This Isn’t About Me...

In the early 1970’s, I,  Ron Mulvaney, was on a personal roll.  I had just changed jobs to a prestigious trade association in Madison, WI.  I also had a substantial increase in salary.  It was about  a 150 mile round-trip commute from Milwaukee to Madison, Wisconsin, but I had an AMC Javelin that was fun to drive and took me a little over an hour one way to make the trip and gasoline was cheap.  Then came the oil embargo of October 17, 1973.  Gasoline prices were 27 cents per gallon one day in Madison and next next day $1.20.  It was not only expensive to commute, it was boring.  The speed limit dropped to 55 miles per hour from 70 on the interstate highway.  I parked my Javelin and took Badger Bus.  And I commuted by Badger Bus until November of 1982 when I lost my job.

A dear friend, Ron Kampwirth, and a savior of the Dr. William Needler Job Forum, since he saved it from extinction, used to say:  “a recession occurs when a lot of people are out of work; a depression, when you are.”  In 1982, we were in a recession, and I was in a depression.  My trade association employer had granted me professional outplacement and this organization assured me that there would be no problem finding gainful employment even though I was 49 years old.  They were wrong.  And as it turned out I was never again to receive equivalent employment in either salary or benefits. 

In 1983, I founded a multi-association management consulting organization called Reaction Management, since I learned, painfully, that no trade association or non-profit group was going to hire me as their full-time manager.   And, I wrongfully believed, that I could easily get several trade or non-profit associations to hire me as their part-time executive director.  The best I could do was get some contracts for special occasions or short term public relations events.   However,  I also gained considerable experience in running several small groups of 40+ of Southeastern Wisconsin, which I incorporated as a non-profit association for  the unemployed and underemployed.  Based in Brookfield, WI, 40+  counseled, trained and facilitated group discussion about job seeking; I was its volunteer executive director.  Later, in 2000, I became executive director of the Job Forum, too.

I had great counseling for Reaction Management from the volunteers in SCORE (an acronym for the Service Corps of Retired Executives).  This volunteer branch of the U.S. Small Business Administration -- the only advocacy branch of the U.S. government, outside of the Peace Corps -- SCORE is one the best friends of small and medium sized American businesses.  And their counseling services were, and still are, free.  Certainly one way to avoid the yoke of employment-at

-will is to go into business for yourself.  It helps if you’re independently wealthy, have a unique idea or product and can sell.  SCORE can’t tell you all the steps to take in successfully starting a small business but it can tell you the steps not to take to avoid land mines blowing up in your face.  I relished the SCORE counselors’ absolute honesty, integrity and wisdom.

I became so enamored by SCORE that I joined their ranks as a SCORE volunteer counselor and benefited greatly by their camaraderie, their training in counseling, and their providing me with hundreds of clients I could really help -- including a few of my 40+ unemployed or under-employed associates.  Also I realized that historically small business was the only segment of the business world that had net increases in employment, thereby providing real openings for the unemployed. But as great as SCORE and SBA were they were limited in financial help to the unemployed.  Direct aid was virtually unavailable.  There was no “seed money” for start-up companies.  SBA loans were SBA Guarantee loans.  That is, the loans were made by banks, were truly bankable, and low risk.  SBA merely guaranteed the majority of the loan;  SCORE merely could counsel where to go for “seed money,” such as, private investors (not promising), venture capitalists (affectionately known among SCORE counselors as “vulture capitalists”), re-financing your home, cashing in assets, borrowing from relatives and friends, maybe even using your severance pay, if you were fortunate enough to receive any, and you weren’t restricted by your former employer in its use.  One place you couldn’t go was your unemployment funds.  I found this very troubling. 

Incredibly, employment-at-will gave former employers powers even beyond the work place into the market place.  These misanthropes would frequently fight to remove the unemployed individual from the unemployment compensation rolls, particularly if they learned of efforts to go into business for oneself, arguing that that individual was no longer looking for work.  In contrast, other industrialized countries allow a lump sum payment of unemployment compensation funds for the very reason that the individual was attempting to go into business for oneself.  Employers generally  have hardened hearts about paying into their State’s unemployment compensation funds, but more on this latter.

