Overworked and Constantly Shouted At – My J1 Working Experience

In Ireland it is common for people to go abroad towards the end of college to somewhere warm and work for the summer. J1 visas are easy to get and it’s a great experience. You get a job for the summer, go drinking and do a bit of travelling. I was no different and this summer I sent 3 months in America with a group of my Irish friends. There were seven of us in a 2 bed apartment house, which was a smaller group than most Irish; it was more common to have 10-15 people in a house. It was a fantastic experience and I don’t regret it a bit, but this post is not about my J1, but rather one part of it, my job.

I was lucky enough to quickly get a job in a bike rental shop (I won’t give specific details). We were working ten hours a day for $10.55 an hour.  We were on our feet the entire day and would come home exhausted every night. The managers treated staff horrendously, when we first started we would be run into the ground and constantly criticised. Hardly a day went past without the managers threatening to fire people. The turnover was enormous with roughly half the new hires being gone after a month from either burnout or being fired over something petty. One guy handed out leaflets to set up a union and was fired that week. Although the supervisors and managers were American, the firm operated a discriminatory “Irish-only” hiring policy and only hired others when there were no more Irish to hire. This ethnic divide was common in America as a restaurant where some of my friends worked had only Irish waiters, Mexican kitchen staff and Black guys transferring the food between the two. Work also had a gender divide with only men dealing with bikes and only women dealing with the paperwork.

The company was unbelievably bureaucratic. The hardest job for the new comers was learning all the petty rules. Staff could not touch the helmets of returning customers; the customers themselves had to put these into a bucket. If we so much as a laid a finger on them, no matter how quiet or devoid of customers the shop may be or how helpful we were being, the manager would literally roar at us. All customers would be strongly encouraged to tie their bags to the rack at the back of the bicycle. Most customers didn’t want to do this and there was little difference, but unless we did the managers would criticise us in front of the customers. Another rule was that the girls at the desk would give information to customers. One day I made the innocent mistake of answering a customer’s question and gave them directions, which caused the boss to swoop down and not only publically criticise me but also threaten to fire me (most new staff got threatened with dismissal on average once a day for the first two weeks).

What was striking about this massively profitable business was how incompetent it could be. I clearly remember how on my first day I was put washing the van, which was fine, until I was told that we had to dry it with newspaper, compete negating any effect washing had. It was at that moment that I wondered that perhaps everything I had been told about the efficiency of the private sector wasn’t true. The treatment of staff was terrible and bad for business. The boss himself would personally criticise you for the pettiest of things which only made you feel bad and work worse. Every day people would dread working in the main location and miserable workers do a miserable job. Treatment was so bad that huge numbers simply quit, a problem that management only made worse by firing people for petty reasons or being incredibly inflexible with schedules (long term staff were forced to quit because they couldn’t time off for weddings and a driving test).

The private sector is often held up as a model of innovation, but I was surprised how rigid this business was. We were explicitly told on our first day that the business didn’t want new ideas or innovation but simply to do the job exactly the way they wanted it. All sales staff has an exact script they had to learn off and were forbidden to deviate from. We were trained to be cogs in a machine with our every movement exactly planned. I saw many good workers fired because although they did their job well, they didn’t do it the boss’ way. Asking for time off was like asking for the shirt off the managers’ back, you had your hours and you had to work them. If you missed a day due to sickness you had to make it up the next week.

While we were at work, the business owned us. They told us what to do, how to do it and when to do it. They told us what time to arrive in the morning and what time to leave. They decided when we could have a break and it was when it suited them not us (if it was busy you wouldn’t get your break until you were starving and exhausted). They told us what days we would work and changed the schedule every week making it impossible to plan your free time. If that didn’t suit you, well tough. Get out and compete with the other scores of Irish wandering the streets looking for work. Probably the biggest grievance we had was about overtime. The problem was we had absolutely no say in the matter. We weren’t asked whether we wanted to work more than 10 hours a day, instead we stayed until we were told we could go home. It was common for staff to do 12 hour days. We got time and half but no one thought it was worth it and we tried to escape as soon as we could at the end of the day.

