Saturday, April 29, 2017

The face of bureaucracy and the face of poverty

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had started a day job and briefly commented that their business model is based on temps who they may or may not hire on later. So that aspect is at least percolating in my head, trying to come up with what I really think of it.

One thing is that the work force is one of the most diverse I've worked with, maybe ever. And yet my supervisor is a white guy from the same corner of Ohio that I am. (Most supervisors aren't, from what I can see, so it was just by chance that I ended up with him). But I thought "Hey, this is cool" about all the colors and accents around me and immediately realized that because this job relies on hundreds of temps, paid above (not a lot above) the minimum wage, it's definitely not like having minorities at the helm of a company. If we relied entirely on my income, our family of five would be below the poverty level. (Though I got approved to do overtime and worked an extra six hours this week at time and a half, which would bring us up into low income...maybe. But there's also an aspect of exploitation in making it so you can only climb out of poverty by working overtime). Which has given me other things to think about.

So anyway, the face of nameless, faceless bureaucracy And all these other human beings who are working for wages that are not going to make them rich. We're impermanent with no benefits or pension or anything. Well, there are some minimal benefits through my temp agency and I guess the company has benefits once you become a real employee (sounds like Pinocchio: I want to be a real employee!), but it's certainly not the idea of government employees hanging on, being surly, impossible to fire, waiting until they retire.

Our division within the company is processing Medicaid forms for a state east of the Mississippi. I won't say the state, but it's not California (though this company has done some work for Covered California, too).

Sometimes people send in a note with their packet (like one I got yesterday on flowery note paper, saying they didn't get the packet and tried to call but didn't get through, please send a packet - and the first time anyone is thinking about what to do with the note is me and by now they're past their reconsideration period and have gotten an automatic letter and will have to contact social services to re-enroll). Sometimes, there's a little narrative we could call "My Hard Times" which talks about losing jobs, people dying, and getting surgery. Most often, there's a "I guess I did this right, but I got confused. Call me if it's wrong." Some feel a compulsion to bless us.

I want to help them. I really want to call up a nice-note lady who totally bollixed up her kid's packet and tell her they're going to lose coverage before we can get it all straightened out, so here's what to do to make it right. And to call up the nice, elderly lady and make sure she has enough money for food and check she's OK.

In any case, we have to shuttle through these things in a few minutes (we need to average about four an hour for the people who are doing the actual decisions on who gets to keep Medicaid, about ten an hour when sharing the packets, and twenty-five per hour for the thing we've been doing this week. That's 200 cases a day. Though I hit more like 300 a day by the end of the week.), so we don't have time to write a note back. There are some circumstances in which we refer them to the call center and they get a call. But mostly, we're at a literal and figurative distance, treating them impartially and efficiently. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Ours is but to do and die.

And while I don't know about the attitudes of everyone there, I actually do care about the people whose forms I'm handling (handling in a virtual way: everything is scanned and in PDF format by the time it gets to me). This week, we've been doing a thing where we flip through the forms, make sure they're signed, and set up a task for later if there are more than one person named in the packet, so I've spent less time than before on thinking about the people involved. In fact, I only care if there's more than one person listed and if there's a signature and I barely retain the first name just so I can see if the next name is a different person. Yes, people fill out their own names on every page instead of putting down Person Two and Additional Family Members. And I get pretty mad if there isn't a signature on the correct signature line, because that process takes longer. (So double check all your documents to be sure you sign them, OK?)

I'm on the Research Team and our main task in between the side tasks is to look through the forms and make sure everyone in the family-slash-household is linked together and has the renewal packet and all the bits of info that have been sent in.

On usual days (which I guess I shouldn't call usual, because I've spent as much or more time on the side tasks), we have to move quickly, but at the top of the blank page open on my screen that I use to copy and paste salient info, I always put the Applying Member's name. I don't believe that saying a person's name or praying it or doing anything other than actually contacting that person to lend support does anything, but just thinking of their name and not a number reminds me that these are human beings who need health insurance. I keep in mind that I'm not there to judge them. I keep in mind that I've had government assistance, too - not limited to roads and bridges and education and the CDC.

And let me tell you, some of the stories are heartbreaking. 
  • The foster kids and the kids adopted by the grandparents and the ninety-year-old lady who has no property and almost no income and whose checking account is nearly empty at all times. 
  • And the family relying on income from a part-time job at WalMart and a pittance from babysitting the neighbor's kids. 
  • And the one that drew a collective gasp when we were in training, in which a waitress was getting paid $2.13 per hour plus tips. Her dad was delivering pizza part time. Combined, they were making about $300 per week, which comes out to $15,000 a year for a family of four.
  • And the 20-ish year old guy who gets his mail at his grandma's but is couch-surfing with friends and family. 
  • And the people in hospice or nursing homes who have social workers or care home staff filling out forms for them. 
  • And the paperwork received back from an organization that I guess helps the homeless, who lost track of the guy on the papers over a year ago - and that's the only address we have for him. 
  • And the woman who sits behind me having a conversation with a supervisor about how to figure out the designation on a packet for a married couple who are sixteen and eighteen and have two kids and live with the wife's parents. Whose income is taken into consideration to decide eligibility? Will she get Medicaid as a minor? This is known as the cycle of poverty, by the way, kids.