How about starting a small business on a shoe string?  Many do.  Most end up with a frayed shoe string.  The most successful start-up small businesses I witnessed started their businesses on the side while they kept their day jobs.  Then, when they saw that the business could support them on their own, they went into it full time.  Fortunate the man or woman who did this before the ax fell from the employer.  Unfortunate the man or woman who after the ax fell decided to go into a multilevel marketing businesses; I saw enough to make me ill.  Certainly, millions of people legitimately supplement their income using multilevel marketing techniques, but to prey on the unemployed and recruit them for these “opportunities” is reprehensible and deserving of jail.  In fact, many at the top of these pyramid schemes wind up in jail after successful prosecution by the FTC or State Attorneys General. But it’s too late for hundreds of thousands a year of desperate unemployed who have been gulled.  For them, whether legal or illegal,  multilevel marketing is a guarantee of long-term differed income, probable divorce and maybe foreclosure on one’s heavily mortgaged home. 

While multilevel marketing “opportunities” are bad enough for the unemployed, many are taken in by “get rich” schemes advertised on late night television.  Too many of my associates in 40+ and the Dr. William Needler Job Forum were duped into going to these all-day seminars where pitchmen sold them on “unbelievable opportunities.”  In a few cases, I was able to clue in the Fraud Division of the Wisconsin Agricultural Department and stop these frauds or run the cheats out of town.  Very few.  There was too much late night TV ads to monitor, too many channels and too small an AG staff to handle complaints.   And ours was only one State out of 50 in the Union.

But the yoke of employment-at-will is most pervasive in the work world.  Job-seekers run into it immediately when they apply for work:  It’s known as the application blank.  Nowadays, for all the major companies, application blanks are filed on-line.  All blanks must be filled in or you’re not considered for the position.  In fact, frequently you’re not permitted to proceed to one box until the previous one is filled in.  Too bad that many of these web sites are still not secure and your filling  in the required social security number, date of birth, address and telephone number are open invitations to identity-theft hackers to open fraudulent accounts in your name in department and other retail stores across the USA.  For three million homeless, they can breath a sigh of relief: they don’t have addresses or telephone numbers.  Of course, they’ll never get jobs either.

There was a time, not that long ago, when an employer couldn’t require your date of birth on an employment application.  That was to protect job-seekers over 40 from age discrimination.  Then came the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, and who would want to be accused of being unpatriotic?

Of course, the USA PATRIOT Act has nothing to do with patriotism -- it’s a acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.  Therefore, one of the few civil liberties protecting aging job seekers from discrimination in employment was gone forever.  Why not lie about your age?  If you’re caught, it’s automatic dismissal.  Any lie leads to dismissal.   In a strange twist of jurisprudence, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in a Miller Brewery wrongful dismissal case, that the company may lie to an employee to protect itself against liability.  One of the sterling defenses for employment-at-will is that the law is really equal for both employer and employee.  But some are more equal than others.

No employment application is supposed to be considered valid unless it’s physically signed, which prior to on-line job application meant you waived all rights to privacy, financial background checks and nasty comments from your previous employers.  This should be problematic for employers requiring on-line applications only.  While there is no known instance where this has been challenged in court, and it’s unlikely it ever will be, don’t bet the store that a court would side with the applicant, since defense attorneys would argue that signatures are implied in on-line applications just as they are for on-line purchases of goods, making human civil liberties equal to purchases of goods.  It would sound perfectly logical and legal to many judges.

No job application worth its salt fails to state in least someplace in bold print that all applicants, if hired, are employed-at-will.  You can chose to cross that part out and initial it if you’re applying for a position near the top of the management pecking order, but you risk not being called at all for an interview.  And if you do get hired without a contract you are automatically considered an at-will employee.  That’s the law in 49 States.  In many organizations you receive an employee handbook or company policy manual that states explicitly on virtually every page that nothing may be construed that the document is an employment contract.   Most employee handbooks are vague about benefits.  They have to be.  Employers are constantly looking for ways to cut expenses, and employee benefits are an easy target; employers would have to be coming out with new employee handbooks every month, if they were to show every change.  Few non-union employers offer pensions any more to new employees.  That benefit disappeared about 25 years ago; health benefits are gradually disappearing.  One employee benefit never mentioned is unemployment compensation; it’s mandated by law.  It protects the worker from capricious firing -- at least it once did.

There are ways around this mandated benefit, and employers are using them.  One way is simply not to hire employees.  Make your hires 1099’s, that is, private contractors.  Microsoft did this for some time.  Bill Gates didn’t get to be the richest man in the world by being stupid!  IRS eventually caught up with Gates and settled for back taxes.  Another renegade company is Federal Express.   

This organization has successfully avoided mandated benefits for many years, although it is currently being challenged in courts.  Another ruse employers use to avoid payment of benefits, especially mandated benefits, is to make falsely advertised offers of good paying permanent jobs.  What is never advertised, or even mentioned in the interview, is that there is always a short “probationary period.”  In Wisconsin that period is 90 days.  Several unemployed that were referred to organizations such as these only lasted 89 days or less; therefore, when the individuals were laid off, they were ineligible for unemployment benefits.  This is not an exaggeration.  It happened to me three times.  The last employer had bemoaned publicly to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  reporter that “good employees are hard to find”;  he could have easily added,  “but they’re easy to get rid of.”  This same employer laid off the female boss that recruited me to this organization before her 90 day “probation” was up. 

One tragic 40+ associate, Ben Hurly, not his real name, was a 55 year old design  engineer of considerable  talent.  He applied for a menial  factory job in Oconomowoc, WI,  that advertised  permanent jobs..  He lasted exactly 89 days.  He was so demoralized by the lay off that he never looked for a job again.  “I’m afraid I must have dementia,” he confided to me,  “I have to watch myself.  My health is more important than the job.”  If employers were held to the same truth-in-advertising standards that everyone else is, many employers would be under indictment for fraud.

The most common type of benefit avoidance employment is now over 65 years old.  It really started during World War II and it was meant to fill, innocently enough, temporary positions created by service men and women in the armed forces.  Milwaukee’s Manpower Worldwide is now an international company and the largest private employer in the world.  It provides a very worth-while  short-term service.  But it has many competitors dealing with exclusively “temp-to-hire” positions, which are really “temp-to-fire” jobs.  There is virtually no hope for these individuals to ever receiving permanent jobs with benefits.  And for some of the largest firms, it’s the only way they hire.  Into such a bizarre and unsteady work environment Terry Ratzmann (his real name) entered.

One other way around the dilemma of paying out benefits is for employers to only hire employees

part time.  Part timers aren’t entitled to benefits.  Retailing is undoubtedly the largest segment of the American economy and it’s made up largely of part time help.  Most of this help is seasonal.  It’s the work environment I entered in the fall of 2000.  I needed supplemental income to fund my volunteer jobs at 40+ and the Forum.  I developed a rapport with the Human Resources Department in the department store where I worked and offered to recruit for it on my own among my unemployed associates.  I never sought nor received any remuneration for these efforts and I never over-promised to my unemployed friends the modest pay they would receive, nor the benefits -- one mainly -- discounts on merchandise, and, if you work, you get paid. Maybe you’ll even get hours. My reputation for gathering recruits was such that the head of the HR Department said to me:  “Anyone you send me I’ll hire.”  The head of the department store reiterated the same statement.  Therefore, when I recruited I’d tell  the applicants to say: “Ron Mulvaney sent me.”

One Christmas season recruiting drive netted a Charter Baine (not his real name).  He was an electrical engineer and rejected by many companies with “you’re over qualified.”  He was having financial and marital problems.  Notoriously, unemployment and marriage don‘t  mix well.  It’s really a simple equation: no money, no marriage.  And Charter was in the middle of a separation or divorce.  I don’t remember which.  I recommended that he apply at my department store for a seasonal position to help him through the holidays, and I coached him how to dress for the interview,  smile graciously and state honestly that he was looking for part-time work just to get through the holidays because he was looking for full time work in his field.  But not to worry, a job was his.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t. 

