TIME OFF (WITH PAY)
A Short Story
I waltz in and pull open the emergency exit with a hooked foot as my arms are full of gym gear. Amy’s sobs echo in the hallway, spilling out of the staffroom. Given I’ve had to pull her in enough times for her larger-than-life personality and Beyonce attitude, I’m surprised to hear she’s upset. Maybe she’s had some terrible news, a grandparent has died. As people have been waiting on their grandparents to drop like flies lately, I think she must have been close to hers. When I reach the door I stop and listen, trying to glean some information about what’s going on so I can be a little prepared.
I hear one of the lads say as he leaves by another other door, “You shouldn’t be doing that, it’s too big anyway.”
“I’m going to get sacked, I know I will,” I hear Amy say.
“Dave is grand, he’s not like Richie.”
My pride swells at the sound of Yanita’s voice saying positive things about me, but I’m in shock with Amy’s sobs. Being raving mad and full of life, even on the darkest Tuesday (when we have to do the work of ten people unloading trucks that never stop arriving), she’s always making jokes. I take a breath and shove my hip against the door of the staffroom.
There’s a lake on the floor. A ten-gallon plastic bottle sits in the corner with a dribble of spring water in its shoulder. Amy has her head in her hands on the staffroom table. Yanita is sitting on the inside rubbing her back.
“Dave, I’m sorry,” says Amy, a tear splashing onto her cinnamon bun.
“My elbow just went. I had it but…”
“A jaysus. Have we another one?”
She looks up with an expression like she’s killed someone.
“I needed to clean that floor anyway,” I say.
A laugh cannons out of her followed by a trickle of tears down her freckled cheeks.
I saunter over (a slopping sound below my feet telling me my new pointy Italian shoes are ruined) and rub her back. “What’s the story with all the tears?”
“I’m going to get fired. You’re probably just looking for an excuse.”
I hunker down and look up at her, almost under the table because she won’t look at me. Her eyes are done-up with mascara but she hasn’t done her foundation yet and I can see the black bags under her eyes and how starved her skin is of sunlight. “Nobody’s getting fired, not after the two years we’ve all had.”
“It’s going go back to the way it was, being treated like shit. My rent just went up, Dave.”
“Amy, we risked our lives to keep this country going. Nobody’s getting fired as long as I’m manager here. You can drop a million gallons of water for all I care.”
“I thought you knew that,” I say, rubbing the back of her hand.
“Ah, it’s me da. He’s been saying now things are getting back on track all the nice treatment will stop.”
I stand up. “What’s his number?”
“Dave, it’s grand.”
“It’s not grand if he’s upsetting important members of my staff.”
Being referred to as ‘important’ means the world to her—a reward that might be snatched away like a rented bouncy castle. Respect, however, doesn’t feel enough of a reward. All my staff proved themselves to be vitally important during the lockdowns. I realised a lot of things about people (that I’d avoided seeing). There are those who get all the credit, like me and Richie, who fly in with our proverbial capes, puff out our chests, people-please to within an inch of our sanity and fly out again. Then there are people like Amy and Yanita, who get no credit. They’re pillars that keep the roof from falling in; plate spinners that keep everyone up. They carry us after ‘the heroes’ have somewhere more important to be (usually planning a round of golf or deciding which restaurant to try out of a weekend).
I’d thrown on my grey suit earlier that morning, the Georgio Armani one I had tailored, suspecting the area manager might show up. It’s fitted, my arse looks and feels good in it (sometimes I catch—or think I do—a few of the girls looking). My hair is fresh again due to my barber being back at work, although he’s off his game, probably got too comfortable lying in bed playing Playstation. I had a few words with him because it took me years to find him. He listens to me shite on about my day like it means something. When I look good, I feel good, but these day’s it doesn’t seem so important.
We didn’t get to lie in bed during the quarantines. Nor did we get to luxury of knowing we’d most likely wake up without Covid-19. Every day our mortality hung over us. Surprisingly, it made us appreciated the little things (like breathing) while we worked our arses off twice as hard so customers could fill their shopping carts with extra chocolate, beer and wine. My staff changed me; I saw people for the first time. I thought I cared about people but it’s different now. I’d like to explore my inner workings and give myself an answer as to why it took a pandemic for me to truly care about people’s wellbeing—but I haven’t got time for all that.