The face of poverty in America, at least in the unmentioned state:
  • Single parents and families with two biological parents and families with step-parents. 
  • It's families with one child and the one with twelve kids who instead of filling out the forms for everyone made a spreadsheet of names, birth dates, and social security numbers and answered the questions for them all (they're all white, none are foster kids, no one's pregnant, and they have names like Hallelujah and Hezekiah, except they all start with the same letter (that's not H)). 
  • They're lifelong residents of the state and they're naturalized citizens and the kids of undocumented immigrants. 
  • They speak English and Spanish (because those are the only languages the forms are available in), but also Arabic, Russian, and other languages from all over the world. 
  • We can't see their faces, but sometimes I glance at the answers on the race portion, and there are some of everything, but lots of White, quite a few Black, and many Hispanic.

Names are an interesting, sometimes hilarious thing:
  • There's a trend among African Americans to name boys things with -ious at the end. Markevious. Zacarious. And another trend to name girls (and sometimes boys), things with apostrophes. De'Shelle. La'Shonda.
  • There's a little girl named Fantasy and another named Exhilarate.
  • There's an elderly lady named Fairy. (Which, according to searching the Social Security baby names site, was a thing back then. The name was in the top 1000 until the 1930's: "The year when the name Fairy was most popular is 1905. In that year, the number of births is 32, which represents 0.010 percent of total female births in 1905." Those crazy kids!
  • There's a dad named John Smith who didn't put any other identifying info on his kid's packet. There are 200 or so John Smiths in that state who have Medicaid and who are in the reapplication process right now. I couldn't find him by address, which means he is probably not getting Medicaid, though his kids are.

TL;DR is that I care.
And don't give me the "all people on Medicaid are scammers" crap, because some people work full time and still can't afford health care. Also don't give me the "Welfare Queen" crap because I will have to smack you. Oh, and: the people who are processing the forms are probably barely scraping by, either.

And this was 1700-ish words that I did not put into my latest novel. Get back to work, Philippa Lodge.

And go buy my French historical romances. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rough draft....keeps getting shorter

I know when you're writing a rough draft, you're supposed to keep going, never throw anything away. Damn the torpedoes.

Or anyway, if you're a pantser and working under deadline, that's how you should do it. I guess a pure plotter would have worked out the twists in their heads and their outline before starting the book. Though I've heard enough stories about people who plot before they write and then what they write ends up veering in a completely different direction and they have to change their outline.

There are many roads to Oz, as Jennifer Crusie says in amongst all her other writing advice.

I had the clear vision of a scene in my mind where two young women meet. They are both lesbians, but each doesn't know the other is. One is young and arrogant and, if not beautiful, then well-dressed and coiffed and seemingly perfect, along with being a bit smug about how smart she is. The other is a few years older, ex-Army mine sweeper, average looks and tired and stressed, still finding her feet and needing help with her academic writing. And in my mind, they clicked. On the page, they didn't. So as I was writing this first chapter, it was OK, but not grabbing me.

Then I wrote the other part of the first chapter, the part where some of the guys from my semi-fictional small college go to a protest in a nearby city and my other main character meets a beautiful young woman -- or meets her again, because they knew each other slightly in high school when he had a crush on her older sister, who is now a politician and speaking at the Black Lives Matter rally.

And that's where the story is.

My soundtrack is U2 this time, Best of 1980 - 1990, so I've moved into the Eighties. The first song is "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and is about Martin Luther King Jr. So yes, it's a tumultuous time in my book.

Maybe 60s girl groups for the next one. So far, I've been choosing albums that are sort of iconic in their own right in one way or another. (The Big Chill because it was Baby Boomers with 60s nostalgia, Rolling Stones Hot Rocks, and now the greatest hits from U2 from what's probably their most iconic years.) I don't know if there's an iconic-in-its-own-right album of the Supremes or Motown Women or something. Or stay in the 80's and use Madonna songs? On the other hand, I might use Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park.But I feel like I haven't been giving women artists their due.

All right. I need to go fix lunch and start Chapter Two, "New Year's Day," about the Solidarnosc protests in Poland. So yeah, more protests.

October 2016 and forward from there, so it's going to be depressing. Cathartic too, I hope.

If a certain 'winner' doesn't get us all blown up.

