[MetroActive Features]

[ Features Index | San Jose | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Judge Judy: Kennel attendant Judy Mendes has the thankless task of putting unwanted and unclaimed pets to death for the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter in San Martin.

Worker Incompensation

Metro goes spelunking to find the really tough jobs in Silicon Valley

Photographs by George Sakkestad

LIKE ANY OTHER entertainment show, Silicon Valley has its own soundtrack. Not pleasant and catchy like The Andy Griffith Show or Survivor, but more like the high-pitched drone of a dentist's drill.

It is the disharmonic noise of half a million people whining in unison about their jobs. Only pulling down 200 grand a year? Wah!--all stress, no life. Only three months vacation every summer and belong to one of the most powerful unions in the world? Teachers make lousy pay! Hour-plus commute in your own temperature controlled vehicle with sound system and coffee holder?--the world's hearts bleed for you!

Acting like spoiled children flinging gifts to the floor in a tantrum, we are convinced that our livelihood--often bountiful enough to support a Third World village--is the root of all our despair and misery.

If only this were so.

It's time to cancel the pity party and drop in on some of the people in this valley who really have cause for complaint (interestingly enough, they don't complain much. In fact, of those interviewed, most were upbeat about their livelihood and proud of their hard work.) Physically demanding, dangerous, stinky, humiliatsing, minimum wage, boring, ego-puncturing--these are jobs that put our cubicle dwelling, lunchroom grousing, crying-in-our-beer complaints in their pathetic little place.

Recently, a subsidiary of the Wall Street Journal published the Jobs Rated Almanac, 2001, a national listing of the best and worst ways to pick up a paycheck. Ranked by stress, salary and benefits, the guide concludes that the good jobs are things like financial planner, website manager and computer systems analyst, while lumberjacks, roustabouts, fishermen and cowboys hovered near the bottom. Although the Valley runs short on all four low-ranking occupations, it is well endowed with plenty of gigs that would make the average dotcommer blanch.

Herewith, in no particular order, are some of the toughest ways people in this valley bring home the bacon.


Most Heart-Wrenching

Pet Euthanizer
Animal Shelter

STANDING NEXT TO ROWS of caged feral cats in the quarantine room of the Santa Clara County Animal Shelter in San Martin, lead kennel attendant Judy Mendes is explaining how to put a kitten down. That's "put down" as in dead.

"What we'll do with a real wild kitten is we can throw a towel over them," she says matter-of-factly. "Then you can pick them up by the scruff of the neck and then you can inject them up in the ribs up in through here," she points to the top of her stomach to show where the needle goes. As she's speaking, a frightened orange and white feral kitten--which probably only has a few days before it gets one in the ribs--meows over and over, as if to say, "Not me!"

"You want to hit a major organ," Mendes concludes, "so they go down just like that."

Last year 2,667 stray or owner-surrendered cats and dogs spent time at the county animal shelter. Fewer than half made it out alive.

Mendes is the person at the shelter who decides which animals get to keep living and which don't.

She targets sick and ill-tempered animals if she can. But if the kennel starts overflowing, Mendes must order her crew to put down even the sweetest cat or dog if they're too old and have stayed too many months without being adopted. "That's the sad part of this job," she sighs.

Mendes makes it a rule not to give names to any of the dogs or cats in the kennel. She learned that lesson early on in her career when she fell in love with a big black cat and gave her a name (which she can't remember now).

"We didn't have a cage empty," she recalls. "We were bringing in outside cages, rabbit cages. We had to make a decision. ... She [the black cat] was here the longest and she was the oldest cat, so she had two strikes against her. No one wanted to adopt an old cat and where I was at the time, I couldn't take her."

"I've learned that you don't name them," she explains. "When you name them and then have to put them down, that's even worse."

It wasn't like Mendes--a self-described animal lover who has adopted two dogs from the shelter--grew up wanting to be an executioner for unwanted pets. As she describes it, she just "sort of fell into it."

Before she began her career in animal control, she spent 18 years working as a bookkeeper for her late husband's business. Then, around seven years ago, she started working part time for animal control, packing boxes for storage. The director took a shine to Mendes and asked her if she would work at the shelter with the cats. From there, her role steadily progressed until she was running the whole show at the shelter--including euthanizing the unlucky animals.

