Rochelle Moves Ahead

imagesTwo weeks ago Rochelle told me she had been chosen to start classes to be a trainer for the grocery store she works for. I had been very concerned when I had talked to her about a month or so before because she was sounding very negative about the store and her job as a cashier supervisor. She has held that job for almost a year. I had seen Rochelle lose interest in jobs before and instead of talking about promotions and a desire to move ahead, she had now been talking about wanting to change stores to get away from her boss. “I think she likes Hispanics better,” Rochelle had told me. Somehow something changed, however, and the boss she disliked talked to her and suggested the new position. “You’ll be able to be out of the store, you’ll get to meet new people; I think you have a future with our company,” her boss had told her.

Rochelle interviewed for the position and got it. She’ll only be a trainer part-time and will still do her cashier supervisory position part-time as well. She is excited about it and starts her training for the position in two days. We went out to lunch recently; she was again positive about her work and was no longer talking about changing stores.

I don’t see Rochelle as often as I used to when I interviewed her weekly, but we usually see each other for lunch about every 6 weeks or so. She recently received another raise and seemed pleased about that.   Though her pay is still low, she says it is more money than she has ever earned. Her children are doing well in their new Charter schools, her car is working, and she has a new job position to look forward to. She still can’t make ends meet, but her life is better this year than it was last year and the year before. This week the children are on Spring Break from school and Rochelle suggested she bring them over to my house for a visit. I think I’ll suggest we all go out to lunch.

I have been asked to update how Rochelle is doing since I haven’t done so in about 6 months. Life is still tough, but it is better.

Poverty And Frustration

UnknownRochelle has, and has had, a very difficult life; she had no adult supervision as a child and no adult to learn from. Because of this, and her observations of how adults around her deal with problems, she has no idea how to deal with frustrations and problems of her own. I saw this when I worked with her in the department store several years ago. Instead of discussing the problem with her superiors, Rochelle would always say she was just going to quit. She lasted in that job, however, for seven years and left only after the store closed. In that job promotions were not a possibility; she is now in a beginning management position at the grocery store she works for, and the problem of how to deal with frustrations is again causing difficulties for her. “I hate my boss and I need to transfer stores or change positions,” she recently told me on the phone. “She won’t always be your boss,” I had said. “There will often be times you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes they will be your boss,” I continued. “Asking the store to move you to a different store or a different position won’t get rid of the problem but will affect your chances of promotion,” I told her. Rochelle had liked her boss in the beginning, but that seems no longer to be the case. I suggested she come over for a visit that week so we could talk about the problem. I was concerned she was going to quit. We made a date but it wouldn’t be until a week later.

A week later Rochelle was at my house and talking much more positively.   She still doesn’t seem able to discuss the problem with her boss; instead says she will just not let it bother her any more. She had actually been rolling her eyes at her boss when asked to do something she didn’t want to do. The boss will not forget that behavior and the problem between them will not disappear.   Management skills do not come easily to many people.   Mistakes are often made when a person doing a good job is promoted into management but not trained for the job. Rochelle has taken the cursory course in management that was offered by her grocery store, but she has yet to apply for their course of management classes that the elite performers are chosen for every year. She wanted to become better acquainted with the store operations before she applied.  That was a good decision, but she is in a tough position now. I did not grow up in poverty but was also put into management jobs without training when I was much younger. It was only later, after a graduate degree in business and a six-week course of management training by my employer that I learned to do a better job. Rochelle is poor, really living hand to mouth, and just trying to survive. The people around her life are all frustrated and poor. I again have my fingers crossed for her; growing up without any good role models does not make forward progress easy for her. I think I will also try to see her more frequently than once a month just so she can talk out her problems with me. She really has no one to talk to at home who will understand and ease her frustrations.

Charter Schools

images I’ve had lunch with Rochelle twice since we stopped having our weekly interviews. Her children have started school for the fall season, and now all three are enrolled in charter schools. The 12-year-old daughter attends a separate charter school from her two younger siblings since she is now in middle school. Somehow I hadn’t heard about the change for the younger ones; when Rochelle mentioned it as we were having lunch on the first day of school, I was quite surprised.  The eldest, Kalinda, had been quickly pulled from her regular school a couple of weeks into the school year last fall. She had started the 6th grade in middle school and had received threats of violence via Facebook . Rochelle had expressed concern about this middle school well in advance of her daughter’s attending it.  6th grade at the new charter school had gone well for Kalinda last year, though she tested at a lower level than was average for 6th grade. She was put in a class that met her education level and she completed the year with no other problems. This year she is enrolled in volleyball as an after school activity.

