The complex world of a Staples copy clerk

Interview conducted on 8/17/12 and 9/3/12

I’ve been at Staples for about six months. I was working full time but I’m down to 20-25 hours now. When I applied, I just wanted to be a cashier. I wanted a dumb position; I didn’t want to be a supervisor; I didn’t want any sort of responsibility at all because I was going back to school. Then they found out I went to CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) and am studying engineering and told me there was an opening in the copy center. They thought I would be better suited there. It’s really hard to find people that have the skillset that they can throw in there and be successful in a short amount of time. Like standing at a counter for long periods of time, knowing how to work equipment (that’s my background in engineering), and my art background. A lot of times customers prints things for presentation purposes, so they’re supposed to look really good. You have to deal with turnaround times and that can be a little more stressful than scanning a barcode. You have to have an eye to spot errors and know how to set things up. I do at least maintain my bottom-tier status, though. (Laughs) I live close, it’s the right number of hours, school is just down the street – so the job’s more convenient than anything else.

In part, I took this job because I was sick of being full time at Target. Target doesn’t seem like it would be that bad, but it really sucks the life out of you. In part it’s because of the people, although I feel like I had fewer assholes to deal with at Target than I did [when I worked] at Michael’s [a hobby store] or Staples. If someone has a problem at a register and you’re a cashier, the interaction usually only lasts about five minutes because then you call a manager. At Michael’s in the frame shop, I would have to stand there, sometimes up to two hours, with the same person. I couldn’t walk away. It’s the same at the copy center. I had to be pleasant and nice – you put on a happy face and do your little dance. I really, really hate customer service jobs but I’ve in customer service for over ten years, so I guess it speaks for my ability to do that.

At Target, everybody was a ‘team member.’ We didn’t have ‘employees’ or ‘coworkers,’ we were ‘team members;’ everything was ‘team’-oriented. I’m surprised they don’t have more of that at Staples. Their focus is customer service. They really drill you about sales, which is really annoying because I’m not a pushy salesperson. I hate that. The way I’ve been able to handle the pressure about selling to customers is that I will inform them [about a sale or upgrade] and that’s it. I’m not going to try to convince them. I’m not going to argue, I’m going to say “We have this” and that’s it, end of conversation. I hate trying to sell something that isn’t necessary. I can’t stand trying to push or force something on somebody.

Unfortunately, even working in the copy center, we’re not supposed to copy anything aside from our schedules. We have to pay for everything else. They have cameras; I don’t know how often they check them but it’s often enough that they’ll page someone over the intercom and tell them to get back to work. There is a little bit of discretion – some coworkers won’t charge me for scanning when I have to – but still…

You just kind of learn where you can break the rules and where you can’t. [When I’m working on my personal projects] at least I can try until it is right. I don’t have to worry about waste because they would work with a project until it was perfect for any other customer. That’s one good thing I guess. If you do that at home, you’re screwed because you’re wasting your own materials. At least there I can lighten the contrast or whatever as much as I want. They assume there will be some amount of fudging on that.

But it’s really, really hard to get fired. They have to want you to be gone and then they’ll find something really small to fire you for. If they need you and you’re experienced and they don’t want to train anyone else, then you have to work really, really hard to get fired. My guess is they’ll just write you up and say “Don’t do it again.”

To the best of my knowledge, there are no hazards to my physical health. Maybe a paper cut. (Laughs) Though we do have a kid there who is on blood-thinners – he recently had surgery and he’s not allowed to cut anything. (Laughs) It’s more work for me when we’re working together but whatever. I did cut myself down to the bone at Michael’s on a piece of glass – it was pretty disgusting and I almost passed out.

