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Scoundrels behind the Graphic User Interface


 

 

                           

                          Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for  crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

                       Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

                      Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

 

 

At the very beginning an example from the reality may provide a useful starting point for a discussion.  I would like to tell everyone the story of K working for almost three years for the Affiliated Computer Services (ACS). Probably influenced by Franz Kafka’s novels or may be because the K’s experience with ACS resembles to me a realm described in these novels, I decided simply to skip the name of this immigrant from Eastern Europe and to introduce a direct allusion to a surrealistic actuality.

 

K arrived in America five years ago, was very well educated but lacked the necessary knowledge of English so he did not have another choice but to accept the job of a Transaction Processor in ACS’ unit-Aetna Mail Room located in Lexington, Kentucky.  As it is known, ACS is # 401 on the 2009 FORTUNE 500 list of America’s largest companies, #22 among FORTUNE’s top-promoting 24 stocks, # 1122 on Forbes Global 2000 list of the World’s biggest corporations, # 18 on Forbes global list of software and services providers and employs about 74,000 employees all over the world. The excellent ACS performance in years of recession could temp someone to believe that the company applies some moral standards in the way it pays the employees and does not have the need to deceive the people with pre-modern age methods. However, as you will see, the Information Technology does not change the character of the Capitalism in America. It makes it only more perfidy and arrogant.

 

K was employed with ACS at the end of 2006 as a part-time worker; in April next year was transferred to a full-time position and according to ACS policy was eligible for benefits including health, vision and dental insurance since the moment of his conversion. The ACS’ practice is to use a web based site named Infobank where every one of the employees has own personal page where a link for benefits enrolment has to appear to allow choice of health coverage.  K was eager to get health insurance for his family and every day checked his benefits page for a link but there was no link posted. He addressed the management many times with the question "When a link for enrolment will appear?" and always received an answer that they do not know….. And he has to wait until a link appears. K continued to persist and asked for a connection to a HR representative and after a couple of weeks a phone number has been given to him with advice to call. A minute before to call K checked one more time his Infobank page. As usual, there was no link. The conversation with the HR representative was very polite and K received a promise that this error would be corrected and he will be contacted via phone with additional instructions how to enroll for benefits. On the next day there was no call and he decided to take a look at his page. For his surprise it was posted that the health benefits had been waived because the due date for enrolment had been missed. New phone call to the HR, this time the representatives were not so polite, and despite the fact that no link was posted the answer always was "You have missed the due date!" A coworker observing K’s efforts to get the benefits told him that it does not make sense to continue because that happens pretty often with people like him (immigrants) and the company is saving money by postponement of the enrolment to the next year. Because of his Eastern European stubbornness or because of his still idealistic perception of the America’s realm K refused to believe that a multibillion corporation can be so cheap and sent an appeal. K underscored that no link was posted, the management did not provide the necessary information and the HR department did not send an e-mail notification for the due date of the enrolment as it is the declared ACS policy and practice. After a month he received a letter with a statement that according the ACS’ records a link was posted and an e-mail was sent to K’s web address. The bad news for the people from ACS was that K has changed his e-mail account the day before sending the appeal and there was no way an e-mail to be forwarded to an account created after the discussed period. In his second appeal K described the situation with the e-mail account and insisted on a reasonable access to the records which (according to ACS) contain data about the link. The answer was silence. After six months of meaningless correspondence K was able to enroll for health benefits for the next year.

 

This is only the beginning of K’s saga. As he describes it, new surprises made his employment with ACS a nightmare. He says "My story, I call it "The story of the fifth decimal and other missing items" is about how ACS uses web based tool to deceive its employees and to constrain them to perform unpaid labor- something abolished by the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States."  The illusion that the Information Technology will contribute the inhumanity of the Capitalism to be overcome for a great regret does not have a confirmation on the work place because the computers are not smarter and more human oriented then the programmers and they fulfill the wishes of the owners.

 

He also says: "ACS pays the majority of its employees according to an Activity Based Compensation Plan  where it is declared that an employee is paid by a particular piece rate for the transaction of each page of documentation processed (in my case the piece rate is a number with five decimals-$0.00082). All job related tasks are declared in advance and if a new project has to be introduced the piece rate must be entered in the system as soon as possible. It takes approximately 10 min. for the developer to write the necessary code. The entire information is stored in the Front End and Pay Roll System (the web based tool I already mentioned) from where an employee retrieves the data, works on the documentation and releases it to the customer (as my job was) and the information about the volume of pages multiplied by the piece rate ends up on the employee’s pay roll.

 

At the beginning of 2009, despite the financial health of the corporation, the management announced a pay cut (officially declared to the public as 5% but in the department I worked for-Scanning Department of Aetna Mail Room it was 30%) and facing such a dramatic change I started to pay close attention to my pay stub (containing thousands of items). Using a very simple method (multiplying the amount of pages released by my piece rate) and not sophisticated software I discovered that I am underpaid. It was a mystery for me how that could happen and I continued my calculation using accuracy to the second, third, fourth and fifth decimal. I discovered that ACS was paying me (and probably the majority of its 74,000 employees) with accuracy to the fourth decimal despite the fact that my piece rate is with five decimals and the result according the mathematical rules has to by with five decimals and probably diverting the fifth decimal to somebody’s account.  It may appear as virtual event but after thousands of transactions and millions of pages it becomes very real money and I suppose ACS has developed this system not only for me and with some imagination it could be calculated how much ACS does not pay to its 74,000 employees for a pay period. And it happens for a long period of time. In my naiveté I addressed the issue to the ACS’ Ethic Department and after three months of silence I received from a senior VP a confirmation of my presumption that ACS is calculating the pay with accuracy to the fourth decimal. The ACS’ VP, who probably underestimated my preliminary calculations, forwarded to me a spreadsheet of my last paycheck with accuracy to the fourth decimal.  In my response to him I sent evidence about the difference between sums calculated with accuracy to the fourth and fifth decimal and some other proofs of transactions not paid. There is still no response from the company. Probably I have to wait an eternity for an answer if any would arrive. The story with the fifth decimal resembles very much an old case in Europe where a bank executive was sent to prison for the same trick."

 

Especially irritating for K was the arrogance of the ACS business unit management simply to refuse to pay him for the work completed and to deceive the employees to perform two tasks and to be paid for only one of them. For instance, in December 2007 a new project was introduced but the management did not activate a property on the wed based tool and K and his colleagues worked on it for a year without being paid. They tried to discuss the issue with the bosses. No results. The answers, if there were any, were an absurd like "We do not know how to pay for this particular task." or "The developers a too busy to make the necessary changes of the program" etc.  Nobody insisted to be paid but K. The reason for that was probably the fact that approximately 80% of the employees in this particular ACS business unit were immigrants, intimidated by the governing arbitrariness, with no or very little knowledge of English and isolated from each other.  This fact encouraged the management to act as if the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution does not exist.  To deceive the employees representing two tasks as one and not to pay for the second is simply an insult for their intelligence and expression of the fact that the management is convinced that no consequences would be faced. Also, that is the explanation why the management can deactivate the web based tool and as the result transactions for a particular project are not paid. On busy days the management simply manipulated the function of the internet tool and some of the employees were not paid for a particular percentage of their work.

 

The final of the K’s story is not very optimistic. "During my employment for ACS I was very patient and wanted to obtain evidence for all these issues" – he says. "My claim is about a couple of thousands of dollars; however I am strongly convinced that I am not the only one deceived by ACS. I have informed the management of the business unit I worked for, the ACS Ethic Department and the ACS CEO for the facts of my observation. The result was that my wife lost her part-time employment with ACS and I was put on leave of absence until 12/31/9999, probably with the hope that I would not find another employer; would run out of money and would beg for mercy. Of course after this absurd my employment was terminated."

 

I discussed K’s story with some of my friends and I was astonished by the answer of my neighbor Mary who says that similar events happen often but the people simply do not want to risk their employment and that is why the employers are so arrogant. May be this is the reality but I refuse to accept it because I am convinced that even a minute of unpaid labor is involuntary servitude. And in the K’s case the definition of the US Supreme Court for involuntary servitude given in the "United States v. Kozminski , 487 US 931 (1988)" applies. The Supreme Court of the United States declared: "The court held that involuntary servitude exists only when the master subjects the servant to (1) threatened or actual physical force, (2) threatened or actual state-imposed legal coercion, or (3) fraud or deceit where the servant is a minor or an immigrant or is mentally incompetent."

K is an immigrant as the majority of his coworkers. The management who acted in ACS behalf deceived them and the result is involuntary servitude. That happened in the age of Information Technology, in the 21 Century, in the United States of America. A sad story!

 

 

 

 

 

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