But Mendes says that despite what others may think, she can sleep well at night. The animals suffer no pain from the lethal injection, which acts instantly, she points out. "It's a very humane way of dying," she says.

Mendes and her staff also verbally console the dogs and cats when they are about to insert the needle. "We sound like fools," she chuckles. "We're sitting there saying, 'It's OK, baby, you're going to have a better life now. You're going to go run and play.' It calms them down."

She knows her job doesn't sound pleasant.

"In the beginning, I wouldn't even tell anybody what I did," she admits. "Now, I just explain to them that it's a fact of life. Unfortunately, some animals have to be put to sleep. You know, we all die."

To find out how to adopt or find a missing pet, call the folks at the Santa Clara Animal Shelter (408.683.4186), located at 12370 Murphy Ave. in San Martin.
Will Harper


Worst Flack-Catching Job

Spokesperson
Pacific Gas & Electric

MAYBE THERE ARE WORSE industries to defend. The company that manufactures and exports torture implements to Burma, for example. But they don't have 33 million pissed-off consumers with telephones.

In the face of rolling brownouts, utility bills that have tripled within a couple of months and brazenly apathetic service, users of gas and electricity throughout California would cheerfully wring the neck of whoever is responsible for their woes. But like any good monolithic conglomerate, it's impossible to track down just one person to blame. Or is it? Although San Diego Gas & Electric has their own whipping boy, we who are abused by PG&E have one of theirs to abuse right back--Scott Blakey!

In all fairness, his official title is "senior news representative," but we in the media know him as a jolly fellow who could spin the Challenger disaster into a NASA-sponsored carnival ride. Blakey is the one who gets to explain why home electric bills are edging into the four-figure realm and why the price of natural gas is expected to increase 50 percent this winter. He's the one we call for an explanation of why power grids are blinking like lights on a Christmas tree and why, oh why, PG&E got its hand slapped to the tune of 14 million smackers after thumbing its nose at the federal Clean Water Act a few years ago.

In a stunning display of "Blame the Victim" mentality, Blakey manages to always trace the problem back to us poor saps: the consumers. We foolishly want our air conditioning when we should be conserving energy by using the PG&E bill to fan ourselves; we demand heat when we could just as easily bundle up in a parka and mittens. We're ingrates, not appreciative of the millions of watts and volts that the utility giant has already graciously supplied us.

The good news: when they drop the Big One, Blakey will not need a bomb shelter--his hide is plenty thick enough. The bad news--when they drop the Big One, the only other living things expected to survive are cockroaches. Bummer, Scottie, but at least they don't ask annoying questions.
Kelly Luker


Gotta Crush on You: Hot Dog on a Stick employee Sabrina Medina mashes up to 10 vats of lemons a shift for the fast-food franchise's signature lemonade.


Most Humiliating Uniform

Counter Help
Hot Dog on a Stick

IS IT THE BRIGHTLY-COLORED outfits paired with English Bobby hats? Is it the upper-body workout provided by publicly churning hundreds of gallons of fresh-squeezed lemonade each day? More likely, it's the symbiosis of the two, making this fast-food palace one of the most cruelly mocked workplaces in the civilized world. If the bogeyman hides under the bed waiting to eat small children who misbehave, then The Stick lurks as an equally terrifying demon to older children who screw around and ditch school.

Although Taco Bell and Mickey D have realized the benefits of wooing potential employees by ditching ridiculous uniforms, the marketing geniuses behind HDOAS figure whatever worked 50 years ago will work today. Hence, Crayola-striped shorts and work shirts and a cap the size of a basketball.

Now, the good news about Hot Dog on a Stick. The kids that work there are smart, nice and well paid (for fast-food work). Jamie Ellis, now 18, has worked at the Westfield Shoppingtown/Valley Fair franchise for the last three years. She says that starting pay is pretty decent--around $7.00 or $8.00 an hour--with raises every three or four months. That may explain why one of Jamie's co-workers has been there two years, another six years.

While the roving packs of scrubs may give her a hard time, Jamie has learned to take it in stride.

"People make fun of our outfits," she admits. "Some are kind of rude."

The rude ones eventually move off to grunt and whistle elsewhere, but Jamie keeps serving up the impaled weenies and mooshing the lemons, earning enough to pay her way through West Valley Junior College and eventually afford a car. Another benefit--Jamie has extraordinarily firm arms from all that plunging.