Work is still going well for Rochelle. The grocery store was hosting a major visit by corporate bigwigs a few weeks ago, and Rochelle got very stressed when she was asked to participate in the “walk-through” of her area of responsibility. I told her this was her chance to shine and she would do fine. She had never been in any situation requiring managerial responsibility before, so this was very new for her. She had seen visits from high-level managers at the department store we both worked for several years ago, but those “walk-throughs” had not really been a concern for people in sales positions.  When we met for lunch I asked her how it had gone; she went into great detail, telling me what she had been asked and how she had answered the questions. She was quite proud of herself, and it sounded to me as if she had done a great job. The experience has built her confidence and allowed her to put another plank in the platform she can use for future advancement.

Rochelle now has another car. It was purchased from the same place she had bought her previous car, though that one had been a true lemon. With no credit, Rochelle had no choice. This time, however, she did ask them why so many customers were on record as having bought bad cars from them. She did not tell them about all the problems she had had with her previous purchase because she was trading it in toward her new car. The fact of the matter was that the car dealership had already received far more money from Rochelle than the car had been worth, at a 24.99% interest rate, and the dealership was more than happy to sell her another one at the same inflated price and interest rate. People in Rochelle’s situation are the people who make up this dealership’s customer base.

I’ve told Rochelle to call me for lunch and a visit every few weeks so she can let me know how she is doing. Rochelle, herself, had suggested that it was probably time for the interviews and the subsidy that went with them to come to an end. They had begun as a way of supplementing her minimum wage job at the group home, and then the subsidy was increased so that she could afford to take the job at the grocery store that had a better hourly wage and much more scope for advancement, but that was not initially full-time. Now that the job is full-time, and Rochelle has received several raises and promotions, she felt that she should stand on her own two economic feet. We did, however, decide to continue a portion of the subsidy, to be deposited monthly into Rochelle’s first savings account.  Rochelle has a job, a car, possibly even a career to move forward with. Things are somewhat more hopeful than they were when we started the interviews two years ago. But now, her daughter’s teenage years are quickly approaching. I think this is going to become a real challenge for Rochelle.

Rochelle Discovers Mentoring

images-2“My car is messed up; I’m in debt; I don’t have any money; but the grocery store loves me. I think I’ve made progress,” Rochelle told me a couple of days ago during our weekly interview. She had been the only one in her three-month training program to be promoted to the position of Central Cashier Supervisor. She had also been placed in a training program for people who have shown promise for advancement within the company. She did all this even though her economic and family life is still quite chaotic. She was able to do it because she is a strong person, and she has had support from the managers within her company. They have mentored her.

One day, when feeling extremely stressed by problems at home, Rochelle decided to speak about the situation to one of the managers at her job. She had told me about her stresses earlier, and I had suggested she tell a manager at her work. She was being scheduled until midnight frequently, and her children’s grades at school were falling; she wasn’t available to help with homework. Rochelle was working far more late, late shifts than other people. I asked if she had made her scheduled availability as “open” for the days she got scheduled until midnight, and she agreed she had. I told her that was the problem; she needed to make her store aware of the problems that had caused. When she discussed it with her managers things got corrected, plus she also got praise about what a good job she was doing. She got encouragement even from the store manager. They all told her they could see she had a real future with the company.

The company Rochelle works for is known for its success in the grocery business, but it is also known for being pro-active in the promotion of women and minorities. I had heard that while I was getting an MBA and trying to figure out where I wanted to work after my degree was completed. I didn’t go with that company, but the woman who was my class president did. They are not unfamiliar with mentoring people from backgrounds similar to Rochelle’s into success stories; they are not unfamiliar with single mothers trying to balance work with child-care. I have had the experience of being mentored in large companies and it made all the difference in the world. My mentors guided me towards success and promotions. They were direct with the criticism when needed but also generous with praise when deserved. I think this is too often missing today, and Rochelle is very lucky to have found support within her job, if not within her family life.  The importance of mentoring cannot be stressed enough. Good parents mentor their children, and good companies mentor their employees.

Dropping Grades

Unknown Rochelle’s work schedule has changed, now that she is training to be a supervisor over the grocery store cashiers, and her children are suffering for it. She often doesn’t get home until after midnight, while her mother is left to look after the three children. Tasha, the children’s grandmother, dropped out of high school herself. Not only is she not capable of helping her grandchildren with their homework, she has no inclination even to try. What Tasha does is watch television and eat; when Rochelle is working in the evening this is what the children are doing as well. Not surprisingly the children’s grades are dropping; they are also gaining weight.