National security and fear of the government spying on individuals is a big concern in America at the moment, but we had to deal with the bigger worry that the boss was always watching us on camera. We never had any rest for even when the boss was not around or at a different location (the company was very large and had several locations around the city), we would still have to watch out for the cameras. People spoke of them as though they were the all-seeing eye of Sauron. Don’t let the camera see you pause, catch your breath or in any way look like you are not busting yourself (even if there are no customers). Just how petty this surveillance was, was revealed to me when one day the boss pulled me over and showed a video of that morning when we were opening shop. On the video I could be seen placing the sign outside the shop. The boss informed me in a grave tone that I had done it wrong and never to do it again. Let me be clear, I had not stolen anything, damaged anything or in any way harmed anything. I had merely misplaced the sign by a few inches.

There is a strange belief among most ordinary people that the public sector is a place of idleness and sloth while the private sector is full of hard work and efficiency. Anyone who has worked in the private sector knows how false this. By our nature, mornings would be busy (as customers rented bikes) and evenings would be busy (as customers retuned bikes). However this meant that there was little to do in the afternoon. We would be literally left standing around in a vague attempt to look busy. Most days there would be whole hours when five workers would do the job of one, because there was nothing else to do. This inefficiency was unavoidable as this extra staff had to be kept on during quiet times in order to ensure they were there for the busy times.

The company was in effect an assembly line and the customers were herded like cattle through. Once they signed up our job was to give the bike and get them out as fast as possible. We would regularly have managers shouting in our ear to hurry up and were expected to sprint to customers. Under this pressure we were fast to the point of being rude, a point we acknowledged but couldn’t help. We had to get rid of the customers as fast as possible and a customer asking a question was one who was slowing you down. As a result most questions were answered with “It’s meant to be that way” or some other reassurance to get them out the door. We could see the annoyance on the face of many customers who resented being rushed so much on their holiday and occasionally one would explode into a rant.

One of the striking things about the job was the horrendous abuse of power. I remember on my first day talking to a friendly guy from Cavan, but instead of working in the shop like the rest of us as he was promised, the boss sent him to clean his house for two days. He didn’t even have the decency to fire the guy, but instead never called him back. I was shocked one day when I was told to clean the boss’ Prius and hover it out. In a handy bit of nepotism one of the boss’ relatives was also a manager.

Most of my friends were shocked at my job and thankful they weren’t working there, though we all had tiring minimum wage jobs. One of my friends rented a bike from us once and was shocked at the sheer exhaustion and misery he saw in the face of the staff. He was also horrified at the practice of the managers to take the days tips and spend it all on beer which was for everyone who closed up. This was only a handful compared to the number of people who worked there (I for one never worked the last shift) and if you didn’t want to drink, well tough. My friends were all shocked at this practice, but after working there so long, it seemed normal and unobjectionable.

There were other bike rental companies in the city, but that didn’t mean there was competition. Ours was by far the largest and two others were owned by our boss. A third was jointly owned between our boss and a fourth bike company, out of an industry that had about five or six companies. Did someone say oligopoly?

During my three months working at the job, I was completely sober every single day. That I needed to say that should give you an idea how bad things were. From the beginning, coming in after a night of drinking was laughed off and hangovers were shrugged at. From there is only got worse. What was worst was that the managers were some of the worst and everyone followed their example. There was one manager who was drunk all the time, which more or less gave permission to everyone who worked under him to come in drunk or even start drinking. Smoking weed before work or while on your break was very common among the American staff; while drinking on the job was the choice of the Irish (we don’t always give ourselves the best name). It was common for people to take toilet breaks to vomit after a night out. Several managers were known to use cocaine and this encouraged some of the Irish to pick up the habit. Working for a boss on cocaine is the hardest job in the world as nothing is done fast enough for him. Most of the staff wore sunglasses all day, not so much for the sun, but so people couldn’t tell how sober they were by looking at their eyes.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I loved the experience and would do it again. I made a lot of friends and work had a great community spirit. The work was hard and we all hated the boss, but no one was going to listen to us moan, so we had to get on with it. The first month was admittedly awful, but the striking thing about humans is our ability to adapt. After a month I got used to the job, learned how to avoid the petty rules that annoyed the boss. Most importantly I got moved to a different location where we had a supervisor who looked out for us and didn’t bother with nonsense rules.


Filed under Economics

23 responses to “Overworked and Constantly Shouted At – My J1 Working Experience

  1. McNamara

    Welcome to the “new” America, complete with an income divide greater than the one which preceded the 1929 “Great Depression” Today’s America, is divided by manipulated cable messages that continually blame “the other” while its truly a case of the worker being thrown under the bus by a Walmart “greed is great” workers deserve nothing, mentality.Most Americans can’t even see whats truly happening because they are so submerged in a corporate media controlled by Rupert Murdoch, and manipulated by the billionaire Koch Brothers. American politics have been bought by and are for the corporation, and the American worker has become a very disposable commodity which has no voice because the conservatives (GOP) have persuaded the electorate that having union representation is not really American. Soon American kids, now accumulating massive college debt ($50-$60 thousand yearly) will be looking abroad for summer work opportunities.

  2. I am sorry to hear about your experience. It really has less to do with whether the business is public or private, and more with whether your boss is an asshole or not.

  3. The description you give of the work place and work hours describe such a bad working environment. I would go crazy working there for just two days

  4. arijitbanik

    Sadly, you were part of the reserve army of labour and more open to exploitation than others (such is the growing precariousness of work for many).
    Through the clarity of history, Marx got a fair bit wrong in terms of his forecasts but some things ring true to this day, be it in the North or South, in the developed or developing world:
    “The law which always holds the relative surplus population in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition, corresponding to the accumulation of wealth. Accumulation at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 799.)
    Hope the J1 workers ended up in better places in Canada. Management, as it is espoused in HBR, is usually very different in practice.

  5. And here I thought this kind of treatment only happened to those who work the sweat shops in east Asia.

  6. Even in this sector, (seasonal, temporary, service in which the customer is almost always one-off), such management practices are unusual. You guys were easy targets because of your status, and the conditions were tolerable because you knew you were there for a predetermined period. Only a small portion of employers are publicly held (even in the US), but, this kind of management, though unusual, happens everywhere. Your experience is not representative of most professional or business work environments. In 48 years, I’ve never experienced management this primitive and juvenile, and I’ve worked (as a student) in some low-wage, service jobs.

    What does your experience tell you about the labor market the classical and neoclassical doctrine that unemployment is merely market “friction” and, there is an equilibrium wage at which full employment is always achievable? Consider the lot of a theme park worker or bus boy or migrant farm worker/field hand… well, you get the picture. You could have left, as could many others, but you didn’t and they didn’t. Why not? Given their dismal practices, how could they find workers, much less keep them? Did you know about the conditions when you started? Consider the guy from Cavan lucky; his fun lasted only two days.

    As the authors of The Economics Textbook” and another book, “The Assumptions Economists Make” (Jonathan Schlefer – I recommend it), point out, most of what we’re taught in typical undergrad econ courses is hogwash at worst, convenient narrative at best that is not supported by empirical evidence.

    Glad you survived and returned in tact, although your ego may have been bruised a bit…:)

  7. I suspect that this situation was unusual, but I can’t prove it. Often it is the case where people who have felt powerless their whole lives … open a business. All of a sudden they have autocratic powers (hire and fire at whim, establish work rules that are bizarre, doesn’t matter, all is okay because the owner is operating the business). For the longest time, the IRS acknowledged this by pointing out that losses from bad business decisions were deductable. They claimed you only had to be in business, you didn’t have to be good at it. (Later they relented and told us we had to make a profit in three out of five years (I think).)

    I apologize that your American work experience was so poor. If you had been in Chicago, I would have hired you in a heartbeat … and treated you better as well, as I expect the vast majority of small business would have done.

