Making rich people richer

All my adult life, I've worked steadily, with brief stints of unemployment but only between jobs. In my younger years I didn't much mind giving an employer five days from every seven, but my standards have gone up in my older years. Now I want work that somehow makes the world a better place, doesn't just make rich people richer.

My new job meets that criterion … kinda. I'm answering the ride-booking line at Vector, a contractor that provides bus service for the disabled in the Seattle area. What we're doing is vitally important for people who'd have no other way to get around. We're making their lives better, and that feels good.

But Vector is a company, not a charity. Making rich people richer is still the priority.

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How it works is: Each day's disabled rides are set up like an ordinary bus route, with a long series of stops to pick up and drop off riders. Unlike a city bus, our routes change every day, customized for each disabled passenger's pickup and dropoff times, which must be booked by the day before. Pickups and dropoffs are arranged linearly and sequentially, so day's bus routes can be run efficiently. Getting to your destination is rarely a direct ride; along the way the bus will stop to pick up and drop off other riders.

To get a ride, you call up to a week in advance, and have a brief conversation with me, or one of our other ride-bookers. We ask eleven questions. You tell us where you're going. You ask for the pickup or dropoff times you need. Sometimes you get the times you request, but more often you don't, and we offer a time that's 'close' to what you wanted.

That's the system. It ain't fancy, ain't fast, has built-in frustrations, but it gets folks where they need to be.

Whenever there's a conflict, though, between the ride you want and the ride you get, Vector goes for efficiency — a/k/a profits — and the ride you want isn't the ride you get.

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Here's a very common scenario: You call, tell me where you're going, and ask for a pickup time of 9:00 AM tomorrow.

When I input your request, the company's software shows me three possible pickup times on the day's bus routes under construction. The times might be: 9:30, 8:40, and 9:05 — listed in that order, sorted by what's most efficient for the company.

9:05 is the closest available time to what you requested, but we're required to offer pickup times in the order listed — efficiency order, removing the rider's request from consideration.

The only way you can get that 9:05 pickup time is by navigating the following conversation:

"I need a pickup at 9AM tomorrow."

"We can offer a pickup at 9:30."

"Oh, that's too late. Don't you have anything earlier?"

"Well, we can offer a pickup at 8:40."

"Oh, that's too early. Don't you have anything later?" 

"Well, I see there's also a 9:05 pickup time available."

"I'll take the 9:05 pickup please."

Most callers don't do that, though. They don't know they can. They simply sigh, and take one of the less convenient times, which are more efficient and profitable for the company than the 9:05 booking. We've stolen only a few minutes of someone's life, but it's company policy, enforced over and over on each of our thousands of riders every day. 

Well, screw that. When I see that list of three possible pickup times, I simply offer the time that's closest to what you asked for, 9:05. The computer keeps track of everything, though, so under the heading "negotiated times," my numbers are lousy.

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Another distressingly common but more complicated scenario: Due to the variables of dealing with each passenger's disabilities, plus the time it takes to load and unload wheelchairs all along the route, it's impossible for us to promise both a time we'll pick you up and a time you'll get to your destination. Each rider can request an approximate pickup time, or an arrival time, but never both.

If you're going shopping, you probably don't care what time you get to the store, so it's the promised pickup time that matters.

But if you're going to a doctor's appointment, arrival time is crucial.

For the company, though, scheduling an arrival time is a third of a penny more expensive than scheduling a pickup time. So in the call center, booking rides, we're instructed to never ask, "What time is your appointment?" Instead, the script goes like this:

"I need a ride to the doctor's office tomorrow."

"What time would you like to be picked up?"

If the caller doesn't specifically say "I need to be there by such-and-such time," we'll book your ride with a promised pickup time, not a promised arrival time.

This puts the onus on the caller, to try to guess how long a ride will take, which depends on factors the rider can't possibly know (and heck, even I don't know) like how many other stops tomorrow's bus will make along the way. A ten-mile trip could take half an hour, could take an hour, could take an hour and a half. It varies day to day and ride to ride, so if you're given a pickup time, you simply do not know your arrival time.