Oh god. I'm depressed again.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Galley Slave: Keep Rowing! Squirrel!

I have started reading through my galley for copy edits, proofreading, and all those last-minute, tiny edits.

I have spent the last couple hours clearing off the top of our TV stand/bookshelf.

Massive procrastination.

But my living room looks slightly better.

Just, you know, don't look at the rest of the room. Or even slightly lower than this picture. Or even the pile on the right side of that, which is NOT MY STUFF.

And my daughter (who's nine) just came in from the backyard to say she thought she saw a snake and there's a snake skin. So I went out and we retrieved the skin with a stick and it was this:
which, you might notice, has legs and is not a snake skin. We have big, nasty alligator lizards in our yard (and yes, they are called that and yes, they look like alligators, though their snouts aren't so long. I found them right away when we were first trying to identify them by googling "lizard looks like alligator"). So we're going to hope that's what she glimpsed and heard and that it's not a rattlesnake. Because those scare me.

In tidying, I found my old camera with its fabulous zoom and flash and need for actual film. My kids are messing with it now. The battery still works and everything. I should go get them some film.

Oh wait, I need to update my book spreadsheet with the book I finished reading this morning...

And now my middle child's bestest buddy just showed up, so I had to show him the picture I found of them when they were six. The flame jacket is my kid and the boy next to him wearing red and blue and swinging a stick is bestest buddy.
With other buddies, too. And my oldest on the right (who would have been almost nine, given that these were taken near Christmas 2008 and I know that, because there was another picture of us moms and I'm carrying my tiny baby girl in a sling), giving them bunny ears.

Oh, and it's the anniversary of Young Cat's finding day. The day he was trapped under my friend's mom's deck and came to live with us (and for a while we had his two sisters, too).

This is him two years ago, when he weighed less than half a pound and half his weight was fleas. He weighs fifteen or so pounds now and beats up on Old Cat.

My oldest is reading to me from the California Driver's Handbook. He's supposed to have already finished his online driving class and have his license. AHEM, BOY.

We're sitting around chatting, because I take almost any moment to chat with teens who aren't always communicative. Even if we're all talking nonsense today.

Bestest Buddy Iz Ded.

And now they're spinning on office chairs. Because reasons.

I worked for a little bit while they went outside to hit each other with foam swords. Then my daughter tripped on the retaining wall and cut up her feet, so I helped wash and put band-aids on her and generally got sidetracked.

Right. Buddy had to leave because his mom came across a stray dog. Or something? And my kids have settled down to play some online game in Minecraft.

It's quiet again.

OK. I can work for forty minutes, right?

Procrastination train is leaving the station.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Keeping a Day Job

I started a day job this week. It's a temp-to-perm job doing data entry. It's not straight up "Here's the form, enter it and click on all the answers to the questions," it's more puzzling out if all the info is there and what the people need and running it through two different complicated systems with an 84-page instruction sheet (and side instruction sheets for various aspects).

And we'll be shadowing current "Application Specialists" for the next couple weeks, too. This is serious business, y'all.

So anyway, it's been a long week.

Not as long as it has been for April and her overdue giraffe calf....

She's got her tail up right now. Is she pooping or pushing?

Sorry, I had to toss that in.

The company where I'm working appears to hire most of its staff - at least the data entry and call center staff - as temps, then whoever makes it for a while has a shot at a permanent job. And I'm talking hundreds of people. Some of the people who started in the training didn't make it all week. One poor woman, who I bet will be back because she had made it that far, had minor surgery the weekend before training started and was there on Monday. She had to leave halfway through Friday because she was suddenly in pain and had to go for a CAT Scan.

I have a lot of thoughts about a business model that's based on the impermanence of workers and nonchalance about them and their benefits. But I will wait and see, because this actually seems to be a good job with some advancement opportunity. At the very least, I can do it for a long time and use that on my resume to get something bigger.

But right now, I need to get to work on all the stuff that I haven't been doing all week because I've either been at work or too tired from the unaccustomed schedule. (This weekend: groceries, child to buy a birthday present, then to a birthday party, do layout of RWA chapter newsletter, make kids mow the lawn, find birthday present for husband and make his birthday pie, trying to make up for the few hours of my kids' lives I miss by going to work (Mommy Guilt!), maybe shopping for a couple more nice blouses for work...

Oh. And of course I'm blogging and I just cleaned out some old emails.

Ready to get to work now!

The anniversary of the publication of Book 2 of Chateaux and Shadows is coming up very soon. It's one of my favorites in my series (which.... there are 4 out and they're all my favorites. They're siblings, so I'm not allowed to play favorites, right?), because the couple are both quiet and reserved and have such a strong core of decency and of hidden passion. No, it's not super sexy, except all the smoldering. And I introduce Marcel Fourbier who has been one of my favorite people to write.

So go forth and read!