Monday, September 03, 2007

The American Dream is a Lie

The American Dream is a cruel hoax perpetrated by Wall Street on a mostly unsuspecting populace addled by years of TeeVee and disinformation. This Labor Day post comes directly from the front line trenches where average Americans chase their own tails for fun and profit.

In 1998, I had a temp job at a local Ameriquest Mortgage affiliate. The assignment lasted from right before Thanksgiving to right before Christmas.

God, that job sucked.

Mainly, my job was to enter mortgage information into a database, but they would occasionally ask me to perform other tasks, such as driving to the Government Center to hunt down information on recently filed foreclosure notices. That was the modus operandi at this office – locate desperate families who were about to lose their homes and offer them a refinancing deal. It didn’t hurt that it was Christmastime.
In the sales office, there was a huge zip code map with pushpins identifying the poorest neighborhoods. The sales staff would pore over the white pages looking for addresses in the shitty zip codes and then cold call the hapless suckers and offer them refinancing deals. Evidently, business was booming, because the “loan officers” all wore expensive suits and drove new cars. A couple of the guys, however, had forgotten to include shoes in their new ensembles. Nothing says redneck nouveau riche more than white Nike high-tops with a suit.

When I asked my supervisor, a wiry bleach blond mother of three from a far away suburb, why the database included race information, she said it was just a legal technicality. “Don’t worry,” she reassured me, “there’s no racism anymore.” After that, I started marking every entry as “Caucasian, non-Hispanic.” I don’t know if that helped or hurt, but I had to do something subversive. In the anteroom where the coffeemaker and fax machine were, the walls were decorated with news clippings. Every one of them was about
ACORN, the non-profit group that helps working class families buy homes. Names of ACORN representatives were highlighted in yellow with nasty remarks written in the margins.

Since it was autumn, hunting and football were the main topics of conversation. And of course children. “Blah blah blah hunting,” they would say. And “blah blah blah football.” And of course, “blah blah blah family.” Since I didn’t hunt, watch football or have children, I was like half a fag in their eyes. Politics were carefully avoided, probably on orders from the Main Office or something, but it didn’t take a rocket surgeon to figger out who these dolts voted for in the last election. (HINT: Bob Dole)

Anyway, flash forward nine years. Now I’m working for the second largest settlement administrator in the country (yes, I’m
temping again) handling the class action settlement against – you guessed it – Ameriquest. According to the badly spelled script we are supposed to be reading to the class members, all 50 states except Virginia (supposedly because Ameriquest never did business in Virginia) have found Ameriquest guilty of violating just about every law governing home loans. They provided deceptive information on interest rates and discount points, convinced homeowners to refinance when doing so provided no benefit to the borrower, and they falsified borrowers’ financial information in order to maximize the loan amounts.

Here’s how a class action settlement works, for those of you who, like me, were never very clear on the concept: What happens is, somebody sues someone. Then another person sues that same entity for more or less the same reasons. Then another person does it. Then another. After awhile, it becomes apparent that the entity being sued perpetrated the alleged crime on numerous individuals. Said individuals are then identified as a ‘class.’ Efforts are made to locate all of the class members – in this case, anyone who had a loan with
Ameriquest between 1999 and 2005. (I’m not sure how those dates were arrived at, since the bad behavior extends beyond them.) If the defendant is found guilty (or about to be found guilty), they offer a settlement to be divided among the class members. If the majority of the class members accepts the settlement, then the whole thing is settled. If the majority of the class members fails to accept the settlement, then it’s back to the drawing board. In the case of Ameriquest, the average settlement amount is around $600. Naturally, Ameriquest wants everyone to accept the settlement, since it means the company will pay out a mere fraction of what they stole. Class members are faced with the choice of accepting the settlement and at least getting something, or refusing the settlement, hiring an attorney and going it alone in the hopes of getting the tens of thousands they are really owed. Since most of the class members were poor to begin with, or at least not rich, this latter option is usually beyond their reach, unless they know a lawyer willing to help them out pro bono. One fly in Ameriquest’s ointment is the fact that many of the class members have lost their homes and are now unreachable using the information in Ameriquest’s databases. If less than a certain percentage of the class members accept the settlement, either intentionally or because they couldn’t be reached in time, then new settlement arrangements must be arrived at.

For some strange reason, there is very little mention of the class action lawsuit against Ameriquest in the supposedly liberal media.

As I mentioned above, Rust Consulting is the second largest settlement administrator in the country, a fact they are eager to repeat at every opportunity. I probably shouldn’t be linking to them, since they are kinky for confidentiality and this will probably come back to haunt me somehow. One observation I have made on this assignment, or I should say, one suspicion I have long had which has been emphatically confirmed on this assignment, is that the American educational system is woefully inadequate. Both my fellow temps, and the class members I am calling at a rate of 30 per hour, display a shocking incapacity for basic communication and reasoning skills. For example, whatever happened to the tradition of keeping a pen and paper near the telephone in case you need to write something down? Time and again, I am forced to wait while someone laboriously searches for a pen, and even then I must spell nearly every word of the two-sentence message while they scratch it out Ali G style. “…Set-tle-ment,” I repeat patiently. “S-E-T-T-L-E-M-E-N-T. Ad-min-ist-rat-or. A-D-M-I…” I hang up knowing that not one word of the message will reach its intended recipient in any meaningful form.

I can tell by the uneasy expressions I receive from my supervisors whenever we talk that I am an anomaly among the temp crowd in that I catch on quickly and use relatively good grammar in my daily speech. There must be something wrong with me, they suspect, since I am not borderline retarded. What I mean is, there must be something wrong with me that isn’t readily apparent; there is something wrong with nearly all of my coworkers, but you can tell what it is at first glance. With me, the problem is lurking below the surface somewhere, and that fills my supervisors with unease. I think some of them suspect me as some sort of corporate spy – perhaps from
Ameriquest or one of the law firms – sent here to make sure they are handling things professionally. But maybe I’m just being paranoid. In any case, they are right that something is lurking beneath the surface; it’s an irrepressible urge to speak truth to power, which is precisely why I keep landing in these crappy temp jobs in the first place. The American workplace, from the White House on down, craves obedience. Independent thinking, even if it is used to accomplish the tasks at hand, is a Major Threat that needs to be extinguished quickly before it spreads. Likes golf? Check. NASCAR? Check. Hooters? Check. Sinclair Lewis? WARNING WARNING WARNING…

On Friday, August 17th, 40 or 50 of us temps crowded into a hotel conference room to receive our “orientation,” which consisted mainly of reiterating Rust Consulting’s extremely high level of ethics, and repeating the importance of being at our workstations on time each morning and after every break. And speaking of breaks, these are rigidly enforced. Unfortunately, the process for punching in and out for breaks consumes nearly a third of the break time.

On Monday, August 20th, we arrived for our first shift. We were forced to wait in the lobby for nearly 40 minutes before we were allowed through the front doors. The delay was never explained. We didn’t get to punch in until after 9 am, over an hour after our agreed upon start time. What I deduce from this, naturally, is that our time is worthless to Rust Consulting, but that Rust’s time must be regarded as precious to the temps. Bryan, one of my many supervisors, spent most of the morning filling out MAF forms for each of us to sign. MAF stands for Manual Adjustment Form, and one must be filled out anytime there is an error in the electronic timekeeping system; for example, if you forget to punch out for break, you need to fill out a MAF, and it needs to be signed by you, your supervisor and the HR director.

The scripts we were expected to read to the class members over the telephone went through many rewrites, exacerbating the already awkward task of calling strangers and reading to them. We were instructed to read the scripts “conversationally,” which is impossible since they are laden with legalese. Well, not legalese so much as excruciating ass-covering detail. For instance, you can’t say “the tenth,” or “Monday the tenth;” you have to say, "Monday, September 10th, 2007." Every. Fucking. Time. How do you do that “conversationally?” Not even Spock speaks that formally. There is always somebody listening to your phone calls, and from time to time one of the many supervisors appears with a checklist that you must sign grading your performance. The most common criticism is that you didn’t adhere to the script. The script is so poorly written though, that you cannot adhere to it without splitting infinitives and dangling participles.

The class members we are calling – that is, the ones who haven’t yet lost their homes – already stinging from the flogging they have received at the hands of Ameriquest, become belligerent the moment the word “Ameriquest” is uttered. That’s the only word from the whole script that they seem to hear. If they don’t just hang up, which is understandably common, they blurt out some variation of “the check’s in the mail.” About half the time, it takes a solid 30 seconds of arguing just to get them to understand that they are eligible to receive money this time, and of course you can’t do so at all without deviating from the script. We are expected to make a minimum of 25 calls per hour. Since either Ameriquest or Rust has screwed the pooch on this deal, we are having a hard time reaching all 200,000 or so of the class members before the September 5th deadline. As a result, overtime is available for the temps who aren’t ready to pull their hair out at the end of their regular shift. But in order to be considered for overtime, you must make at least 30 calls per hour. As a result, most of my coworkers read the script in an unintelligible monotone that results inevitably in even more hang-ups. Hang-ups are good, since they only take a few seconds. I suspect that the whole thing is designed to minimize the possibility of actually making contact with all the class members. But maybe that’s just me being paranoid again.

I wish I could've been there at the Ameriquest branch when the chickens started coming home to roost and people were getting laid off and the phones weren't ringing except when the lawyers called and it became painfully obvious that, yes, you self-absorbed suburban white trash twat, racism is still alive and well in the Land of the Free. It's about the only time I've wished to be at a temp job.

As is so often the case, corporate America has pitted two groups of poor people against one another in their interminable effort to evade justice. One group, so desperate for meaningful employment that they will immerse themselves in an absurd tragicomedy just to make ends meet, is forced to attempt contact with the other group of poor people who foolishly believed in something that vanished around 1950, if it ever even existed at all – the American Dream.


Terry Calhoun said...

What could I possibly say. This is sad, it is real.

Weaseldog said...

Wow! There is so much in your article that I can identify with. I've done quite a bit of temp work in my life. It is usually easy stuff that half of the workforce does poorly, or not at all. As a result, endless reams of rules are created in order to head off some very creative slackers before they do more harm than good.

And it does scare the other workers when they can't figure out what is wrong with you.

It is just these sort of jobs that I have learned what America really thinks. I've met a lot of people in these jobs that believe that smart bombs, only kill bad people. If a 2,000lb smart bomb drops on a playground (well, they can't right? But supposing...), then it will not harm any of the good children, but will kill all of the bad children. Yes, people honestly believe that smart bombs have morality detectors in them, so they can selectively kill only the bad people.

I've also run into many people in these environments that want the government to tell them how to live. They would gladly live in a cage, so long as their children were fed.

Don't go insane while you work there. Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue...

Stupid Git said...

The last paragraph sums it up perfectly. Thanks for sharing your experience in such eye opening context.

Jim said...

Anyone on this blog have any invitation lists or know where one could be obtained for the Ameriquest annual event known as "The Big Spin"? If so please contact me immediately.

Michele said...

My family and I are currently being screwed by both Ameriquest and Rust Consulting. Our settlement checks that were promised in "early spring", then early Nov", then "Nov 26" Then "The end of Nov" are now being promised by either "Dec 14th" or "The end of Dec" depending upon who you listen to.

I wonder if Ameriquest should ask for their 7.5 mil administration fee back???

Amy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.