When we ask, "What time would you like to be picked up?" savvy riders answer, "I need to be at the doctor's office by 10:00," and we set a firm arrival time. Riders not-so-savvy are given a pickup time instead. Vector saves half a penny, but the rider will likely be late for their appointment.

Well, screw that. When you tell me it's a doctor's appointment, or you're going to church or a movie or a ball game — anything with an obvious start time — I'll ask what time you need to be there. This means I'm very lowly ranked, in the company's statistics for 'pickup/dropoff'. 

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Another common scenario: When riders say they need to be picked up after work, at 5:00, clearly they won't be ready at 4:55 — they'll still be working. What they need is the earliest available pickup after 5:00.

The software has two input fields: 'requested pickup time', and 'no earlier than', so I'll put '5:00' into both fields. But again, this restricts the variables and renders a ride fractionally less cost-effective, so it's against the rules. We're supposed to leave 'no earlier than' blank unless the caller specifically says, "No earlier than," which few callers ever say.

With that field empty, the software might offer pickup times of 4:50, 5:40, and 4:40 — again, sorted by what's efficient and profitable for the company, and again, that's the order in which the times must be offered. 

"Can I get a pickup when I'm off work, at 5:00?"

"We can offer a pickup at 4:50."

"Well, I'll still be working. Do you have anything later?"

"We can offer a 5:40 pickup time." 

"Wow, that's a long wait, but… OK."

Well, screw that. If you tell me you get off work at 5:00, I'll input 'no earlier than 5:00'. The times offered by the software will be better for the caller, perhaps 5:10, 5:35, 5:15. The caller gets a more convenient pickup time, gets home from work earlier.

It's slightly less efficient, less profitable for Vector, though. So it's naughty. Twice I've had calls interrupted, once by a 'lead', and once by The Boss pointing at my screen and asking why 'no earlier than' wasn't blank. My stats in this and other categories will stink, and I'll be deemed a 'less valuable' worker. Worse performance review, smaller raise, or maybe I'll get fired.

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As I become acclimated to working at the call center, I'm seeing more and more instances like the examples above. Over and over all day every day, riders wait fifteen minutes, half an hour, 45 minutes longer than necessary, because it's more 'efficient' for Vector. It saves the company .07¢, which adds up to $70,000 over the course of a million rides.

Vector isn't as bad as Boeing or Amazon, but the bottom line is always the bottom line. This is capitalism in America. Cutting costs and reducing quality is company policy at any company, but at Vector, I'm the guy cutting costs and reducing quality.

So here's work I could've liked, and I do. It's still a great feeling to help disabled folks get where they need to be, and also when they need to be. I wanted work that helps people, and this job does that, but I'm breaking rules every time the phone rings, so my days are numbered and it's not a big number.

I'd like to stay long enough to get a few months of rent in the bank, because money trumps principles for me, too. Along the way, perhaps my conscience will quiet down, I'll stop breaking the rules and start booking rides with corners and costs cut, like employees are expected to do. 

Despite the frustrations, working at Vector is substantially less less awful than an ordinary office job. Maybe it's the best job I could hope to find in America. It's just that, same as every job ever, it's about making rich people richer more than helping people, and jeez that sucks.


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  1. Doug, one of my heroes, the late sportswriter Dan Jenkins, said, "There ain't nothing in the world that's dead solid perfect." You can help a lot of people and improve the quality of their lives by sticking with this job. I hope you stay and do everything you can to help these people with mobility and gaining access to the medical care they need. It's not perfect, but it comes closer than most jobs I'm familiar with. Your customers need you in that chair and on that phone. You have the head and heart to make a difference. Keep at it.

    Thanks for making that difference.


    1. Internally and externally I'm doubting it at the moment, but we'll see. Thanks, mon.


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