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Full Time Toil, All The Time Poverty: Why David Brooks Just Doesn't Get It

I’m one of the poor, lazy people New York Times columnist, and overly-privileged/perennially out of touch, champion for the oppressed moneyed interests, David Brooks, talked about in his recent column.

I’m one of the poor, lazy people New York Times columnist, and overly-privileged/perennially out of touch, champion for the oppressed moneyed interests, David Brooks, talked about in his recent column ‘The Inequality Problem’. Ben Cohen took Mr. Brooks to task for his ignorant, superficial, specious, and all together fallacious analysis of America’s wealth gap. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. I wanted to take this opportunity to assure Mr. Brooks that we, the working poor, are doing all we can to try and not drag down America too much in these tough times.

Actually, strike that . . . I’m not poor. I’m merely broke and currently living in poverty. I’m nouveau impoverished. I’m from an upper middle class background because both of my parents had good paying jobs as Federal Employees. Even though my father made some monumentally bad financial bets before his death and left my mother in bankruptcy up until that point life wasn’t too harsh. I’ve managed to obtain a college degree and because I’m finishing graduate school my job right now is a transitional one.

I’m a full time ramp agent for a major airline. I’m one of the guys that loads and unloads the plane. It’s my primary source of income. I received a raise after I hit the six month mark and, with the locality pay increase (I work in the DC metro area but technically the airport I work at is in Virginia) my current wage is a whopping $10.10 an hour. That means, if I don’t take a vacation and I work forty hours a week, my yearly salary comes out to $21,008. That’s before taxes and crappy health insurance which doesn’t meet ACA standards.

We work outside so paying close attention to the weather is a necessity. If you’re out on the flight line, aka the ramp, when a downpour hits you’re gonna get soaked. Planes leaving on time take precedence over you being dry. The only time we don’t work in really awful conditions is if it’s too dangerous to fly the plane. Our welfare isn’t taken into account; it’s part of the job, what we signed on for. No matter if it’s a polar vortex that drops the temperature below zero degrees or a heat wave rising above a hundred degrees, we’re outside for hours on end and we work. The mainstream media only focuses on the passengers when they’re talking about fucked up weather, not us poor bastards who actually have to slog along in it. But that’s okay. It’s part of it.

Getting the planes out on time is all that matters. “Safety First!” is preached, but really, all that matters is the Metric. The Metric is the measurement of all things Airline. Stations live and die by it. Lost luggage, on time departures, late bags to the plane, late bags to baggage claim, customer service complaints, passenger check in times, you name it, and it’s in the Metric. Sure, there are columns in the Metric for workplace injuries, but On-Time Departure is its primary focus. The bottom line is you cut corners to get a plane out on time. We’re not told to specifically do that, but it’s the unspoken expected. You hustle because being a ramp agent means you have to. There’s pride in turning a plane quickly, demonstrating your crew can bust-ass and show-out when it’s needed. You’re a ramp agent and that’s what you do. It’s what you signed on for.

On occasion, you’ll have a cake day when the weather is nice and loads are light, but those are few and far between. With profit margins supposedly razor thin, the Metric has been studied, experimented with, and changed over and over to maximize profit. The schedule changes to reflect travel patterns and to ensure the maximum number of people get on a flight, while simultaneously using the least amount of labor to work it. We are a cost after all, not really part of the profit side of the equation. It’s not personal, just the business.

It’s the same with getting hurt. We will get hurt. There isn’t even a question as to if it’ll happen, but when it’ll happen. You can’t move cumulatively thousands of pounds over the course of a shift, five days a week and not expect something to tear, pull, or snap. I have chronic pain in my forearms that flares up due to gripping heavy bags day after day, but back injuries are the most common. When I get out of bed in the morning, I take baby steps because my feet are so sore. It takes about an hour for them to stop hurting and then, I can walk normally. If I worked a double (a sixteen hour shift) the day before, then it takes longer. I don’t call out for aches and pains. No one who wants to make it as a ramper does. You take some ibuprofen, a double dose in my case, to take the edge off, or simply suck it up. But you don’t call in. You’re ramper. That’s what you signed on for.

Of course, you can always work more hours and for folks who make a living ramping, who stick with it as a career, that’s what they do. Not an extra hour here or there, but ten to twenty, even higher a week. You’re already at work, what’s three more hours on either end of your shift? It’s only four more flights, six at the most. There are rules against overworking us in our union contract, but if you choose to work that much then that’s on you. You’re making that choice, even though economic necessity doesn’t really leave you much of one. If you want something extra, like new tires for your car or dental work for your kid, it’s got to be paid some way, even at the cost of your own physical well-being. You’re a fuckin’ ramper. You can hack it. It’s what you signed on for right?

It’s not all doom and gloom. I work with some pretty awesome people. When there’s real work to be done, we set aside any bullshit and work together. I’ve had shoving, yelling, call-you-every-name-in-the-book cussing matches with people one day and turned around to hug it out like long lost friends the next. We understand it’s the job, not each other, and a “We're good?” settles things. Out-of-date equipment that constantly breaks down, not enough help, low pay, aching joints, sore muscles, inclement weather, not to mention all the usual crap that comes from working in any organization with a lot of moving pieces are all part of it. If someone goes on vacation or needs time for their kid’s birthday, another will work a double to cover that shift. We don’t get overtime for that because we volunteered to cover it. Management didn’t ask us even though the work still kicks your ass all the same. It’s all part of being a ramper.

So don’t fret too much Mr. Brooks. I’m sorry you don’t think we’re working hard enough. To be honest, I don’t know how much more we can do. Our pay isn’t all that great and we’re already working plenty of hours to make up for it. For most of the part time ramp agents, this is their second job, a way they can provide vacations for their families since our one great perk is flying Space Available. That’s how I was able to go to Bob’s wedding in Hawaii. I couldn’t afford a ticket straight up. Not on my salary.

I won’t be there too much longer though. I’ve got a bachelors and soon, I’ll be finished with my thesis. With any luck, if that high as hell unemployment rate for recent college graduates doesn’t bite me in the ass, I can transition to the other world. The one that’s indoors with air conditioning and lame-ass office politics and hustle in a new arena. I’m not tough like the old timers who’ve been doing this for twenty or thirty years. The guys whose families live in another city or on another continent, who work back to back doubles for weeks on end and then take a couple of weeks off so they can fly home to see them.

That’s why I’m broke and not poor. I have a way out. It’s only a matter of time for me. It’s simply a numbers game. I came from the middle class and I can move back into it, at least the lower end. For a lot of my fellow rampers, they’ll never get there but don’t worry Mr. Brooks they’re not complaining too loudly. I mean, they would but no one listens to rampers. Besides, we’re too busy getting ready to work the next flight.