    By the by, there is no magic about “free enterprise.” We are “free” to do it well or poorly. The freedom doesn’t impart anything toward success, just that we are free to suceed or fail as the conditions and our abilities allow. Some complete assholes become very rich in the country (you may have noticed) and some very nice people struggle forever. The “power” of the free market doesn’t extend to their individual success, it is more like evolution, where the individual is devalued for the good of the species. Basically this is the philosophy of people who play the lottery: somebody has to win, why not me? Not a very effect strategy for personal success, but the sponsors of the lottery make sure you know who won … every damned time. Probably Republicans.

  8. “I don’t want to give the wrong impression; I loved the experience and would do it again.”
    I’m trying hard to believe you. 😉

  9. GM

    Perhaps you shouldn’t have told the whole world of the fantastic business opportunity available in the bike rental business. At least you didn’t give away all the details, so the opportunity remains for you to set up a far more profitable business which will also be highly competent and treat its staff wonderfully, enjoying a multitude of benefits therefrom!

    • That’s your answer? If you don’t like it set up your own company? Yeah sure because that’s going to happen

      • GM


        I do feel a bit of sympathy for left-wingers sometimes. I wouldn’t put you in this category yet (you still have plenty of time to change course), but I think many of them suffer from a feeling of helplessness in the sense that they really, really want to help the world, but they don’t have the ability or motivation to take the actions which might tangibly help people (such as building superior institutions to those which already exist).

        Wanting to help, but lacking the ability or motivation to actually do so, they instead spend their time telling everyone that they want the government to fix society. This doesn’t achieve much but it does enable them to appear altruistic to others.

  10. I find it unfortunate you have avoided naming the employer. Most low-waged workers know well that such conditions are commonplace – if not indeed the rule – and one of the reasons is that workers are cowed into silence by the threat of unemployment or more serious bullying. This blog entry may make people feel bad, but it will have no effect beyond spreading hopelessness – unless you’re willing to name names and to make a genuine attempt to make the business in question suffer.

    • What can I do about it? I’ve exposed myself enough by having my real name on the blog, naming the business would be too far.

      • Maya Libretti

        I disagree. By refusing to name them you give them a pass. As a potential customer I DEFINITELY want to know if a company is abusing its staff. Abuse is all about silencing, and your silence shows that their terrorism was, and continues to be, successful. They still own you if you’re afraid to give more clues. As for your name, it’s fairly common, I would not worry about it. What’s the worst that could happen anyway? They could get hepped up and try to sue or gag you, but what would likely really happen after that is that a bunch more people would start speaking up… I don’t see the value of condoning their behaviour by keeping their “little secret.”

  11. Yep, businesses can compensate for gross inefficiency by paying workers much less and hence still making a profit. Also, I agree that you should just name the business, Robert. What are they going to do to you? Treat you like shit? Oh, wait…

    Anyway, this guy ‘GM’ is a great example of the Dunning-Krueger effect. Just smart enough to think he’s better than everyone else, too stupid to see otherwise. As if you trying to start a bike business (good luck getting a loan from a bank for that) is going to alleviate systemic mistreatment of workers. You wouldn’t even be able to compete with the business you’re talking about since you live in Ireland. Maybe you should move just to do that! But then what will you be able to do about the problems in Ireland you frequently discuss? You helpless, feeble left winger – it’s almost as if your individual actions cannot alleviate the systemic problems you write about. Oh well, at least some smug douche feels sorry for you.

  12. Nina Limbeck

    Hello! I am a volunteer as a Mexican/U.S.-based nonprofit that works with Migrant communities. We’ve recently created a site where people who have traveled on J1 visas (and other visas) can post about their employers and recruiters. It works like Yelp, if you are familiar with it. 

    It is meant to help people looking to travel to the U.S. on J1 visas find good employers and recruiters. Would you be willing to chat with me, or post about your experience (You can post directly on the website)? I am also looking to connect with other people who have traveled on the J1 visa. Do you know other folks who might be willing to post about their J1 experience?

    The website is called Contratados.org 


  13. Nina Limbeck

    J-1 au pairs in the United States receive a weekly wage of $195.75–well below many states’ minimum wage. Read about efforts to change this, and share your experience on Contratados.org!


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