Amy has no clue about me. If she knew the real me, she’d look at me differently. As of now, I’m the legend who gives her time off when she needs it (without pay). She’s just a cashier as far as she’s concerned, and a shelf stacker when needed, a floor sweeper, an unhinged borderline alcoholic on the weekends (as far as her wages will stretch) and an unmarried mother. She deserves a decent wage with paid time off, so she’d respect herself the way I do. It’s not like the company isn’t raking in the profits.
“Look, I’d like to get you all a pay rise but that’s a political issue and I can’t get around it at the minute. But maybe I could get you all a day off with pay, maybe a few extra holidays a year or something,” I say, shoving my gym gear into a press below the sink.
“Hah,” Amy and Yanita say in unison, joined by Danny who arrives kicking open the door and slopping his feet through the spilt water.
“In this company, as if,” he says.
“I’d like to, Danny, I didn’t say I could.”
“What happened to the floor?” he asks.
“Get a mop will you?”
Before the pandemic, Danny would have pointed at who he thought had messed up, thrown his head back and wailed laughing. He’d stop amid some laddish action, straighten up and say, “I’m not fuckin’ cleanin’ up somebody else’s mess.” But he doesn’t say that or react the way I expect him to anymore. He enjoys being part of the pack; helping his workmates has given his life meaning. They’re all like that, every single one of them. It’s become, I imagine, what it was like during the war. People really care about each other again, and it feels better than a fresh haircut and tight pants. You can say what you like about the pandemic, for us it was a blessing.
“I might write a letter to head office explaining what we’ve all been through and how you lot deserve a few paid days off,” I say.
“You’re off your head,” says Amy, her mascara drying into the soft patches of skin below her eyes, her cinnamon bun lodging in her throat.
“I might write one all the same.”
“They’ll have to give time off to everyone in the company.”
Danny slops the mop onto the floor. “There are one-thousand-three-hundred-and-forty-odd people working in this company. Imagine how much money that’d cost them.”
My shoulders slump.
He gets busy mopping. Amy gazes at him with lovingly like he’s her little brother. “Thanks, Dan.”
“No worries, Amy. You alright?”
I leave them to it and go to my office and sit in my chair with my hands clasped behind my head. There’s a slim chance I’ll be heard but it’s unlikely I’ll be taken seriously, but I turn on my PC to write the email to head office. Knowing I have to do the wages, the invoices, the stock check as well as respond to a tsunami of emails, I hit compose and start typing to the area manager.
“No.” I delete it and start again.
These last two years have been hard of us all (some harder than others. I’m sure the board of directors are smiling all the way to the bank).
“Definitely not. Delete.”
I hope you and your family are well. One good thing to come out of this pandemic is that we all know each other a little better now.
“He’d like that because he did express as much to me.”
I have grown very fond of my staff and we’re like family now. Besides that, the store is a well-oiled machine. Our employees help each other. They go out of their way to help customers, and that’s because their morale is high. This has nothing to do with me by the way, it’s pure luck of the draw. I’m beginning to see how important high morale is to the functionality of this place.
During the height of the pandemic, I found myself standing back in awe at how brave and hard-working our staff are. Now we’re returning to a relative normal, I’ve noticed things slipping back a little. Morale has been waning. My staff are tired (they gave their all and didn’t complain) and need time off. They believe we’ll stop caring about them like we have been, and I see them slowly returning to their old ways: sickies, complaining and in-fighting. I was wondering if I would be allowed to give them some time off with pay, at my discretion. I firmly believe the benefits would outweigh any negatives (the cost to us with sick days being one). If you could forward this to the top, I’d be grateful.
Coolock Branch Manager
I sit back and laugh. “Bin that Dave.” But what if he considered it? What if they realised the changes in the store? What if they finally see that the figure after the words ‘staff wages’ represents something more than a number? What if the people who have the say have realised what is important?
But what if?
“Send it then, ye dope, but don’t get your hopes up.” I don’t edit it or re-read it because I want it to be as raw and from the heart as possible. I hit send and lean back and laugh at the idea of the response that will arrive in my inbox, possibly with a big simile face, saying ‘Of course Dave, by all means, give your staff time off with pay. I’ll leave it to your discretion’.
Amy is chatting with a customer on the shop floor, listening more than chatting (which is an achievement for her). Yanita reminds me of a meerkat; her head is always up scanning for something that needs doing. If there’s one person responsible for how clean and tidy the entire eight-hundred-square feet is, it’s her. Nobody asks her to; she treats the place like it’s her home. I stand behind one of the large potted plants we have on sale and wonder what I’m doing on the floor when I’m not needed—thinking Yanita needs a promotion, but the place isn’t tiered like that. There is the management (me and Richie) and all of them. A simple job title (assistant floor manager) and a few per cent rise in her wages would lift those dark circles under Yanita’s eyes and make her skin glow like the rest of us in our business suits. I get the sense the company prefers a more archaic way of running a business, despite the money they spend on marketing to make it appear that their smiling staff on the posters are motivated to achieve (glass ceilings if ever there was one).
I lurk there, watching for Richie, trying to catch him in the act of giving shit to someone who deserves better treatment. Given what the staff have been saying lately, he’s happy for things to fall back to the way they were. That’s not happening. It’s his job to keep the floor motivated, he’s the floor manager. I should be in the office writing and answering emails. The pay rise wasn’t worth it; I was better and happier on the floor.
“Oigh,” I hear coming from behind—Richie.
“These need to be closer to the entrance,” I say, interrupting his attempt at a funny remark (probably about a customer or staff member). “I want a few closer to the tills, too. They’re on sale. I want customers to be thinking about buying one while they shop and impulse grab a deal on the way to pay.”
“Grand job, boss. Heard about the water cooler incident. Amy’s a fuckin’ dope.”
I almost clicked my heels. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Then go do it, and stay off Amy’s back, I’ll take care of her.”
He looks at me like I’m soft.
Amy has a bit of a mouth when she gets hurt and doesn’t do herself any favours. She’s called Richie a loser enough times in front of me, knowing I don’t like having my staff at each other’s throats. I’ve warned them both that I’m not afraid to let one of them go if it interferes with team morale, but I think she senses I agree. Richie is one of my meerkats, though. The shop wouldn’t run without him, but Amy’s right, he’s a loser who gets off on making people feel small so he can feel big. It’s a job of reminding him of his place, which tends to work best if I adopt the air of a Nazi commandant.
As it’s the middle of July and there’s a sticky humidity in the air, the air-con is on full. Danny runs from aisle to aisle, slicing open boxes with a box cutter, throwing produce onto shelves. He’s focused on his job and motivated, and that makes him happy (he’s finally learned). It’s hot but he doesn’t complain. Rewind to two years ago and it wasn’t uncommon for him to whine about feeling the flu coming on or his back being at him. He had five solid excuses for a sickie: the flu, which he said was due to a weak immune system (because of historical poverty in his family caused by the English); his back; his mother (who needs care); his old boxing injury that flared up whenever we got in power tools or anything heavy; and his depression.
Depression was common in them all. I didn’t understand it until I got depressed myself. It came on suddenly and for no reason. One day I didn’t want to go to work and had no interest in anyone or anything, whereas the day before I did. Yes, I had been tired and gotten low before but nothing that would have suggested I’d lose all interest in life. My caring staff lifted me out of that hole like they all had master’s degrees in psychology.
When they got depressed all I could do was rotate the staff and give them time off at a cost to them, it worked. Giving them time off at the right time was something I had to figure out; read them and try to pre-empt when they’d pull a sickie. I found working them hard for two weeks and giving them a couple of weeks with a decent bit of unpaid time off worked well overall for the month.
Those were the pre-pandemic days, and I could feel the depression creeping in again. Danny’s random groan was a sign that things were slipping back. Amy sobbing because she was sure she’d get the sack was another. I mope back to the office, remembering what it was like a few months before when the place ran like clockwork and the staff were happy taking care of each other. I sit by my computer, waiting.
The response to my email didn’t come, nor did it the following morning, nor the day after. On Friday it’s there and I slump my body onto my elbow and prop up my head. “Why am I so keen for a response when I expect bad news?” I say, hovering the mouse over the title. I open it and scan-read the body of the text, looking for the answer, then slowly read it again:
as much as we agree on the importance of team morale, your request is just not be feasible. In saying that, you are free to organise your staff roster any way you see fit. I have forwarded your request to Head Office, and they are aware of this matter!
Exclamation mark? Panicking, I stop reading. Was I in trouble for asking? It sounded that way. Was this seen by the company as a betrayal? Was Richie going to get my job and Yanita his? Was my going out on a limb for my staff a big fucking mistake? “You idiot!”
I stand up, put my hands on my head and pace the room. My heart beats out of my chest. I’ve just moved apartment, the rent is fifteen hundred a month, a sizeable chunk of my earnings, and the dole will not cover it.
For a week and a half, I’m a nervous wreck. Fucking Amy, why did you drop that water tank? I’m short with her, short with them all. Danny complains about his ailments, priming me for a sickie. Once my heart stops punching a hole in my chest, my depression kicks in: shadows look darker, the grey sky greyer, the quiet mocking, a baby’s cry more alarming, the mad customer’s paranoid thoughts louder, my fragmented ones speaking through my unsure body language; back to where we once were, a dark and scary place.
“No, this can’t happen.” I run back to the office, fire up my PC and crack my knuckles.
With all due respect, the tone of your email lacked compassion. I understand fully that my request was perhaps out of left field and you are in no way obliged to fight for my staff on my behalf. As area manager, and having visited the store enough times to know, during and after the pandemic, I hope you would have noticed the changes that have happened here. Staff morale is important but there is a matter that has been overlooked, and I believe it affects us all. I’ve never mentioned it before but I’ve been dealing with mental illness, depression to be specific. I’m fighting it with the help of our employees (who also suffer from depression). These last couple of years have been great in that we’ve all pulled together and we talk about this stuff, which helps greatly. This is all due to the great work from head office in making them feel important! I don’t want to see us slip back into the dark days when you were here almost every month.
I would once again request you to speak on my behalf and try to work something out in regards to this matter. I really do think it would benefit the entire company if policy could be changed to better reflect the image we portray. I, along with my staff, feel part of a family here now and would like to keep it that way. Losing any member of my staff to depression would be devastating, as I hope you agree.
I reread it, fix a few typos and send it without hesitation. While I wait for my adrenalin in to abate, I potter about the office straightening books and picture frames. My phone rings and it’s Larry.
I take a breath. “Larry, how are you?”
“What’s going on, Dave? Why all these emails?”
“It’s only two.”
“Look, I understand you care about your staff but you’re asking the impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible.”
He chuckles ironically. “What would you like me to do?”
“Call Georgina in Head Office and explain to her that I think we need a policy change.”
“And how many would you like?”
“Are you off your head?”
“Ten then. I’m telling you, it’ll make all the difference.”
“I’ll give it to you, Dave, your staff are lucky to have you.”
“No, they’re not, if they were I’d be asking for a pay rise as well. How about eight? Eight days extra a year?”
He sighs. “You actually expect me to—”
“A week then. Just give me something I can use to help them out a little. Do you realise how much rent these people are paying nowadays? I had a staff member sobbing because she was sure she’d be fired for making a mistake. They’re all under immense pressure. I don’t think you understand.”
“So will you speak to Georgina on my behalf?”
“Jaysus, okay. I’ll have a word, but don’t hold your breath.”
“Brilliant. Let me know the moment you hear.”
I skip around the store that day, knowing Larry won’t half-arse it; he’s the type to do what he says he’ll do. The store is running well despite my concerns and there’s a buoyant mood. Richie speaks to the staff with respect (he’s heard me). Maybe it won’t be so bad if I got a no, maybe we could pull through.
Two days later, Larry calls me back with an ambiguousness, “So…”
“Well, you know what Olivia is like. Georgina was enthusiastic after I convinced her to read your emails.”
“Well, it looks like you caught them both at the right time.”
“Fuck off, they said yes?”
“A week was always going to be a no, Dave, but you can give your staff an extra four days per year.”
“Four days, you’re serious?”
“Paid in full.”
“Man, I was sure it’d be a no.”
“So was I but things change, don’t they?”
“Actually, I should thank you. I got to see what Olivia is made of. She’s alright. She went out on a limb with the head honcho. She sent him your emails. He agreed that overall the cost in sickies and unmotivated staff will be greater.”
“Four days extra a year, that’s wonderful.”
“Fair play to ye for pushing, Dave.”
“I want to go tell them but I might keep it as a surprise.”
“That’d be pointless, it’s a new company policy, they’ll find out one way or the other.”
“Right, I’m going to tell them.”
I dance about, opening windows and smiling at nothing in particular until my energy burns off, and decide to wait until the next day (when I’m less like a kid on Christmas morning).
I’m carrying two gym bags and hook open the emergency entrance (unbothered about scuffing my brown Italian pointy shoes). Richie is loitering in the hallway talking on his phone. He gives me a little raise of his eyebrows as I pass, and I give the same back. There’s a rumble of discontent coming from the staffroom; chatter above a tangible energy (best described as wavering humdrum). Before I can decide if my rehearsed statement in the car is the way to go, I boot the bottom of the staffroom door and fling it open with my shoulder.
“Danny, go and round up all the staff and get them in here,” I say, dumping my bags at my feet.
His eyes dome like he senses the good news and runs off without another word. He arrives back with all seventeen staff members piled into the small room.
“We’ve had these meetings a lot in the last few years,” I say, steadying my breathing that’s rattling in my chest. “Every time I’ve asked something of you, you’ve all given it to me, and the company thanks you for that.”
“We all have to pull together,” comes a voice.
My eyebrows dance as I look towards the back. “It’s been alright, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” comes a cheery collective response.
“We’re a good little team now,” I say. “You all take care of each other and that’s great to see. But I felt it wasn’t enough to simply give you time off when you needed it, at a cost to yourselves. I thought you deserved to be rewarded financially.”
“Did you get us a pay rise?” asks Danny.
“No, no, but I will shoot for that once I’m area manager.”
“Aw,” comes the ironic collective response.
“However, I have managed to get you something. Starting from next week, you will have an extra two days off per year, with pay.”
“Fuck off,” says Danny.” Paid days?”
His eyes are watery. “Why?”
“Because the company owes you.”
“No way,” says Richie. “How’d you swing that?”
“Oh, wait,” I say, rubbing my forehead and feigning confusion. “Did I say two days? I meant three.”
Amy stands up. “Don’t mess, Dave.”
“I’m not messing.”
She runs up and throws her arms around my neck. “You’re a legend.”
Her hair is in my mouth. “Actually Amy—”
She pulls away. “He’s lying.”
She shoves me away and slaps my shoulder. “Ye bollix, I knew you were messin’.”
I scratch my head. “Sorry, did I say three days? Jaysus, I must be losing it, I meant four days off, with pay.”
“Whatever,” she says with a sneer.
“I’m not messing, Amy.”
“Yeah, you are,” she says, afraid to believe me.
I slowly shake my head and puff my cheeks. “I thought I might get you one day off, but four. I can’t believe it myself.”
“How’d this happen?” asks Richie.
“I asked, and they said yes.”
“You’re full of shit.” Danny shoves past me from behind. “He’s windin’ us up, can you not see this is a piss-take? And it’s not a funny one.”
“Jesus, do you really think I’d joke about this after all your hard work?”
“Yeah,” they say.
I study their faces. It’s clear they have fixed views that nothing will change for the better, yet they still give me their all whenever I ask—I suppose they have no choice. “I’ll show you the email. It’s not a lie.”
“Is it true?” asks Yanita and I nod. “It doesn’t feel real. It’s like a dream.”
“Don’t mess with us, Dave,” says another staff member, followed by similar sentiments of disbelief.
“I’ll go print out the email now to show you.” I feel like my emotions might burst out of me in tears. I swallow and say, “Right, well that’s it.”
I hurry into the hallway.
Amy follows me out and catches up. “Dave.”
“Yeah?” I say, looking back.
She comes up and slaps my back, shunting me forwards. “Fair play to you.”
“Eh, I should have said,” I stare at her with a worried expression.
“I’m sorry, Larry had reservations about you. Your position here is under review. I eh, I couldn’t swing the time off for you.”
“After you dropped the water tank and with the other stuff, all the joking about… I eh…”
Her mouth hangs open. She has a look in her eyes that’s used to disappointment and prepared for pain. “I didn’t do anything that bad. It’s not fair.” A little bit of rage bubbles up in her, which relents as a reasonable explanation for her being left out. “Fair enough, I’m happy the others got the time off anyway.”
I put my arm around her shoulder. “I’m joking. Got ye. You bought that hook, line and sinker.”
“Ye bastard, Dave, jaysus me heart.” She pushes me away and turns to hide the tears.
“I know you’re struggling with rent and babysitters. Four days isn’t much but it should help a bit, Amy,” I say, bowing my head.
“Good job.” She clears her throat. “Seriously,” she manages to say
“Honestly, you all deserve a lot more.”