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Time Thieves

to your surprise, so might you

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 10, 1996.

It is always an unpleasant revelation for small business owners that their employees are the likeliest suspects in any theft. This includes everything from office pens to product produced. For example, I used to run a bar, and a common form of theft was for the bartender to vastly over pour on busy nights, vastly increasing tips to himself at the expense of my inventory. That is one of the simpler and easiest to catch ruses, which can be sophisticated indeed. Each business has its own examples.

The value of labor is not to be learned scientifically, at least by any means I currently know. But surely it is worth more than the minimum wage levels we have now and hear discussed for the near future. It has always been a theory that an employee paid more would actually cost less because he would not steal and would see himself as benefiting by making sure the boss made money as well and, more importantly, be interested in making sure the business didn’t lose money. Skeptics claimed this was naive and false, that someone tempted to steal while earning five and one half dollars an hour would surely not be satisfied earning seven or eight dollars an hour and essentially viewed the job as mere cover and entrée to opportunity.

Well, listening to the debate our soon to be elevated minimum wage has altered my opinions some. I normally side with management, and look upon the various types of theft as character issues, not social ones. But as fortune has it, I now work in temp labor jobs in warehouses and the like, and run across many of the same attitudes in my new peers that drove me ga-ga when I was boss.

First, and most commonly, the slows. Many of the older workers in warehouses are so slow and plodding that I would have fired them if I were boss. A stack of four empty cardboard boxes, easily liftable, waits while someone gets a dolly. Two people carefully lift and slowly place on the shelf a box of clothing. At the end of the day, I was the only one in a sweat, mostly from slamming boxes in place by myself. I was often furious at what I consider lousy work habits.

But I understand how such attitudes develop. What I consider theft by omission of effort, they consider adjustment of effort to fit the pay. And, frankly, what would be the advantage to them to work much harder? The job might sustain a 15% increase, but that extra $30 a week would never be enough to make a difference in their future, so-called. If they work efficiently, one of them might become superfluous and be let go. They would be next. Who likes to see that or be responsible for it? If you’re in a job that promises zero in meaningful social advance through the years, steal time, energy - and eventually product or cash.

I’m not convinced, of course, but I now have a sense of what lives without an improved future might be. It’s not a good feeling.