In retail, the employees are actually the worst part. They’re gossips. Whenever you work that closely with people, gossip is going to happen but it’s particularly bad in places like a sales floor where you are allowed to just wander around and don’t have someone listening or watching you all the time. People stop working and walk over to the copy center or people call my extension to gossip. That’s something I really hate about the retail jobs I’ve had. At Target, I had to work with up to fifteen people. And a lot of them were eighteen, nineteen, twenty year-old girls, and they were much more concerned with gossip than they were with working. It got really old. I had one employee throw a hanger at another employee and bitch her out in the middle of the floor, which was nice. Another one had a complete and total mental breakdown; she started sobbing and locked herself in a fitting room. There was another girl in a different department that cussed out my friend. It sounded like she made a death threat. Even though they stress teamwork at Target, there was probably the least amount of that out of anywhere I’ve worked. The kids at Target really didn’t give a shit at all.

At the copy center, you only have five people working in a small space. There is a lot of personality going around for that little area. The people here are just as immature. Everybody makes sophomoric comments but they’re a little less emotionally charged. It’s usually gossip about stuff outside of work because that’s more entertaining than talking about work. I don’t divulge much of my personal life because I know people talk. As with any gossip, there’s no way to keep misinterpretation from happening, even if you’re specific or vague. People are really paranoid and false; it’s really, really frustrating and I don’t want to be a part of it. But to be somewhat social and not to seem like you’re a total asshole, you kind of have to play the politics. Sometimes you do get sucked in. It’s really difficult to avoid it. You probably spend more time with the people you work with than your family.

As far as Staples is concerned, I can’t see myself hanging out with anyone there. I tried twice to hang out with people outside of work. I tried twice and I realized it was a mistake. There were a couple of people I thought were decent, but when we went out it was more of the same, it was just “this person this” or “this person that.” It was nothing positive or interesting. Maybe I’m just not calloused and bitter enough yet. (Laughs) When we have the freedom to talk about whatever we want when there aren’t customers around and I still don’t click with coworkers, I don’t see the point of seeing them after work. (Laughs)

Theoretically, if I meet someone who is actually cool and I do hang out with them after work, I don’t see anything wrong with dating coworkers. Technically, if you aren’t the same rank, you aren’t supposed to be dating. But I’m not swayed one way or the other about keeping it professional or not. Whatever happens is fine.

I did date my manager at Target, though. We went six or eight months without anyone even knowing we went on a date. Once they found out, they were worried that he was going to give me preferential treatment. He didn’t treat me any differently. It wasn’t like we were banging in the bathroom or utility closet or anything. I think I probably had less of a problem than he did in terms of worrying about getting in trouble. It would have been much bigger of a problem for him that it would for me. In fact, he was probably harder on me than other people. He raised his voice at me once and told me to calm down and actually brought the store manager back because I was in quite a mood. But I calmed down after that. (Laughs)

There was a friend of mine, “Kate,” who was dating a supervisor who was in a different department, and he and Kate and this other girl that worked with us – another supervisor – all got together; Kate ended up having a threesome with the two other managers. She had two supervisors she broke the rules with. (Laughs) Her boyfriend made some remark about my ass, so Kate asked me if I wanted to join them. (Laughs)

I guess I have learned a little bit working here that has been useful, but not a whole lot. I’ve learned a little bit about printing in general, but I know someone who is a professional printer so if I really have questions, I can just ask him. It kind of sucks because we’re not allowed to design anything, we’re not allowed to do anything like that. We’re not even supposed to edit anything, even if someone puts a comma in the wrong place. I understand why because it can get out of hand and take a lot of time. It’s frustrating if I have ten people in line and someone says they just need to fix this, this, and this, and everyone in line wants to do something like that.

You can get sucked into a hole with that, doing it over and over and over again. So that doesn’t really bother me at all that we’re not allowed to fix anything. It’s just is frustrating to tell someone “Sorry, I can’t fix it.”

The amount of stuff we can do is hard to learn. There is still shit I don’t know how to do. We have to guess how much time a project is going to take. There is no way to figure it out unless you’ve done it. If you are the only person there, something that might take fifteen minutes can take as much as two hours if you get stopped by five people. Turnaround time is hard to judge. If something is late, people get pissed. There’s a lot of procrastination on the customers’ side, and they come in and say ‘I need this yesterday’ and I say ‘I can’t do it’ and they don’t like that answer. Of the people that come in with things they need done immediately, 90% of them get mad when you say you can’t do it right away. We can’t tell them it’s their fault for procrastinating, even if it is.