When I checked to see what went wrong, I learned that the HR manager hadn’t interviewed him  -- one of his assistants did.  During the Christmas season (August  through January) she averaged 150 interviews a month and with 500+ interviews completed already, she couldn’t remember him. 

But she clued me in as to what might have gone wrong in Charter’s interview:  he never smiled.  She said that if an applicant hadn’t smiled at least once during an interview he or she wouldn’t be hired: “We can’t afford to hire someone who frowns at customers.”  And I must admit that during the months that I knew Charter, despite my coaching,  he never smiled.  He was depressed.  Depression is like body oder.  Everybody knows you have it but you.  People don’t want to be near you, or hire you.  Too bad.  One smile might have saved a life.  His own.  One week later Charter took his life.  One 40+ associate who knew Charter well tried to console me with: “Look, Ron, the department store job wasn’t the only thing bothering him.”  I knew that.  It was just the last thing.

Terry Ratzmann on the other hand smiled a lot.  There are pictures to prove that.  In the book Martyrdom in Milwaukee, Thomas M. Geiger published some of those photos.  In fact, Ratzmann was somewhat of a clown causing other people to smile and laugh.  He was mild, easy-going, friendly, helpful and generous -- giving away money anonymously, “when he had money.”  In one case that Geiger documents Ratzmann was even heroic -- saving someone’s life at the risk of his own.  Geiger wrestles hard to account for Ratzmann’s later behavior.  He wrestles hard with the doctrine of the Living Church of God and even a sermon delivered by one of its preachers for clues, as the media were suggesting blame might be found.  He found none.  He turns elsewhere.

“He [Ratzmann] struggled for some time after that [losing his job at Quest Technologies] looking for something ‘secure.’  He ultimately found work on a ‘contract’ basis with GE Medical Systems in Pewaukee. Terry [Ratzmann] received reasonable compensation from the firm and was highly thought of there as well. The only real negative factor for Terry was that he worked, as a sub-contractor and as a consequence there was no long-term commitment from the company or any benefits to speak of.  This insecurity seemed to be a source of considerable distress to Terry.  It appeared that Terry’s position would again be terminated late in March 2005, which almost certainly distressed him”  (italics added), page 67.

His termination never took place.   On March 12, 2005, as I was at work, less than two miles away, Terry Ratzmann  marched in on a Sabbath service of the Living Church of God held at the Sheraton Hotel in Brookfield and opened fire on his congregation, ultimately killing seven people and himself.   Many ask why this awful carnage happened. 

Geiger writes “I realize that there can be no satisfactory, physical human answer or answers for this atrocity.  The human desire is to put a handle on the situation by placing the blame on the church or someone in the congregation.  Some might say: ‘That was an oddball, kooky church; they have unusual or odd beliefs, and that’s why it happened!’ Or, ‘They had a minister that pushed the guy over the edge; that’s why it happened!’ Or, ‘That Ratzmann guy was a kook, because that kooky church made him that way!’....There are some who would clinically analyze Terry’s action from a distance and in retrospect and claim that he was bipolar, subject to manic depression, or schizophrenic.  He was not diagnosed with any of these disorders at any time in the past, and as is explained in this book, no one that knew him recognized any serious psychological disorder in the man....There is no way you can humanly explain how a man, who knew, loved, served, and broke bread with a congregation of loving Christians for more than 20 years, could walk in behind them, while in the middle of a worship service, and categorically murder men, women and children” (pages 72-73).

Modern ears balk at Geiger’s final explanation for the carnage: “It appears that Terry reached a depression so low, an anger so intense, that a door opened to his heart and mind, then evil entered in.  Evil incarnate...Satan the devil or one of his chief minions, literally took him over” (page 75).    Whatever we name the Evil, it should be evident that it exists in the two prior incidents mentioned.  But since we only hear of sensational incidents like Terry Ratzmann’s, there are thousands of unpublished suicides like Charter Baine’s and millions of egos destroyed like Ben Hurly’s.  We know this Evil’s name:  Employment-at-will.  Its carnage must stop.  Delenda est quaestus ad voluntatem.

To contact me: