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rockwell-tiny-timIt’s early Sunday evening and already I’m feeling the creeping dread that grows as the night wanes—Frank must return to Silicon Valley in the morning, and a Grind that is no longer satisfied  with hard work. It must have blood, bone and breath.

Any woman who married and had her children after 40 is no stranger to corporate life and may even be a seasoned veteran of the hallowed halls of Big Money. I did my stint in the 1980s and 90s in public relations. (It’s a road I know I could never walk again.)

But we are not simple SAHMs, ignorant of how the game is played. If Frank needs to do a little overtime, walk the extra mile to please his superiors, or yank his forelock until he gets a migraine, I don’t need an Idiot’s Guide To Being a Technology Wife to understand why. And, in an economy and job market such as this, those who work must be grateful for the employment and the paycheck—most of them, anyway.

But the joy of a wage-earning buck must stop short of leaving the office feet first in a pine box.

One of my earliest blogs—Karoshi, American Style—was about Frank’s plight, working for a top Bay Area technology company, one that is virtually a household name. It is a corporation that is known to set the standard for the rest of the industry.

Let’s call it Silicon Sweat Shop Inc.

And this is not the first time a Silicon Valley company has been caught (http://www NULL.boston NULL.com/jobs/news/articles/2006/05/07/frustration_against_video_game_firm_grows_into_crusade_against_overwork/) red-handed drawing blood from their employees through overwork and were successfully taken to court for unpaid overtime. You’d think even the respected dinosaurs of the industry ought to take heed.

All corporations have personalities and this one is known for its frugality; they take pride in it. But what happens when you combine extreme parsimony with a national economy so strangled that it has resulted in the renaissance of the Soup Kitchen, and a boss that Scrooge himself would claim for a brother?

Karoshi. (http://connect NULL.in NULL.com/karoshi/article-worked-to-death-when-going-to-work-kills-79cabf45b69088acbdfc05fcd9fddf2af7d633a1 NULL.html) The term coined by the Japanese for being worked to death.

It became such an epidemic for the Japanese workforce that it resulted in lawsuits being brought against companies by bereaved families.

Could Silicon Valley be the new Death Valley?

Frank is no longer the man I married; not because he’s had a personality transplant. It is because he is being worked to death. Charles Dickens—who  fought with the power of the pen against the societal injustice that supports employers like Scrooge, debtor’s prison, and workhouses straight out of Oliver Twist—would be rolling over in his grave in despairing slumber to think that not much has improved since the 19th century.

After working, pillar to post, 80 to 90-plus hour weeks, Frank’s boss sat down at his annual review last year and gave him an average grade—which meant future promotion would be difficult—and the cold comfort of knowing he would NOT be burdened with an annual salary increase.

It’s difficult to convince a person in Frank’s shoes that the laws of natural justice, common decency, or karma will ultimately prevail.

The Brother of Scrooge loads Frank with the management of twice as many employees, customers, and projects as any of his peers. His answer to Frank’s hours of overwork? Of course! He’s not delegating enough responsibility to his already overloaded team! He’s not managing…..

At five o’clock in the morning, the Brother of Scrooge will send an email with a laundry list of micro-managing pedantry that implies: “…and why aren’t you handling all of this personally?”

Frank is up at 4.30am each morning answering email. He’s double booked for conference calls; usually handling two at once. He eats at his desk and the pounds are piling on. He arrives home in the darkness after the children are asleep. He mumbles incoherently, running his hands through hair that is often looks like it’s not been combed for days, and falls into bed to snore the sleep of the dead.

By Friday, my normally gentle and good natured husband is snarling like a rabid dog. I know it may be as late as Sunday morning before Frank emerges from the chrysalis of exhaustion within.

I often tell Frank that he is not alone in his plight. The whole family is in the harness to work for the Brother of Scrooge and Silicon Sweat Shop Inc.—it is I who must take Frank’s place in the evenings to dandle the children or tuck them in.

Two Fridays ago, we decided to stay in San Jose to be near Sharks Ice for Alex’s hockey classes on Saturday. It was meant to be a fun family adventure.

Late that evening, as we were tucked up in our comfy budget motel room, ready to watch a movie with the children and enjoy a medicinal glass of wine after an arduously long and painful week, Frank’s cell phone rang.

It was the Brother of Scrooge. From approximately 9.00pm to sometime around midnight that night, Frank was required to be on a new business conference call while the children lay bewildered in their beds, crying and unable to sleep.

It was like being date raped by your husband’s boss and Silicon Sweat Shop Inc., while your children looked on.

I realized then: I was married to a modern day Bob Cratchit and, just like last Christmas, we would be waiting up late for Frank to join us Christmas Eve and stuff our lips in our mouths while he remained “on call” over the holidays at the beck and call of Silicon Sweat Shop Inc., while his superiors dined, unfettered and at liberty, in the bosoms of their families.

(But, unlike original Bob Cratchit, what  we would most certainly not be doing was drinking a toast to the Brother of Scrooge.)

I did not think things could possibly grow darker after that night, until one day last week Frank came to and said: “I’m going to give you copies of my time sheets.”

Bemused, I asked why.

“Because if I die,” he said grimly with gritted teeth and a gravity I had not witnessed in the nearly ten years I had known him, “you are going to need them.”

One Response to Karoshi, American Style, Part II. A Bob Cratchit Christmas.

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