The final and greatest benefit of a stint with The Stick: any kid who survives a year with the outfit--not to mention three or four--knows how to be an individual. It's pack mentality--terrified of others' opinions--that dis-
ses The Stick.

But really, Mr. HDOAS, it's time to lose the gooney uniforms.
Kelly Luker


Most Unsuitable for Dinner Table Discussion

Stool Samplers
Public Health Microbiologists

I KNOW THIS WILL probably sound to the average individual pretty distasteful," warns Santa Clara County public health lab director Patricia Dadone, "but it's not; it really isn't."

"The only way to diagnose rabies," she continues, "is to actually see the virus, and the virus resides in the neurons in the brain."

Dadone pauses for a moment. "The way we have to do that is, obviously, an autopsy."

More specifically, lab microbiologists here are sent the severed heads of animals--usually dogs and cats--suspected to have rabies, she explains. The lab techs chop into the skulls with a hammer and chisel to expose the brain. Using a scalpel, they take samples from the cortex, cerebellum and hippocampus and put them on slides to study under a microscope.

After the autopsy, Dadone says, the lab worker puts the skull back together. Some pet owners actually ask to have the head returned to them, she says.

Dadone herself is a self-described dog-lover. She wears a button with a drawing of a golden retriever on the lapel of her blue and white blouse. The 43-year-old San Jose State grad owns a young golden retriever named Clancy, whom she obviously adores. Dadone even leaves Clancy at doggie day care so she won't have to stay home alone.

"It may seem weird for a dog lover to be doing this kind of thing," she concedes, "but you do it because you love them and you don't want to see this happen."

Dadone would be seeing fewer decapitated animal heads coming to her lab if all pet owners regularly had their domesticated critters vaccinated. Using the specter of a headless Fido can be a useful way to educate the public about the need for vaccinating pets.

For Dadone and other public health microbiologists who deal with life's nasty little organisms every day, it's important to remember the big picture as to why they do what they do--keeping people from getting sick or spreading illness.

From a personal standpoint, Dadone says her interest in fighting disease began when she was young and saw many people in her family getting sick. "I wanted to know why you went to the doctor," Dadone says, "and how the doctor knew what to give you."

The county public health lab tests for communicable viruses like HIV, syphilis, rabies, Lyme disease and salmonella, the bacteria that causes food poisoning.

Testing for the latter requires a patient to supply a stool sample (or, to us simple folks, a piece of doody). Dadone insists this isn't nearly as gross for the lab folks as it might sound. The stool the lab gets "is no bigger than a small walnut," she says assuringly. Of that small walnut, the lab techs--who wear plastic gloves--only use a sliver.

She picks up a 4-inch-long test tube with an orange cap holding some liquefied brown sediment. This, she says, is a stool sample. It's watery because they've added a liquid preservative. At this point in the process, the lab "grows" the organism in the test tube to verify its salmonella or another usual suspect.

Dadone's lab handles only relatively mild "level 2" diseases--nothing as crazy as Ebola, a level 4 virus. In fact, Dadone and her staff don't even deal with tuberculosis testing here, which involves patients supplying a cup of phlegm or "sputum."

"We don't do anything that gross here," she says.

Dadone does have a word of advice for everyone: Wash your hands! Dirty hands are potential public health nightmares, she groans. "Washing your hands," Dadone lectures, "is the single most effective way of beating infection."

For those who thought salmonella could only be transmitted through contaminated food, think again. Dadone says the bacteria associated with food poisoning also gets spread when carriers don't wash their hands after taking a No. 2. It's called fecal-oral transmission.

Now, that's gross.
Will Harper



No Bull: Being pelted by prisoners with spit, urine and feces--it's all in a day's work for correctional officers like 13-year veteran Joe Gray.

Most Abused

Jail Guard
Santa Clara County Correctional Officers

IN CORRECTIONAL LINGO, it's called "gassing." It refers to when an inmate hurls a substance at a jail guard. Sometimes the substance is spit. Sometimes it's spit with blood in it. Occasionally it's a urine and feces cocktail.

The things that can motivate an inmate to gas a guard can be petty, says Bryan Peretti, a spokesman for the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections.