It’s also frustrating when a customer is completely lost, like they have no idea what is going on. I try to empathize with them, because if you’ve never had to do any printing you don’t specifically know what you need. People expect miracles to happen. If they bring something in that’s marked up or that the formatting is completely wrong, they expect that we’re just going to be able to fix everything. I have to had their flash drive back to them and say “I can’t do this.” I don’t really have a problem with that if I tell them what they have to do and they say they’ll do it, but other people just stand there and stare at you for five minutes like you’re going to come up with another answer.

Sometimes people surprise me with their ideas, and that’s one of the benefits of working here. There was a woman in the other day that was an artist. She had really great, beautiful work but she had it on construction paper, which is a paper full of acid which means the [artwork] is going to be destroyed in ten years. She had me copy it on this iridescent paper and it made it look ten times better. There was one woman that came in that had quotes set up three to a page and had them printed on color cardstock. She turned them into bookmarks for graduation gifts for some kids in a class of hers or a church group or something. It was kind of neat. She went to Target and bought ribbons and was punched holes in them and was putting ribbons all over them. It was neat to see someone doing that. Other than that, it’s all pretty run of them mill, not very exciting. It’s a copy center. There is nothing earth-shattering there.

It’s mainly businesses, dissertations. I do enjoy when people bring in dissertations to be bound or printed because I’ll sit there and read them. I’ve been tempted a couple times to keep files but we’re not allowed. There was a dissertation on mathematics education that I was incredibly interested in. I had As and Bs in all my calculus classes but when I got to upper-division linear algebra, I hit a brick wall. The dissertation was specifically about different ways to teach math, so I was really tempted to keep that one but I restrained myself. Staples takes privacy very seriously. They’re pretty good at grooming for applicants they expect won’t [keep customers’ files]. I think that’s part of why the overall age of the people in the copy center is higher than the people on sales floor. They figure more mature people might not take things…?

It’s nice – sometimes – to be able to interact with people for longer. I had one guy come in who looked at my hair clipped back. He stopped in the middle of what he was doing and looked at my hair and said “I’m sorry… my wife has so much hair, just like yours, and it’s always in the way and I was wondering where you got your hair clip so I can get her one.” I thought it was sweet and really sentimental that he stopped and noticed a small detail like that. It’s interesting the people who pass through there, their comments…sometimes it’s kind of weird. But I don’t get upset at peoples’ comments until they step behind the counter and stand like two inches away from me. [It’s common to look over the employee’s shoulder at the computer when getting an order ready to point out the specifics of what needs to be done.] It’s obvious to me when someone is intentionally trying to stand close to me. Their intention is not to see the computer screen. I had a guy that leaned in a little close and asked if I smelled caramels. (Laughs)

There was a guy in the other day that was a World War II vet. There have been a couple of veterans in there that have photos, documentation of their time, their discharge papers…that’s always something that’s very personal to me. It can be very hard. I have a number of family members who are in the military and I dated a guy for a while who was in the Army, in the infantry. He was deployed twice. I heard some of what he went through but didn’t ask a lot of questions because it was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it.

A lawyer came in with a case where a woman who was a fitness competitor was suing the Red Cross. It was a huge, huge case; he had binders and exhibits. It was some sort of medical malpractice suit against Red Cross. Like a blood transfusion they didn’t check…something went bad. That was hard for me to see because I considered competitive fitness for a while – I did competitive bench-press – so to see someone’s goals and everything tied to that taken away… though I don’t know if it’s worth suing Red Cross over.

There are rules about what we’re allowed to copy and we do have the option not to print something if we are personally offended by it. There was one copy job I would have refused, but that’s only happened to me one time. I had another employee working with me who didn’t have a problem with printing it, so we printed it. But if it was just me, I wouldn’t have done it. I think if it had been different people wanting it done, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. They were these two creepy, seedy looking characters who wanted to make a copy of what could have been the cover of a snuff film. There was a woman with normal flesh color from the neck down. She was blue and grey from the neck up. The image cut off above the eyes. There were two lines that came down kind of like a vest but went under her breasts, with a zipper. There were two sets of men’s hands; one of them was unzipping the vest thing and the other had a wire wrapped around both hands and around her neck. Both of them had gloves on. It was a photograph – I don’t know if it was Photoshopped or if they set it up that way; it wasn’t a genuine, actual act, I hope.

But that’s the worst I’ve seen in there. That one in particular… I was just (long pause, punctuated by the beginnings of sentences)… A while ago, I might have just swept it into the category of pornography and would not have made a distinction between printing that or something else [in terms of it violating the rules against printing generally obscene material]. If someone would have come in with a photograph that was revealing, with little more room for interpretation, something more explicit without that aspect of violence associated with it, I would print it. I do have some problems with anything that represents a man, woman, or child as not fully human, the implication that they just have a use – it’s a matter of utility, not that this person has unique qualities, that there’s something about them… as soon as you remove that element of personhood, people just become a thing. And you don’t have much respect for things. It makes it much easier to kill or act violently when you don’t have to associate your action with a person dying. If you are actually in their physical space, you can be removed from them by cultural differences, race differences, whatever that makes it seem like you’re not killing a person. There is no part of me that would reproduce anything that conveys that message. The more an idea permeates into a culture, the more it’s made acceptable, and the more it’s accepted and the more frequently it’s going to happen.

There is a guy I work with who has worked at Staples for seven years. If they’re not doing it to be a kiss-ass, I have a lot of respect for that [longevity]. If you value your job that way, if it’s something you’ve built up a lot of knowledge about, if it something you’ve taken ownership of, I certainly respect that. The fact that he has his accolades [evidenced by pins on his nametag] and has worked there for a while does not faze me in the least. What bothers me about him is that he has been there so long that he forgets what he used to not know. Everything is common sense to him, so if you don’t know something, you’re unintelligent. I’ve worked a bunch of part-time jobs and there hasn’t been one where I haven’t been treated like a complete idiot, simply because long-time employees think something I have no idea about – if only because I haven’t been there long – is common sense. But I understand that being in that same position in retail for that long…there’s no way to not be apathetic or have an attitude about it.

Right now, this job is just a means to an end. Just a paycheck. If I had a job where more was expected of me and I had to have a higher degree of professionalism I might feel differently about it, but where I am now, I really don’t care. The only reason that I’ve put more effort into this job is simply because I don’t want to look like an idiot to people who walk up to the counter, even though there are some things that I don’t know and I’m going to look like an idiot regardless. There are some employees who know more than I do, so when a customer walks up and asks for something that someone else has done for them that I don’t know how to do, it’s frustrating. I get bitched at, called “retarded,” whatever. I guess that’s been my biggest motivation to do well, that and I’m generally a curious person, so if I have questions I’m going to ask them. But regarding particular goals to climb the ladder, I really couldn’t care less. I’ll work here until I’m done with school.

Eventually, work for me will not be just “What bullshit can I put up with?” There are only 2% women in mechanical engineering, so I’ll probably have a job in that field if I want.

If I get into engineering and I decide I hate it and I want to go paint, I can devote time to being an artist and work at Staples or a coffee shop and earn my money that way…if I’m ever really in a rut, I can say, I have this degree and I need a paycheck. It’s kind of an assurance. The piece of paper (i.e. my eventual college diploma) is my backup. I can always do art. I can do art without a degree but I can’t be an engineer without a degree. Even if I get an engineering job and I want to take a class on intaglio or something like that, I can go and pay for the class on intaglio and I won’t have to take out loans.

If I ever decide I want to have kids, it’s a matter of not wanting to put them in a position where we’d be struggling financially. What do I teach my kids? Do I teach them to do what makes them happy but have them constantly feel like the floor is going to drop out from underneath them, or do I tell them to go to school so they never have to worry about that?