“I have to go back to just being a cashier so I can get a better schedule at work,” Rochelle told me in tears over the phone. She had called me while waiting in her car for her eldest daughter to get out of school. “All the kids’ grades are dropping, and I feel so guilty. I don’t want them to grow up like I did with no support, but now they aren’t doing well in school because no one is home to help them.” Rochelle is caught in a difficult situation. She is trying to learn how to be a successful supervisor in order to move up in the company, yet this has caused the children to fall behind in school. The pressure on Rochelle is tremendous. She has to work to provide for her children, but since the after-school-care program was cut by the Texas legislature last year, the only place her children have to go when school is over is back to the apartment. The apartment is not conducive to homework and studying. There is no one to care for the children except Tasha, the grandmother, when Rochelle is at work.

The three children are in kindergarten, 2nd grade, and Kalinda, the eldest, is now in 6th grade and attending junior high. Not surprisingly, school performance decreases as the age of the children increases. Tasha has always been taking care of the children when Rochelle is at work; it is just now becoming very obvious to Rochelle that the children need much more than just an adult in the apartment when they are out of school. Kalinda is reading at a 1st grade level, and she is in the 6th grade; that did not just develop since Rochelle has been working her new schedule. Rochelle wants so badly to break the cycle of poverty that her family has experienced for generations, yet just about everything is stacked against her. AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), the program that paid indefinite benefits to single mothers with young children, was eliminated in 1996, and replaced with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), which has a very short eligibility span. The idea was to get “welfare mothers” out of their homes and into jobs. It sounded to many people like a great idea. But with no provision for the care of the children of single working mothers, the result is a nightmare for all concerned. And as these children grow up with insufficient education and job skills, their nightmare will be shared by the entire society, which will have to support these children as adults with various safety net programs. We continue to be willing to pay for poverty on the installment plan, though like all installment plans, it makes the product cost more.

Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.

Fear of Failure

images“I don’t care if I don’t get the permanent job; I’m happy to stay a cashier,” Rochelle told me yesterday as we were eating breakfast during our interview.  It seemed her promotion to a supervisor over the cashiers required a 90 day trial period; two of the three people trying out would be officially promoted and given a raise at the end of this period.  She said she hadn’t known this going in and was now somewhat stressed and feared she would not be chosen.  She is about halfway through the 90 day period.  “The cashiers are mostly young and talk back.  They take long lunches and breaks and seem to have no desire to work,” she complained.  Rochelle had told me about another trainee who said she didn’t care if she didn’t get the job, but I had never heard Rochelle say it.  It seemed to me that she was preparing herself for failure.

“Management isn’t easy,” I said.  “ One often works with people who don’t do their jobs well, and one often works with bosses one doesn’t like.  All jobs are that way,” I explained.  I also explained that not getting the permanent position would not be failure, but just accepting being a cashier in the company would mean she would be limited in income and again stuck.  “I thought you were really looking forward to moving ahead,” I said.

Rochelle gets frustrated very easily.  When we worked together at the department store she often wanted to quit at the first bump in the road.  I reminded her of that.  It was only after I got home that I starting thinking that most likely she was just afraid of failure.  She never had support growing up and has rarely tried to achieve anything in her life except this job.  She doesn’t want to lose face with her peers if she does not get the permanent position, and she doesn’t want to lose face with herself.  Hopefully we can talk about this next week.   To escape from poverty is a giant task.

Rochelle Begins Saving Money

images“Here’s another $8,” Rochelle said, holding out her hand.  We had talked about trying to save money now that she was working full-time.  She started by giving me $20 from her January interview money two weeks ago, then added $5 more the next week and now had added another $8.  Right now she puts it in a piggy bank at my house that must be broken to remove the money.  It is an old Mexican folk art bank in my Mexican folk art collection, and I have no desire to ruin the bank in order to remove the money.  She isn’t earning any interest, but there is really no interest earned in a bank savings account these days anyway.   In three weeks Rochelle has saved $33!  “And I’m not missing the money,” Rochelle said. I had hoped she would see it that way.

“Does the grocery store have a profit sharing or 401K plan?” I asked.  I knew they did and thought it was supposed to be a fairly good one.  Rochelle didn’t know the answer, but we went to my computer and looked it up.  After she has worked full-time for one year she can join their 401K plan.  The company will contribute $1.63 for every $1 she saves for up to 2% of her wages.  The webpage then showed what a $10/hour employee would save over 25 years saving at a rate of 5%.  Rochelle will not reach her year anniversary until next November, but I wanted her to be aware of what savings can do.  401K plans need to be monitored to truly benefit the employee, but I can teach her that later.  Right now she is seeing a light at the end of a tunnel; I wanted her to see the possibility of even more light.

I remember Rochelle asking me what I spent money on when we both worked at the department store.  She rarely saw me spend money during store sales, though most of the other employees did.  The employees usually bought things on their department store charge card to get a discount, but then didn’t pay off the charge bill which carried a 24.99% interest rate.  If I did buy something, I always bought it with my store charge card but paid it off in the next transaction.  That way I got the discount but didn’t risk having to pay an interest rate.  I was not that smart when I was Rochelle’s age, however.  I too didn’t pay my charge cards in full then.  Rochelle is learning about money and debt.  “I wish I knew all this earlier,” she told me.  I wish I had learned it earlier too.  She seems excited to have money in the bank and to think about the future.  Having good things to mention about Rochelle’s life journey is refreshing .  Everything, however, is still very precarious. Nothing has changed with childcare, nor transportation, nor with her mother’s health.  A problem with any of these things will bring on another crisis. But for right now, Rochelle is able to think about the future.

A Corner Turned?

images“I have no stress and the holidays were good,” Rochelle told me on January 2nd.  “This year I’m going to focus on my health and on my career with the grocery store.”

I had never heard her use the word “career” when talking about any job.  The store knows she wants to advance, and she has already been trained in various areas of its operation.  When this training was first offered to her she didn’t want to do it.  Initially they wanted her to learn how to demonstrate food; she felt this was a lower position than she currently held.  It was, however, higher pay.  I told her the more she learned about the company, the more valuable she would be to them.  Later they wanted to teach her how to run their gas station operation.  Now she does both in addition to acting as cashier, and she enjoys it.  She also attended, on her own time, a class on the various methods for advancement within the company.   She has now worked at the store for 8 months.  “I want to learn all I can about the company before I try for advancement,” she told me.  They only take 10 people a year into their management school and Rochelle knows she isn’t ready.  The company does, however, offer classes to learn about its organization and operations, and that is how Rochelle wants to proceed.  Rochelle is thinking ahead and thinking things through for the first time since I have been interviewing her.  Of course, this is the first time she has ever had a job with any kind of future.

Rochelle is not even close to being out of poverty, but she is on a better course.  Her car will still be causing problems, but things are definitely better than they were a year ago.  I asked her what she thought.  “I think I’m on the right track finally,” she told me.

I have not posted for the last month or so, though I did interview Rochelle weekly.  I guess I was taking a needed break as well.  I will continue to interview Rochelle for the next 6 months and then we shall see where this blog goes.  I’m going to leave this post short because there is no need to elaborate.  All is not going to be smooth sailing, but Rochelle just may have turned a corner.  Again my fingers are crossed.

Rochelle Gets Promoted

imagesRochelle called me last week with great news!  “I got promoted to full-time with benefits,” she told me excitedly.  “And I got another fricking raise.  I am just so excited.  I told them I would be happy to work Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to.  I like my job and I like the people I work with.  I am getting an 11% raise this time, and I’ve only been working for the company for 6 months.  I’ve received two raises and a promotion.  I’ll be making the same pay as I made at the department store when they closed, but it took me 7 years to get there.”  Rochelle could hardly believe that her hard work had paid off so quickly.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled for her.  I had always heard that this privately held grocery store chain was a great place to work.  I had graduated from The McCombs Graduate School of Business at The University of Texas in 1981; the woman who was president of my class at the time also decided to work for this same Texas grocery store.  When I asked her why, she had explained that it had a reputation for great management and excellent training.  I haven’t kept up with this woman, but it seems that she was correct.

Rochelle came over for another interview three days later.  There were new problems with her eldest daughter; she had removed her from her middle school and enrolled her in a charter school the same day she had received her promotion.  Normally this would have been a major crisis in Rochelle’s life, but the praise and another raise and a promotion to full-time hours with benefits made her able to take all that in stride.  “I just might be on my way,” she told me.  “They really like me there and they tell me I have a future with them.”  She worked hard at the department store too, but it made no difference in her economic status.   No one had taken her aside and mentored her.  Her raises were small and there had been no chance for promotion.  Not only was I happy for Rochelle, I was also gratified to see a company treat its employees so well.  Good companies realize that it is actually their employees who must come first and not the customer.  Customers are treated well when the employees are treated well.

The news of her promotion is the best news Rochelle has had in the year or so that I have been interviewing her.  It doesn’t solve all her problems; her pay is still low, but it is a huge step in the right direction.  She is very proud of herself and she deserves to feel that way. She wants to be self-sufficient.  She wants off food stamps.  She wants off her housing subsidy, and she wants to be able to afford health insurance.   She isn’t there yet, but she has made a huge step forward by starting to work at what appears to be an employee focused company.