Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Before I moved here, everyone told me Southern California wasn’t just a place, it was a “state of mind” where life was slower and the people were laid back and carefree. I always found this notion odd because well, Los Angeles has the second largest economy in the U.S.--it isn’t going to run itself. But it still made me wonder how this might apply to the great inevitability of our lives: work. Since there’s so much to do here besides work, do Californians not work as hard as people in harsher climates? Again, I found this doubtful from the beginning, but I was still curious to see if there might be any significant difference in how they do business and how much value they place on comfort and leisure. At first, I got mixed messages. There were all those people rushing around the 405 freeway and most people seemed to have fairly normal ideas about work ethic. But, then I joined a temp agency and got to see LA’s business men and women in their natural habitat. That changed a few things.

I joined the temp agency back when I was first getting my business started, but I continue to stay on call for several reasons. For one, the work is inordinately easy; I really do just answer the phone. I learned this the hard way; on my first assignment I showed up in a full suit ready to work a hard 8-5 and instead just got told to stay at the desk and not get in the way. So I pretty much get paid to sit on my computer, sign for FedEx packages, and blog while eating the catering food that intermittently gets delivered. Oh, and answer the phone when it rings. I swear, a small monkey could do this job. However, I also get an inside scoop on workplace goings-on, not to mention tons of high-quality people watching.

So while I continue to do this at various LA businesses, one thing has become abundantly clear: work is a very different experience for many people in LA than in any other place. Now, while people are usually professional, proactive and very dedicated to what they do, what’s really thrown me for a loop are the working conditions. All but one of the LA offices I’ve been to, and I’ve been to quite a few, were designed rather than merely furnished, so much that they often seemed more like works of art than places of business. I couldn’t believe how much money these businesses had sunk into their offices on entirely re-done floor plans, custom furniture, art pieces, etc. It’s incredible, check out these pictures:

Now onto the details—one dot com company had the liquid crystal line of widescreen plasma televisions above every single cubicle-- just so there could be a 57 inch image of their website topping off everyone’s workspace. One office had bathrooms with Meyer’s Lemon Lotion and Hand Soap, which I found selling for $58 on the Williams Sonoma website. That’s not including refills, which you know this place goes through like TP.

I’ve also never seen this much thought being put into the employee fridge. I was in a place that buys whole, skim and soy milk just for morning coffee along with every single fixin’ you could possibly imagine. And if regular coffee’s just too common for you, a gleaming steel espresso machine awaits, complete with espresso from Starbucks and separate cappuccino cups and saucers. The only thing missing was a private company barista.

Another place ordered $250 worth of fruit each day just so the employees could pick at it whenever they wanted a snack. Thursday was bagel day, where every available type of bagel and spread got ordered. I also happened to be there for an employee function where they bought eight types of sandwiches and three kegs of beer for a Friday lunch. Anything so the employees have limitless choices. Another company spent $1000 on a small catered breakfast and lunch duo, and let me tell you, I didn’t know something that would be consumed so quickly needed to look that beautiful. If that’s what they spend on food, think about what they must be spending on travel or corporate gifts. Or rather, think about what their clients must be spending.

The office kitchens I’ve seen have far surpassed their humble beginnings. Most have top-of-the-line, stainless steel appliances. A few have put in what exemplifies what's different about working in many California companies: the built-in beer tap. Yes, I’m serious, they had beer taps in the kitchen. This suggests that the staff are drinking so much beer that even just buying the occasional keg isn’t economical. And, by the way, the tap was Newcastle Brown Ale, quite a far cry from Natty Ice.

When I ask the office coordinator ladies about this, they say “yeah, we have a beer tap” like it’s just a great job perk. And as they said this, they also looked at me like some not-with-it Midwesterner, like if I told them I didn’t have text messaging. But still, what blew my mind was that it had never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that their employer’s spending habits might be a bit extravagant. To them it was no big deal, an expected part of working there, even something they deserved. What’s happening here is that the employees are being spoiled so often and to such a lavish degree that they’re taking it for granted.

This is going to sound old geezer, but where I’m from spending such lavish amounts of money on yourself is wasteful, whether you’re an individual, company, whatever. There’s no arguing this crap is somehow necessary-- you don’t need the $500 breakfast or the gleaming toaster or the beer tap—and that fact they have them makes it even more abundantly clear that these companies, when it comes to themselves, spare no expense.

Despite the obviously large amount of money being thrown around, I seemed to be the only one asking where it was all coming from. Somebody has to pay for all this stuff. Is it the clients? Possibly. Is the company not paying its employees very well in return for the fab working environment? Also possible. I couldn’t get an answer without sticking my nose way in where it doesn’t belong, but I highly doubt the higher ups are taking a pay cut for that beer tap.

I have never seen corporate spending like this in my life, not in Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York, anywhere, ever—in fact, the Washington Post looked like a shack by comparison. These aren't even oil companies either! You see, I come from a fairly conservative steel town, where offices actually looked liked places of business. They've got a microwave, fridge and vending machine in the kitchen and that's it. This is because you’re there to work, not anything else, and the office theoretically should reflect this. The rationale is that you try to remove distractions from the work environment in order to encourage people to focus while they’re there. Makes sense, right?

I’ve contemplated the purpose of all this grandeur? Is it for the employee’s comfort and enjoyment to help them to be happier at work? Doubtful. Does the company want to be seen as innovative and fun? It’s possible—this is L.A., image is everything. Or it is to impress visiting clients? Does investing a fortune in a place really gain you that much business? I’m not sure; I can’t imagine how much more it cost to create this rather than a regular office, but I’m doubtful the results justify the investment.

I was leaning towards the client/image reason at first, but then I heard an interesting perspective from one of my former employers who stands, hands-down, as the best boss I’ve ever had. He explained that they’re probably trying to fashion an environment in which the line is blurred between work and not-work. By spending all that extra moolah and recreating the comforts of home, you entice salaried employees to put in longer hours, and then they are more productive. Plus, it makes the employee think fondly of the company and feel more dedicated to doing their job well, thus inclining them to work harder. According to my old boss, this can easily translate into the company getting more than they’ll ever shell out in payroll or in all those job perks.

This made sense to me, but it reminds me why it’s difficult to not be cynical as an adult in this society. Everything costs money, people are always trying to make money off you, there’s always some ulterior motive you’re facing. In this situation, I can’t see there being some innocent reason for such lavish decoration and spending. Companies don’t spend that much money just to be nice-- what do they get out of it?

So, back to my original question: is there a difference in working in California? Most definitely, yes. From my casual research, it appears that these companies are trying to appeal to Californians’ laid back, leisurely “nature” to hopefully get them to work harder and longer hours. This makes sense and definitely says something about what Californians expect to have in their lives: comfort, treats, nice things, yuppie stuff. So much for disproving the stereotype. But maybe this is how that “state of mind” intersects with real life: Californians will work hard and put in long hours if the experience is enjoyable. After all, there’s a lot of sun out here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Doggie Fizzle Music Televizzle

A guy probably in his mid-forties approached me today at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Hollywood. He came up to me sweating rather profusely in a little faux silk shirt number with stringy, long hair in desperate need in need of maintenance, his head topped off with a tragically hip “Doggie Fizzle” scripted baseball cap.

It was hot.

Doggie Fizzle proceeded to ask me if I’d audition for a music video for this band named Julie, which plays ambiguously classified music that I may or may not be able to look up on Myspace. Yay for credibility. He excitedly tells me I’d be the ex-girlfriend subject of this break-up song in which I’d be filmed pulling out a heart and random other internal organs from a fake cadaver. Despite how this idea reminds me more of a misguided 7th grade science fair project than a music video, I let him finish.

Doggie Fizzle: “So, you’re an actress, right?”

Me: “Um, no…”

He was quite surprised at this. Why does everybody in Los Angeles seem to think that I’m one of those blue-eyed wonders who’ll do anything for face time on camera? I’m not even an actress and I’m still being typecast! He also told me that they were looking for a certain look, i.e. so that’s why he came up to me in the first place. So apparently I look like some crazy woman who’ll going around ripping people’s hearts out. That’s comforting.

I find it odd that Doggie Fizzle, or whomever he works for, thinks that randomly approaching people to be in some no-name band’s music video is actually going to work. If you live in L.A. and spend any time in Hollywood, you are automatically skeptical of people hitting you up for entertainment stuff. It happens all the time, and usually from scruffy looking white guys who’d never look right in a real recording studio anyways. Out here, everyone’s got something big in the works or knows someone really high up but rarely does their stuff go anywhere. We Anglenos know this all too well, so why would you send out Doggie Fizzle to do some grassroots recruitment with that “winning” pitch and expect people to go for it?

I considered it for a second. Hey, I try to be nice and it might even pay. But the idea of me standing in a room being told to look a little crazy and “just dig in” didn’t appeal to me in the end. Sorry. I guess I’m not set out for hustling in the entertainment business—good thing I don’t fancy myself an actress.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Health Care: Part 2 of 3

So, let me tell you about my firsthand experience with hospital system screw-ups—in fact, maybe Hillary should take this one on the road with her. As I said before, my jaw dislocated for the first time in six years this past January. It happened at midnight, so the urgent care centers weren’t open—fabulous timing, I know. My boyfriend took me to the nearest ER, because the key to this problem being resolved without anything intravenous is getting the jaw relocated quickly. Apparently, there was only one doctor working the night shift at this ER (Strike 1), so I sat for an hour while the staff took no one back although many people were discharged. I have to say, there was an overwhelming lack of urgency for this being an emergency room. I understand that it’s the staff’s priority to keep the ER under control, but when I’m sitting there looking like “The Scream,” quietly drooling on myself, and there’s a guy in the corner making noises that don't even resemble humans, you might want to pick up the pace. Apparently not. Strike 2.

Dislocating your jaw is an unnatural position, so if I have to wait longer than 45 minutes the jaw muscles start to spasm and I begin going into shock. As I said, it’s a real good time. I began to feel this coming on, and with no sign of relief from the ER staff, we drove to another hospital. Once we got there, the shock was making me nauseous and dizzy; my boyfriend immediately started warning the staff. Everyone at this hospital was taking their good old time too and soon enough the nausea became too much and I threw up all over the intake nurse’s office. This was right in the middle of her leisurely admit Q & A--Score 1 for me. I had eaten chocolate ice cream that night, so everyone thought that this was a major bowel obstruction. You bet they took me back real quick, and on a stretcher-- such service! There was no way I could tell them it was just ice cream, and my boyfriend couldn’t tell them either because they made him stay in the waiting room due to some hospital regulation. Miraculously though, I got through to them. Unfortunately, they seemed to take this as a sign for a coffee break, because I then had to wait for another half hour to be given any pain killers, not to mention a muscle relaxant. These drugs have to be in my system before a doctor can relocate my jaw, so all in all I waited two and a half hours for something that’s a 30 second fix. Strike 3.

I take this experience as a classic series of fumbles by the hospital system, mostly relating to the long wait and the staff’s lack of response. Now, long emergency room wait times are a well-known and politicized problem in Los Angeles hospitals, but what really drives home this “policy issue” for me is that I wouldn’t have thrown up or needed the I.V. therapy (a $767.85 charge on my statement) had the hospital system worked as intended. Not only did I have to endure it all, but I then had to pay for the medical complications that directly resulted from their problems. I did my part, I went to the doctor right away, and I gave them all the information they needed and then some. But I still have to pay.

This proves once again that the health care system is not set-up for preventive care. I did a fine job of explaining that that the unlocking procedure was simple, that it would take about a minute, and I needed to be seen as soon as possible--which was true at the onset. Still, no one went to check with a doctor. As time went on, I also told them how serious the situation was getting, but no one would listen to me or take my word for anything until something happened that proved it. Now I understand that people often exaggerate their problems, overestimate their severity or simply don’t understand “first come, first serve.” But do we have to be shot to get some action out of these places?

I also understand that ER staff see urgent situations all the time and it’s crucial for staff to stay calm so the place is under control. But what I saw in there behind the desk were not concerned, dedicated employees just trying to do their best. I saw unhappy, lazy, and most of all, desensitized people who assumed when you walked in that your problems weren’t as bad as you thought. You could wait until everyone was ready.

Perhaps it was a similar mentality that led to that woman dying on the floor at LA’s King-Harbor hospital. Where are these stories coming from? Is it just that ERs don’t have enough doctors and nurses to support the increasing volume of patients? Have hospital staff become bitter and apathetic at work because they’re not being paid enough? Is there not enough public health regulation of hospitals? To look into these questions, Part 3 of this series will be an audio recorded interview with Bruce Benton, former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Association of Health Underwriters and owner of Los Angeles-based Smith Benton Insurance.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Health Care Part 1: "At Anthem Blue Cross Life and Health Insurance Co., we offer full and fair consideration for our applicants"

So far, we’ve learned from this year’s presidential campaign that affordable health insurance is a big deal to most Americans. On the news there are stories about people driving 10-12 hours and staying outside all night to get an appointment with a traveling free clinic. Many of these are people who suspect they have breast cancer or diabetes but have gone without diagnosis, much less treatment, because they absolutely cannot afford it.

And we’ve also heard stories about horrible lapses in the hospital system, like the woman who lay writhing in pain and bleeding on the floor of a Los Angeles public hospital ER for 45 minutes, dying soon after from a perforated bowel (MSNBC). Senator Hillary Clinton had a good one for a while about the pregnant woman who was allegedly denied admittance to a hospital because she did not have health insurance (she actually did) and could not pay $100 (which actually wasn’t an admit fee, just an unpaid bill). Now, besides the fact that that ol’ Hillary didn’t check her facts, a practice so basic to journalism that even interns can be trusted to do it, the real tragedy of this story is that this woman and her baby died. More than that, it’s yet another vivid reminder of how the health insurance system in this country just doesn’t work for most people.

Many Americans are victims of the health care system but their stories don’t make the news. I’m one of them. Granted, my experiences are not nearly what others have faced, but they still illustrate some of the dysfunction, inefficiency and greed that are alive and well in our health care system.

Let’s start with the health insurance industry. Because I run my own business, I am one of many Californians currently seeking an individual health plan from Anthem Blue Cross, the 10,000 pound insurance gorilla out here whose decisions and policies are followed all of by the other individual insurers. If you didn’t already know this, it’s more difficult to get insurance if you’re not in an employee-sponsored group. According to a registered public health nurse I will call Mr. Ernst, this is because insuring a group of people lowers the odds that everyone you insure is going to get seriously ill. So right off the bat, individuals carry risky 1:1 odds. This makes health insurance companies much more wary of taking the gamble that you won’t get sick and they won’t have to pay much, which is all health insurance is really about anyways. Let’s be honest here-- as much as they deny it, these companies are in the business of saving themselves money. I gravely wonder if this is done “by any means necessary,” a concern regularly justified by sources in the news media, e.g. the Los Angeles Times.

I am in my early twenties, I’m an athlete (as you know), I’ve never broken a bone or had surgery, I’m not having babies anytime soon, so even for my age I’m healthy and in very good shape. You’d think I’d be low risk and fairly cheap in the eyes of Anthem Blue Cross, right? Wrong. I am apparently so high risk that my initial application and my “this is B.S.” appeal were both denied.

Here’s what’s so grievously wrong with me:

1. I possess prescription acne cream.

Whoa-- now this is a serious liability, even if half of all high school students probably have the same stuff in their medicine cabinets anyways. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that I only get them refilled every 5 years, just that I wrote it down. And if I wrote it down, it gets added to the list of ways I could cost money. Score 1 for Blue Cross.

2. Every six years, my jaw dislocates.

These dislocations are not the end of the world. I had a few episodes of it in high school and then, just my luck, one this January. More about that lovely experience later. But, despite how not fun this is, I don’t need surgery, I don’t wear a jaw brace and it’s just not an issue 99.9% of the time. Dislocating your jaw isn’t a walk in the park, but the worst that’s ever happened is me needing an IV muscle relaxant and a doctor to relocate my jaw at an hour when only the ERs are open. This ain’t no chronic heart condition.

Anthem BC considers these pre-existing conditions, a term usually applied to chronic illnesses that perpetually cost money like epilepsy, muscular sclerosis or Crone’s disease. That’s right—I’m in that pool. Sometimes I think the health insurance underwriters are actually untreated Attention Deficit Disorder patients, given how carefully they read my application. That’d work to Blue Cross’ advantage, eh? And maybe some healthy distraction while reading those applications will get you a nice Christmas bonus.

I put down every last doctor I’ve visited in the last ten years on my application, all the way back to a pediatrician who I visited for a sinus infection in ‘99. Why did I try so dearly to play by the rules? Because I read the L.A. Times; I know all about Blue Cross dropping people’s coverage when they get really sick, i.e. become expensive and the company says this is justified because the person “failed to disclose” that pertinent information on their application. Because, you know, there are all these people trying to abuse the benevolent health insurance companies.

I, for one, am truly beginning to understand why there’s a considerable movement for universal health care in this country. Many people contribute to or exacerbate their own health problems by not eating right, not exercising or going for check-ups, etc., but I did not cause this jaw condition. There’s just no way I could stop the problem from developing or reliably prevent my jaw from locking. And yet I’m being denied health insurance explicitly because of it, a fact Blue Cross clearly stated. Plus, if I do not get health insurance from a federal program and have a similar jaw locking episode, I’ll be getting a bill for $1400.

It seems that under this system it is okay to charge people at exorbitant rates for things that happen to them naturally. This would mean that some people are born into paying high health care costs and some people aren’t. There’s something definitely wrong with this picture. Isn’t segregation, in any form, supposed to be a huge no-no in our society? It’s completely unacceptable to segregate someone for being a certain race, gender, or anything else you’re born with and can’t change, right? Would we allow companies who earn profit from discriminating against Black people to grow into multibillion dollar industries?

It’s clear my experience brings up many controversial issues. For example, should people be denied health insurance for having ailments they cause? What about illnesses where we don’t know if or how much people are contributors? And yes, if you have universal health care it will let the people who mess up their own health off the hook.

Have we created a new -ism here?