Sitting in the conference room, Becca hadn’t felt this nervous since the day she’d interviewed for this job three years ago. Back then, she had been a blissfully ignorant 22-year-old recent college graduate with no clue what she wanted to do with her life, other than to successfully get a real full time job and move out of her bedroom in her parents’ house. Their boring suburban life was killing her soul slowly, she was sure of it.
The day of her interview was one of the hottest days of the year, record breaking heat. She’d painstakingly read articles and advice columns online about appropriate and inappropriate interview attire – no open toed shoes, no bare shoulders, skirts to the knee or longer, no nail polish, not too much makeup. She’d spent the day before dutifully removing the red nail polish from her fingernails and trying on every piece of clothing she owned that might possibly be considered at least semi professional. She’d gotten dressed that morning in stockings, closed toe heels, a long skirt, and a blazer, and despite the copious amount of antiperspirant she’d applied to her armpits, she felt herself sweating through her blouse as she sat on the train downtown, patting her forehead with her sleeve in a feeble attempt to absorb some of her sweat. That was mostly what she remembered about the interview – the heat. She had very little memory of what was actually discussed during the interview, but it must’ve gone okay enough because they’d offered her a job, and she’d accepted right away.
It had been great, at first, but then red flags began popping up. It started with her boss, Ellen, asking her to stay late, but asking her to clock out first. The first time it happened, Becca didn’t think much of it, she wanted to help and to be seen as a good employee, someone that they could count on, so she did it. But then it happened again, and again, and she realized that they were having her work overtime and not paying her for it. So the next time Ellen asked her to stay late after she punched out, Becca said, “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight, I have plans,” as she began to pack up for the day.
Ellen turned around in her chair. She looked genuinely shocked. She was a middle aged woman with dark hair with wisps of gray beginning to show at the roots, slightly chubby, constantly on one diet or another, most recently drinking SlimFast shakes for breakfast and lunch before raiding the vending machine each afternoon promptly at 3pm. The empty potato chip bag was still on her desk. “You mean you can’t stay?” she asked, blatantly disapproving.
“Yeah. I’m sorry,” Becca said, zipping her tote bag shut.
Ellen stood up from her desk and walked over to Becca’s workspace. “Becca,” she said in a lecturing tone, “we need to be able to count on you. If we can’t depend on you, it’s going to be a problem.”
Realizing that she had not yet clocked out, Becca tried, “Okay, well, if it’s only for a little while.”
“Great,” Ellen said. “Go ahead and clock out and then come right back so we can finish this spreadsheet.”
Becca felt like a deer in headlights. Ellen had already turned back to her computer.
After a few more months of work, it became very apparent that despite working full time, Becca did not make nearly enough money to move out of her parents’ house. Even if she lived on ramen noodles and cereal, she’d barely be able to scrape by. Then she noticed that most of the other people she worked with had a second job, or they also still lived at home. There were a few who had roommates or lived with their significant other, but it seemed like everyone in the building was struggling. This confused Becca endlessly. This was a big company, not a conglomerate, but big enough that low wages shouldn’t be a chronic issue.
After a year, Becca looked forward to her annual review. She fully expected to get a raise, even if it was a small one. She was a hard worker, she never called out, and she stayed late for free. What more could they want? There was no way they weren’t going to give her a more money.
Then, her review was pushed back, rescheduled for a week later. Then again, and again, and always less than an hour before her review was supposed to happen, so she had no time to question it. A month later, her review wasn’t just rescheduled, it was canceled.
At that point, she had to say something. She quietly approached Ellen’s desk. “Hey,” she said. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“It’s fine. What’s up,” Ellen said, not moving her eyes from her computer screen.
“Um.” Becca hesitated. “It’s just. I was wondering about my review?”
“What about it,” Ellen said, still not looking away from the screen. She had a strange way of making her questions not questions, Becca noticed, and she wondered if it was some sort of tactic.
“I was wondering why it was canceled,” Becca finally said.
“Oh.” Ellen looked up at Becca from her seat, but she was clearly annoyed at the interruption and was trying to mask it. “It’s just not a good time.”
“Not a good time for what?” Becca asked, confused.
“There’s a lot going on right now,” Ellen replied. Becca began to suspect that she was purposely keeping her answers to Becca’s questions vague.
Becca knew that she was a pushover. It wasn’t her best quality. She liked to fade into the background. She didn’t cause trouble or push buttons or ask tough questions. She felt like it set her apart from all of the other people who were always trying to make bold statements in everything they did. This was the first time that she genuinely felt like she needed to change that part of herself, even just this once, to stand up for herself.
“I get it,” Becca said. “Do you have like ten minutes now, though? It’ll be really quick.”
Ellen glanced back at her computer screen. She sighed heavily. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s go to the conference room.”
The two of them walked to the conference room. When they arrived, Becca gently shut the door behind them and sat in the seat across from Ellen.
“So what’s this about,” Ellen said.
“Well.” Becca took a deep breath. “I was wondering how much my annual raise would be.”
Ellen stared at her.
“It’s just. I’m trying to move out,” Becca said. “Of my parents’ house? And right now it’s kinda hard, and I’m just, like, trying to figure it all out, and if I knew, even an estimate, maybe, of what the raise would be, I’d be able to plan—”
“Okay, stop.” Ellen said, exasperated, waving her hands in front of her in a slow down motion. “We can’t give you a raise.”
Now it was Becca’s turn to stare.
“Sorry,” Ellen continued, not sounding sorry at all. “It’s just not in the budget. The company didn’t have a good year. The financials aren’t pretty.”
Becca had no idea what to say. She felt like she wanted to cry.
There was a strange pause. They both stared at each other. Then, taking pity on her, Ellen said, “Becca, I think you need to understand that annual raises aren’t a widespread thing anymore. Only very large companies are able to provide that kind of compensation.”
Becca waited for her to go on, and when she didn’t, she swallowed and said, “Oh.” She tried to breathe, keep calm. “So there are no raises ever?”
Ellen looked at her, like she was trying to assess where this was going. “Not really. Only for very exemplary performance.”
“And what would that consist of?” Becca asked.
“Well, you know.” Ellen shrugged one shoulder, like it was obvious, or not something she should have to think about or ask. “No mistakes. No errors. No complaints. No lateness or calling out. Just going above and beyond.”
“And I didn’t do that,” Becca said, looking for confirmation.
“Becca, you’re a good employee,” Ellen said, leaning forward slightly in her seat. “You met all of our expectations this year.”
“But I didn’t exceed them,” Becca suggested.
Ellen look at her evenly. “No,” she confirmed.
Becca hoped she would say more – tell her exactly what she needed to do in order to earn more money or be seen as worth more money, something quantifiable, or give her some encouragement or positive reinforcement. But she said nothing.
Finally Becca stood up. “Okay. Well. Thanks,” she said. “See you tomorrow.” According to the clock in the conference room, it was 4:58pm.
“You’re leaving?” Ellen asked, seeming surprised.
“It’s time,” Becca said simply.
Ellen turned to glance at the clock. “Oh,” she said. “Well, can you punch out and stay for a bit, since we wasted so much time in here?”
Becca spent the next two years killing herself at work. She came in early and stayed late almost every night, even Fridays. She was the first person in the building and the last to leave. She attended self improvement seminars and webinars, she took a couple of courses to further her knowledge at the local community college, even though she already had a Bachelor’s degree. She helped train new people. She ate lunch at her desk, not daring to leave to building to take a walk or eat a real meal.
By the end of those next two years, she didn’t look like the same person. Her hair was long from not having it cut (who had time for haircuts or basic personal maintenance?), she was pale from not spending any time outdoors, she was skinny fat from undereating all week and then overeating fast food and not exercising ever, because when would she have time? She hadn’t been on a date in two years. She spent minimal time with her family and friends, always telling them that she had to work. In short, work was her life, and her determination to hear that she was worth a pay raise was so strong that it overpowered everything else in her life that should’ve been important.
And, of course, the kicker – she was still living at home, at twenty-six years old. She was overworked and underpaid. She was buried under a mountain of student loan debt, which she knew could be worse – she had friends who went to graduate school with six figures worth of loans, which made hers seem like pocket change – and after making minimum payments for three years, she’d barely put a dent in them. She obviously had no boyfriend to move in with, and felt nothing but pure jealousy when she saw how some of her friends lived with their boyfriends or fiances or husbands, living lives of luxury (at least, luxurious compared to how Becca lived) because their partners made a crapload of money so they were free to spend their own money on whatever they wanted.
Her motivation had morphed, over the years, from simply wanting to make more money to wanting stability. She wanted to have a real life. She wanted an apartment away from her parents, she wanted to have a whole place that was hers, not just the tiny bedroom she’d grown up in. She wanted to feel like it was okay to buy new clothes or say yes, the extra charge for guacamole was fine, thanks. She wanted to feel like her effort to be good at her job was worthwhile and noticed. But instead, she felt empty, and that was what led her to request this meeting, during which she planned to ask for a raise, and if she wasn’t given one, she was going to walk out.
She was presently alone in the conference room, waiting for Ellen and her new cronie, Ashleigh, to show up. She had her notes in front of her, neatly written out. The notes in front of her were actually her third draft, the first two were too messy and incoherent to understand. She’d written it all down because she knew that it was highly likely she’d forget what she wanted to say under pressure, and she didn’t want to give herself an easy way out.
She heard the door click open, and in walked Ellen, with Ashleigh close behind her. Ellen, as usual, looked annoyed and inconvenienced. She carried one of those trendy gross green smoothies in her hand. Ashleigh had been hired only six months ago, and she’d essentially become Ellen’s bitch, doing whatever she asked without question and slowly beginning to mimic Ellen’s mannerisms and phrasings. Becca couldn’t begin to speculate on if this was intentional on Ashleigh’s part or if it was just the way she was. Some people were like that – if they spent too much time with a person, they started to become them.
Predictably, as Ellen sat down, she said, “I have another meeting to run off too, so can we make this quick?”
“Yeah,” Becca replied, neatly lining up her notes. “This shouldn’t take long.”
“Are you giving a presentation?” Ashleigh asked dumbly.
“No,” Becca said curtly. Then she took a quick breath and said, “I’m here because I’ve worked here for three years and I make the same amount of money that I did on my first day.”
Ellen looked like she was going to laugh, so Becca forged on. “I have some data on national pay averages for my position, as well as how other companies of similar size are handling standard cost of living wage increases.” She handed them each a stapled packet, which she’d spent the previous week putting together. They seemed so surprised, so shocked at her audacity, that she took advantage of their silence, not allowing herself to wait for them to speak. “I’ve worked really hard over the last three years. I’m a model employee. I’ve never taken a sick day. I’ve never taken a vacation day. Yes, I used my bereavement days when my grandfather died last year, but holding that against me would be cruel and illegal. I deserve a raise,” she finished, and she exhaled, quickly but deeply. It was over – she’d said her piece, she’d done it, and now she just had to wait and see if it had made any difference.
Ellen briefly glanced at the packet Becca had handed her. Then she said, “Well, I mean, it was just your grandfather. Did you really need to take three full days? That seemed a little unnecessary.”
Becca lowered her head and closed her eyes. She was once again, shocked at Ellen’s inhumanity and cruelty. “Anything else?” she asked.
“Becca, you’re great, but your performance doesn’t warrant more money. I’m sorry.” Ellen stood up to leave. “By the way, I need that proposal done by tomorrow morning, so this little meeting was probably not a good use of your time.”
“I won’t be able to finish the proposal,” Becca said, emboldened by hatred and disgust. “I quit.”
Watching the color leave Ellen’s face was ridiculously satisfying. Becca wished she’d filmed it so could watch it over and over again. But instead, she stood up, said, “Best of luck,” in her best fake cheery voice, and left the room. Then she walked carefully to her desk and removed her personal items that she didn’t want to part with, whatever would fit in her bag. She turned off her computer, and she walked calmly out the door.
It was late spring, almost summer. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm but not hot. Becca relished the feeling of the sun on her face as she walked toward the train station. She knew that she’d probably just fucked herself, but she also knew that she was lucky – to be able to do this, to go home to her parents, who would understand, who would let her stay as long as she needed to.
It was only mid afternoon. The work day wouldn’t end for a few more hours, so Becca decided to take advantage of her suddenly limitless free time and walk through the park before she headed home. She watched an elderly couple slowly walking hand in hand, a mom trying to wrangle two toddlers, college kids from the local university in small groups with backpacks on and cell phones in their hands. She sat down on one of the benches, taking it all in, this new world that she could now maybe be part of. She wondered who Ellen would get to finish the proposal.