent all-purpose hot line to answer questions and make referrals to women workers at their wits end.

The results have been daunting. Last month, thanks to extensive publicity about the hot line in a number of women’s magazines, 1,210 calls came in and another 11,000 callers couldn’t get through because the single line ((800) 245-9865) was busy.

To listen in on Kinsella’s line is to receive a raw lesson in why stress-related worker’s compensation claims are soaring and why employees’ loyalty to their companies is fading--particularly in the service sector, where work often combines heavy psychological demands with little decision-making latitude.

“Bottom line, employers don’t care about dedicated people,” said Kinsella, who had a world-weary outlook long before she took this job. “Bottom line is, they want cheap people they can spit out after they chew ‘em up.”

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Her phone rang. The caller was a 50ish woman in the Midwest who claimed she had been unfairly laid off from an accounting firm in favor of a much younger employee. Kinsella fired a barrage of questions by rote. Was the woman vested in the company pension program? Had she kept a journal of actions taken against her? Had she read her employee handbook?

The last question reflects one of Kinsella’s pet peeves. “People won’t read their company handbooks to see what the rules of their company are. These are the same people who’d read the warranty on a toaster !” she said later. “People think it’s like it used to be, where you had a job for life. (Now) you’re lucky now if you have a job for a year and a half.”

Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang again. It was a day-care center director in the Southwest who had returned from vacation to find that she had been assigned to a lower-ranking job. “If I don’t take that job, I don’t think I have a job.”

“This is screwy,” Kinsella responded. “Do you think they are trying to get you to quit? Have you ever heard of a ‘constructive’ discharge? You’re basically being harassed out of your job.” If the caller could prove that allegation, she said, she would be entitled to unemployment benefits even if she quit.

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The woman said she had seen a lawyer, but Kinsella urged her to consult with an attorney who specializes in work issues: “You don’t go to see a pediatrician when you have a gynecological problem.” The caller laughed. Kinsella told her she ought to purchase a $25 membership in 9-To-5, which includes discount attorney fees through the organization’s “associate-member” affiliation with the million-member Service Employees International Union.

“Do you know who we are?” Kinsella said before she hung up, and as is usually the case, the woman didn’t. “We’re 9-To-5,” Kinsella said. “We’re the ones they made the movie and the song about.”

The next call hit Kinsella in the gut. It came from a factory production worker in the Northeast, one of only 10 women in a 600-employee shop. When she had tried to use her seniority to be trained for a better job, the younger men began harassing her, she said. Some of them had posted pornographic pictures in the lunchroom. Others had vandalized her car or had made lewd remarks. Her union wouldn’t file a grievance.

A decade ago, bored with on-and-off secretarial work, Kinsella had enrolled in electronics school and later became involved with Hard-Hatted Women of Cleveland, an independent group dedicated to helping women in nontraditional jobs.

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She spent six years running the Hard-Hatted Women’s hot line, a job that forged a wealth of referral skills she uses at 9-To-5, to say nothing of teaching her patience. “I had that (hot line) coming into my house--with two kids.”

Kinsella’s formal education did not go beyond high school, but she reads voraciously and recalls myriad details. Now she began spitting out phone numbers and names, references or people who could supply references to the factory worker, telling her: “There’re women out there who care about you and will help you.”

The most common call Kinsella gets, making up about a third of the hot line’s workload, comes from women losing their jobs because they are pregnant.

Californians are protected by a law that, in most cases, insures a woman of her job while she takes a pregnancy leave of up to four months. But in half the states, the only protection is a much weaker federal law that merely requires employers to apply the same policies to pregnancy as they do to any other temporary disability. An employer in one of those states can legally maintain a policy of terminating all workers who are out for longer than, say, two months as long as the employer does not discriminate.

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(The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1989, expected to come up for final House and Senate votes this spring, would create a federal pregnancy standard similar to California’s.)

On one recent morning, six of Kinsella’s first seven calls came from pregnant women.

There was the dental hygienist whose boss broke his promise to give her back her job. Since the federal pregnancy discrimination law covers only workplaces with 15 or more employees, the caller was out of luck, Kinsella said.

There was the dental assistant who was ordered to train a replacement and was given a lesser job after she told her boss--a woman--she was pregnant. A travel agent who was fired, wound up on welfare and miscarried. A lab chemist who said her employer cancelled her insurance as she began her pregnancy leave.

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“Get her while she’s down,” Kinsella groused after she finished the last pregnancy call. “Let her go, but hold the job for Joe who’s out with cirrhosis of the liver ‘cause he’s been drinking martinis.”

Kinsella, who loves music, has written a song about all this. On the side, she runs a singing telegram business that she advertises as Big-Belly Telly. She’s convinced her fortune lies in getting to Hollywood and making it as a contestant on the television game show “Name That Tune.” Her song attempts to crystallize the plight of the women who telephone her. It is about power:

There is a great big book of secrets

That was hidden from the masses

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It wasn’t written for everyone

Just for the upper classes....

Issues of class weigh heavily on Kinsella. Looking around her native Cleveland, she sourly observes how working-class eateries have been replaced by Yuppie restaurants with $9 pasta dishes and waiters who recite menus. She spends her day listening to women who, by her interpretation, have largely been abandoned by the National Organization for Women, which she finds guilty of upper-middle-class elitism.

“I’ve been where these people have been,” she said of her callers. “I’ve been on unemployment. I’ve been on welfare. A couple of years ago, we were living on $650 a month, a family of five.”

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Right now, she’s doing OK. Her husband runs his own cleaning business, working nights so he and his wife can stagger child care. They just bought their first new car.

The phone rang. Kinsella recognized the voice. It was a woman who called last week about sexual harassment and sounded daffy. This time the caller said she knew she was being harassed.

“Sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex,” Kinsella cautioned. “It has to do with power.” She was trying to think of a way to prod the caller to go to a mental health counselor when the woman unveiled her latest evidence: Her boss’ name is Scott, and the last time she used the restroom at work, she found his name written on the roll of toilet paper. Kinsella rolled her eyes, explained that was a manufacturer’s name and said goodby.

And so it goes. Life on the hot line has become a bit easier in recent weeks because 9-To-5 hired a second operator to handle overflow calls.

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Not enough, Kinsella says. “I need to have 20, 25 operators up and rolling,” she said. “I can’t do this a whole lot longer. Nobody can.”


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