"They could be pissed off [at a guard] for placing someone on their tier they're upset at," says Peretti, "or for not getting the newspaper first--things that seem small to you and me, but are huge when your environment's controlled."

Just last month, an inmate in the maximum-security level of Main Jail South squirted "an unknown substance"--tests haven't identified what it was yet--at a guard making his rounds. The inmate, being held on murder charges, squirted the substance from a shampoo bottle through the bars in his cell.

Welcome to the life of a jail guard, where you get paid from $42,500 to $52,500 to mingle among the scum of the earth--and we don't mean venture capitalists. Oh, guards can't carry a weapon inside the jail. Their only "weapons": handcuffs, guts and a radio with an alarm ("that almost never works," snorts one guard).

"It's one of the toughest jobs in the valley," says Peretti, who began his career in corrections 10 years ago. "We spend days, weeks, even years with the worst of the worst. ... And with the three-strikers [facing 25 years], they have nothing to lose."

A veteran guard at the Elmwood Jail in Milpitas marvels, "It's a miracle no [correctional] officer has been killed yet."

So why do it?

For one reason, observes Rick Kitson, the department's former public information officer, applicants don't need a college degree to be a jail guard. They only need a high school diploma or equivalent and for high school grads the salary--modest by Silicon Valley standards--can be attractive. Kitson adds that even though the base salary hovers around $50,000, many guards have cleared $100,000 in a year because of overtime.

Still, does the promise of even 100 Gs make being a correctional officer a worthwhile career choice?

Apparently, fewer people are being enticed nowadays. Richard Abbate, president of the Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers' Association, says there are more than 100 position vacancies right now. He estimates that 50 guards have quit this year to take jobs with other law enforcement agencies or even dotcoms. "They're tired of how they're being treated at work," says Abbate. "The work conditions are horrible."
Will Harper


Most Thankless

Janitor
High-Tech Industry

AT FIRST BLUSH, it might look like janitors have got it made: they get to hang out in the coffee room, take frequent trips to the bathroom, chat at length in the hallways, and wherever they land for the long haul everybody knows their name. What's more, the boss gives them an endless supply of T-shirts and they never run out of toilet paper--a dream seemingly made in heaven for overworked engineers.

But where else in this progressive valley of soaring salaries, plush benefits, company-sponsored health clubs and logo-cultivated social consciousness can a worker anticipate a quarterly raise of just that--a quarter? Why, just join the janitor's union; it's simple.

For a solid $8.74 an hour, senior janitors with decades of toilet-swiping under their belts struggle with the computer industry's caffeine habits, ensuring there is a ready supply of freshly brewed java at the end of the corridor, and on the other end of the spectrum, toilet paper.

With a dozen or so bathrooms to clean at Sun Microsystems, Maria Teresa Carrillo, a union worker, feels lucky. "This is my job, you know," she says in a thick Spanish accent. "The Sun people are important to me; everyone knows who Maria Teresa is." Carrillo's amiable character and outlook may have made her Queen of the Roll, but as a janitor, she can't make ends meet without juggling additional jobs. In the past, she's put labels on peanut butter bottles, patched together TV Guides and now cleans houses on the weekends.

Looking after other people's basic needs may not appear grueling, but working long hours for little pay and cleaning the equivalent of several family homes in any given day is something we wouldn't even wish on a mother-in-law.

Silicon Valley's success is visible to the world, but the janitors who clean its offices are not. Despite the existence of dozens of billion-dollar companies with reputations for treating employees well, janitors are scraping by. Maria Teresa is lucky. Lucky that her attitude is so positive.
Dara Colwell


Most Boring

Usher
Century Theatres

FEATURE THIS: ABOMINABLE pay, silly vests and slow, slow days. Or worse yet: abominable pay, silly vests and insanely busy days. These are the seasonal changes at the Century theatres off Winchester, three rotund buildings resembling silicone-augmented breasts.

Today is a slow day--the dog days of summer--and all the new movies are real mutts. The summer blockbusters are behind us and it is much too early for holiday releases. Making it worse for those who toil in those Big Boobs is that none of these particular theatres are mega-multiplexes. Instead of 15 or 28 screens, there are only one or two flicks showing at a time. At least keeping busy can take one's mind off the crappy pay, but these worker bees get to polish chrome napkin holders and stare at aging popcorn as their lives slowly ooze down the drain.

One worker is more than happy to spill the beans about the silver screen in Silicon Valley, although he begs that his name not be used. Jack, as we'll call him, has been working for Century for more than a decade but makes less than $10 an hour. No benefits. No retirement plan.

"We hire at $5.75 an hour," Jack says, "and tell people they can get free movie passes." Surprisingly, potential employees don't appear bowled over by Century's largesse.

Time weighs heavily when the movie is limping toward retirement and the audience crowd averages about three. Jack says he can always find something to do--cleaning or paperwork, perhaps.

"There's a lot of down time when employees can visit with each other," Jack notes optimistically.

Unfortunately, there's not enough down time to read, do homework or make phone calls to the people one prefers to visit with, but no matter. When all else fails, they can go catch a movie.
Kelly Luker


Most Assaulting to Olfactory System

Carcass Skinner
San Jose Tallow Company

A DEAD HORSE is hanging from a hook in the ceiling from one leg. A few feet away, a bloated cow, a couple of stillborn calves and a handful of hogs lie in a bloody heap. The odor of rotting flesh is almost as thick as the swarm of flies that hover hopefully around.

Think of this workplace atmosphere the next time the cubicle seems to be closing in. Modesto Quezada thinks about this workplace, since it is where he wields a mean machete for several hours a day. The butcher toils for San Jose Tallow Company, readying roadkill and deceased farm animals for their next life as pet food, candles and leather car seats.

While we white-collar types whine about the vexations of voice mail and crashing network systems, Quezada deals with the considerably greater vexation of how to remove the skin from a corpse that's been marinating in 100-degree weather for the past week. (Answer: gingerly.)

The slow, the old and the unlucky of the animal world sooner or later find themselves under the razor-sharp blade of Quezada. Trigger, hanging from the rafters in front of Quezada, is one of a dozen or so carcasses that will end up in little tiny pieces by the time the butcher clocks out today.

First, Quezada plugs a hose into the horse's side, inflating air between the hide and flesh until the beast resembles some bizarre pinãta. The skin now loosened, Quezada slices from belly to throat and begins yanking at the hide until it is pulled halfway off. He then hooks the hide to an eyehook in the floor and hydraulically lifts the carcass, leaving the skin behind.

So far, it's been easy. Now Quezada puts away the butcher knife and pulls out the machete, hacking off the head and haunches, which are dragged and dropped through a hole in the floor to a conveyor belt below. Scooping in the belly cavity, he pulls out huge armfuls of coiled intestines and also tosses them into the pit. Within minutes, Trigger's skinned head, followed by loops of guts, is spit out of the conveyor belt and into a waiting truck.

The good news about Quezada's job--it's union, with full benefits, and pays around $14-$15 an hour. The bad news--uh, start back at Paragraph One.
Kelly Luker


Most Worrisome Level of Toxic Exposure

Chip workers
Semiconductor Industry

THEY DON'T LOOK much at all like the space bunnies hopping merrily about in Intel commercials. Nope, these workers look like recent Asian immigrants, predominanatly female, and they don't look merry at all. Despite a relatively healthy paycheck for unskilled labor, the long-term payoff can be downright sickening. Respiratory problems, tumors, dermatitis, malignancies and miscarriages plague workers exposed to the thousands of chemicals used in "fabs," factories that make the computer chips. Turns out that a career spent in the presence of arsenic, sulfuric acid, hydrofluoric acid and phosphine, to name a few of the hundreds of toxic substances, just might be hazardous to one's health.

In 1992, it was discovered that chip workers exposed to ethylene-based glycol ethers had a 40 percent higher miscarriage rate than average. More than 128 chip workers or surviving relatives that worked at the IBM plant here in Silicon Valley or in upstate New York have filed suit against Big Blue for work-related illness.

The fabs saw the writing on the wall and wisely moved their operations to the heartland and overseas.

Silicon Valley plants now face some of the toughest regulations in the country, but don't rush out quite yet for an employment application. According to the environmental watchdog group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, there is sufficient data on only about two percent of the thousands of chemicals used in chip fabrication. The other 98 percent could be harmless--or could be cooking up the next generation of thalidomide babies. Only the lucky need apply.
Kelly Luker


[ San Jose | MetroActive Central | Archives ]


From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate