Gay Wage Slave

This is a record of my experiences working for a large midwestern corporation between November 2007 and October 2009. It is told from my point of view. The people I mention in this story may remember these events differently than I do. I'm sharing it here to shed light on the nature of gender expression discrimination in the American workplace. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

"Take Off Your Hair!"

-My name is Donny C. Hampton. I am a perceptibly Gay man, effeminate in appearance and mannerisms. When I take telephone calls, if the caller doesn’t know me, I’m frequently mistaken for a woman. On the job, I tend to be friendly with mostly female co-workers. Male co-workers seem to keep their distance. Throughout my life, most men have tended to avoid me; I think my effeminacy makes them feel uncomfortable. Even some Gay men have told me I'm too effeminate. I say all this to put what I'm about to tell you in context.

-In November 2007, I trained for a job as a Pharmacy Help Desk/Call Center agent at "Hydra" Health Systems of Kansas City. Call Center agents help pharmacies process prescription drug claims for numerous insurance plans; most are Medicaid or Medicare claims. In order to get the job, I concealed the fact that I was a client of the Missouri Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. I suffer from a generalized anxiety disorder that's triggered by high stress. However, I became a fully successful Call Center agent, and was able to conceal my Voc Rehab background through to the end of my "Hydra" employment.

-"Hydra" Health Systems is the subsidiary of "OctoCorp", a huge info-tech company that has vast property holdings in Kansas City. The most difficult aspect of working at "Hydra" was conforming to its rigid time compliance requirements. Every minute of your work time had to be accounted for. Going to the bathroom outside of break times was penalized. Not going to break and lunch at your scheduled times was penalized, even though cutting a pharmacy phone call short because of breaks or lunch was strictly forbidden. Employees had to explain via email why they were late to break or lunch, or be penalized. Also, you could never be sure from one day to the next what your lunch and break times would be; they were not fixed, and could vary from day to day.

-What's more, sick leave was strongly discouraged at "Hydra". The company would not accept doctor’s excuses for absence due to illness; absences for other than vacation time were penalized. I heard about employees who were fired for being out of time compliance, and I saw employees come to work seriously ill for fear of disciplinary action. Despite these conditions, I fell into the routine of working at "Hydra", and had few time compliance issues.

-Twice during the year 2008, I encountered evidence of bigotry at "Hydra" Health Systems. On the first occasion, I found Focus On The Family literature strewn around one of the company break rooms. Focus On The Family is a vicious Right Wing organization that portrays Lesbians and Gay men as pedophiles, among other horrible lies. I gathered up this literature and sent it via inter-office mail to "Samantha", a Human Resources staffer, with a letter of protest enclosed. I never received a response from "Samantha", but I never saw this kind of literature on the premises again.

-On the second occasion, I overheard two "Hydra" employees discussing Transsexual folk in a hostile manner: They were talking angrily, complaining that "Gay men in drag" wanted to invade women's public restrooms all over the country. It was extreme Right Wing bullsh*t! Outraged, I complained to my manager, "Ruby Tuesday", who met with me and assured me that LGBT harassment and discrimination wasn't tolerated at "Hydra".

-At least twice in 2008, "Ruby Tuesday" followed up with me to find out if I'd heard any more offensive remarks. On one of those occasions, she said there was a rumor about new employees using sexual slurs openly. She wanted to know if I could confirm it. I wasn't sure I'd heard anything bad, so of course, I told her no; I'm not the kind of guy to float groundless accusations(you'll encounter that kind of person later in this story). It was gratifying to know my manager cared enough to enforce a welcoming work environment for LGBT staff. That's very rare.

-In early 2009, when "Ruby Tuesday" was no longer my manager, an angry co-worker accused me of fingering him as a homophobe. It was an awkward scene that took place in the presence of others. I assured the man that I'd neither accused nor heard him say anything inappropriate. Evidently, "Ruby" had once suspected him of doing so. Her concern about anti-Gay expression in the workplace was genuine.

-But back to 2008: For a few weeks, I was placed in a software testing workgroup that I didn't like being part of. I ran into time compliance problems while doing the work, and was threatened with disciplinary action. At my own request, I was removed from the workgroup. No additional problems arose while I was under "Ruby Tuesday's" management, and I very much enjoyed working under her supervision. I didn't always enjoy taking pharmacy calls, though; many of the pharmacists who called in were rude. Even so, I was thankful to have a job, and I liked the people I worked with. My immediate supervisor was Team Lead "Sherry". She transferred to another department in mid-year, and then I had "Dee Dee" as my TL. I was happy with both of them.

-In February 2009, I transferred to the DMR (Direct Member Reimbursement) department from the Pharmacy Help Desk/Call Center, and began Medicare claims training. "Hydra" Customer Service director "Mr. Greedhead", told everyone in the Call Center that we weren’t “making enough money" for the company. We would now be required to perform revenue-generating functions in addition to our Call Center duties (although we would receive no additional pay). I remember thinking how tacky it was to tell your employees that you considered them little more than cash registers! "Mr. Greedhead" made it mandatory for all of us to transfer either to Member Services or DMR. I chose to go to DMR, where "Sherry" had transferred to.

-DMR agents process prescription drug refunds for insurance patients. We only did Medicare reimbursements, and we did them for one insurance plan only, Humana. The training was highly stressful, and trainees were also required to take Member Services calls at the time. The insurance patients who called Member Services were especially rude: Screaming, cursing, crying, or threatening lawsuits because of denied prescription drug coverage. I became ill from the combined strain of DMR training and taking Member calls, and had to take some time off at the beginning of March to recover. (Also, it was during DMR training when the aforementioned snitching accusation was made against me.)

-I informed my new manager, "WitchHazel", and my new Team Lead, "Seth", that I was taking the time off due to exhaustion. I did not, of course, mention my anxiety disorder. Naturally, I took vacation time instead of sick leave. When I returned, I was relieved to learn that it was no longer required for DMR staff to take Member Services calls.

-At "Hydra", any Team Lead could give you orders. This was the chain of command: You had your manager, then your designated Team Lead, and then all the other Team Leads in your department. Any number of immediate supervisors who may or may not have reported to your manager supervised you at one time or another. This wasn't so much of a problem when I worked under "Ruby Tuesday", but it quickly got to be one in "WitchHazel's" department. An overbearing TL named "Stinker" was the main reason. I'll talk more about him later.

-I don't have a spouse or children, nor do I have many living family members, so there were no family photos to display at my desk. Instead, I decided to mount 1930s movie poster reproductions on my cubicle walls. I also got in the habit of pasting vintage movie posters into my computer desktop background. This was an endless source of comment for people who passed by my desk. It hadn't been an issue when I worked in the Call Center, but everybody in DMR seemed to think it was strange. "Are you a movie buff?" co-workers would ask. "Have you seen all of these movies? Are they any good?" Frankly, I got tired of the constant questions; there was something vaguely condescending about them.

-The very first thing I did as a DMR agent was a job called Claims Review: Checking the work of other DMR agents for mistakes. This included the work of agents who'd been in the department for many months longer than I had been. It was absurd! I had only just learned the basics of claims processing, and didn't even know half the rules yet. (The rules changed constantly, by the way.) I graded wrong numerous claims that had actually been processed correctly, and my co-workers were understandably angry with me. I was penalized for faulty claims reviews, but I was doing my best under the circumstances. I needed more training and experience before I could be trusted to check other people's work. However, "WitchHazel" didn't seem to think it was necessary.

-"WitchHazel", my new manager, told me that my pharmacy calls were too loud. Yet when I lowered my voice, pharmacists complained that they couldn't hear me. When I first came to the DMR department, I sat next to her cubicle. She moved me to a huge corner desk at the end of an aisle, which was isolated from other DMR/Call Center agents.

-"WitchHazel" repeatedly made me explain why I wasn’t on the phone in an accusatory manner. Whenever I was off the telephone during scheduled times, it was always for an authorized reason.

-I was told by my immediate supervisor, "Seth", that I “don’t belong in this department”. This happened after I disagreed with some performance demerits he gave me.

-Early on during my time in the DMR department, I got an up-close look at how "WitchHazel" fired her employees. A female co-worker who had helped me settle into my new desk was abruptly terminated one day; for what reason, I don't know. Security guards appeared suddenly and escorted her out of the building against her will. Then a crew of maintenance people came to clean off her desk, pack up her personal belongings, and ship them off to Human Resources for her to pick up. It was a humiliating experience for the woman (who, as far as I could tell, hadn't done anything to deserve a security escort), and disturbing for everyone who saw it. Afterwards, "WitchHazel" strutted around with a smug look on her face.

-Here's another snapshot of "WitchHazel" interacting with employees: Some months after the aforementioned incident, she began holding staff meetings. She evidently didn't like holding them, and never scheduled any until Human Resources began pressuring her to do so. Here's how a typical DMR staff meeting went: "WitchHazel" and her Team Leads "Sherry", "Seth", "Tiny Dancer" and "Poison Ivory" would hold question-and-answer sessions where they'd ask routine questions about the mission of "Hydra" Health Systems and its DMR department. Like elementary school children, we were expected to raise our hands and recite the proper responses.

-I recall one meeting where "WitchHazel" had "Tiny Dancer" reward individual staffers with pieces of candy for answering questions correctly. At one point, "Tiny" started flinging candy across the conference table; some staffers barely escaped getting hit in the face. I can't speak for anyone else who attended, but I came to loathe these staff meetings with a passion. They were condescending in the extreme! Eventually, I stopped taking part in the question-and-answer sessions; I would just clam up, saying as little as necessary until it was time to go.

-"Hydra" Health Systems’ Tier II telephone line is a line you can call for assistance with difficult pharmacy calls. At a performance evaluation meeting with "Seth", "WitchHazel" accused me of transferring calls to Tier II too often, even though frequent transfer to Tier II was required at the time.

-At the same meeting, "WitchHazel" actually accused me of being a Tier II agent (I never was), and of transferring calls to other Tier II agents that I should have taken. "Seth" helped me set her straight.

-"WitchHazel" later accused me of refusing to transfer pharmacists to Tier II! She told me a pharmacist had lodged a complaint against me, but I saw no evidence of that. She just showed me copies of emails I’d sent to Team Lead "Tiny Dancer" and a senior employee named "Felicity" about an irate pharmacist call I had taken. This pharmacist had put a patient on my line who immediately started screaming for a supervisor. That meant Tier II; but since I had all the information the patient needed, and I knew Tier II didn't want to take calls I could service myself, and I'd been accused of transferring to Tier II too often . . . I tried to handle the call alone. I never refused to transfer the call, but "WitchHazel" believed otherwise. I think that's what she wanted to believe; the truth didn't matter to her.

-My pharmacy calls were often interrupted by DMR management. Back in the Call Center, when a supervisor wanted to speak to an employee, she would place the employee’s telephone on hold. That way, the employee wouldn’t be interrupted while trying to service a pharmacy call, and the supervisor could have his or her undivided attention. This practice was not consistently observed in the DMR department(not even by its director, as you'll see later on). Once, I was given a demerit for speaking to someone who’d interrupted me during a pharmacy call. The person speaking to me had brought me a message from a Team Lead!

-After several months of logging into my pharmacy telephone as soon as I arrived at work, just as I’d always done, "WitchHazel" accused me of logging on to my telephone too soon. I was forbidden to log on more than 3 minutes before beginning my shift. I’d never heard that rule before! This was the first occasion on which I contacted my former Team Lead, "Dee Dee", to clarify procedure. "Dee Dee" said there was no such rule, but we agreed that I should comply with it just to pacify "WitchHazel".

-In DMR training, the quality of our claims processing work had been stressed. We were told to take our time to make sure the work was done right. Our trainers repeatedly said: "Don't think about the quantity expectations yet." Once we were put to work, though, the emphasis changed completely! "Seth" began pressuring me to rush my processing: “Worry about mistakes later,” he told me. It seemed that quantity was all "WitchHazel" cared about.

-What disturbed me most about our quantity ratings is that they weren't linked to the quality of our output. The two ratings were kept separate. You could make lots of mistakes on your reimbursement claims, but if you were fast, you still scored a high quantity rating. This made no sense to me. How could anyone consider an insurance claim processed to completion if it had been done wrong?

-"WitchHazel" and "Seth" accused me of wanting rules changed specifically for me when I questioned the ratings method and protested that I needed more time to familiarize myself with DMR claims processing procedure. I eventually became a competent DMR agent who made few mistakes, but I would always be penalized for valuing quality of work over quantity.

-I'm balding, and I've worn a hairpiece for several years. One day, "Stinker" interrupted one of my pharmacy calls so that he could make fun of it! "Take off your hair," he sneered.  "I want to see what you look like without it."  I was shocked and humiliated, but afraid to say anything because "Stinker" was "WitchHazel's" favorite Team Lead. This happened again one day when I was preparing to take calls. "Stinker" called out to somebody I didn’t see: “Look, Donny’s changed his hairpiece again!” And he laughed derisively. Evidently, my co-workers had been discussing my hair. Sitting isolated from them at the far end of an aisle, I’d heard nothing.

-"Stinker" made me train another employee without being told in advance that I would be required to do it. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be training the employee to do! I actually had to ask the employee to find out. Later, I complained about this to "Seth".

-"Stinker" accused me of hanging up on pharmacists. He forbad me to release a call until after the line had been dead thirty seconds. I later found out that there was no such rule for the Pharmacy Help Desk.

-After I complained to "WitchHazel" and "Seth" about "Stinker" making fun of me, and refuted his accusation of hanging up on pharmacists, "Stinker" accused me of making inappropriate sexual comments to him. Once, before I started having trouble with him, I did make what was, in retrospect, a foolish comment. "Stinker" sat behind me, and I was trying to be friendly in a typically clumsy way. On the occasion of his birthday, DMR agents were stopping by his desk to offer congratulations. I wished him a happy birthday, too, and added that I hoped he’d “get some” for his birthday present. I didn’t say what I meant by “get some”, but my implication was clear(wink, nudge). It was a macho wisecrack, stupid for me to make, because I'm anything but macho. That was the closest I ever came to saying anything inappropriate.

-"WitchHazel", "Stinker" and I met to discuss the problems he and I were having. "WitchHazel" expressed the opinion that we were two "bad little boys sniping at each other.” She said as much at our meeting, and I found her attitude insulting. To my knowledge, she never disciplined "Stinker". I was never charged with sexual harassment. "Stinker" soon quit the department to go off and study medicine. On his last day at work, "WitchHazel" fawned over him so much, I suspected that she was infatuated. If so, they certainly would've made a perfect couple; both of them concealed nasty dispositions behind deceptive smiles!

"Diary of a Gay Wage Slave" continues with Part Two.