Always Your Fault

With my step-father serving as a patrolman and volunteering on the fire department, and with all of my wanderings on Main Street, Cumberland Farms was a frequent stop for the family in 1979. For a while my mother continued working in Guilford after we moved back to Old Saybrook, but the prospect of winter driving and continued long treks to work had her looking for other options.

Cumberland Farms kept a manager in each store, and they offered to train people for the position if they had a high school education and a work history. The pay wasn’t great, but there was an override, a half percent of store sales (above a baseline), so my mother applied for the training. They didn’t promise a certain store when she joined up and the training program had her working on Main Street in Clinton and a few nights in Essex during a six week ramp up to having her own store.

The week before she completed the training, they gave her the option of taking our little Main Street store. It had been without a regular manager for a relatively long time and needed a lot of work in several areas. The staff were disinterested, floors were filthy, and the back room was a mess. But my mother was brilliant at making lists and good at hiring, so made significant improvements in short order and soon improved traffic and the service in the store.

And that’s when we learned about the management practices of the parent company. There was a long history of adversarial relationships between divisions and between store managers and company management. My mother got along with her regional manager and even had a cordial relationship with the security team, probably owing to her husband being a cop. But that didn’t matter. She got the same treatment as all other store employees.

Her commission baseline was reasonable when she started at the store, and her efforts improved sales enough that she started making a decent combined wage. They paid managers a little over minimum if you take into account the expectation that they schedule themselves in the store at least 50 hours per week. But once she started getting overrides of about 50% of her salary, corporate re-averaged the store sales and raised her baseline. That cut her override in half.

Soon she found out that company security wasn’t interested in shoplifters. My step-father set up a hidden camera to catch two kids who were thieving regularly. With the tape in hand and an arrest a formality, the security boss refused to press charges. But when a part-time employee lifted ten bucks at the end of her shift, security was all for pressing charges and wanted to interrogate the rest of the employees, as well.

When I turned eighteen I joined the Navy, but I had to wait six months to get into the computer school I needed. I went to work for the other Cumberland Farms in town, on Route 1 across from Johnny Ads. The family running the store were all fired after an audit that showed over a thousand dollars’ worth of groceries had gone missing. In 1981, that was a lot of groceries.

The new manager was a submarine wife from Groton, an energetic woman in her mid-twenties. That store did a decent business in gasoline, but it got robbed every six months or so. I was her only employee available full time, but we had three part-time people for evenings and weekends. I came in to overlap her shift most weekday evenings, and I worked about every Saturday. I often opened on Sundays, which included putting the Sunday papers together.

She normally made the week night deposits on her way home, but sometimes the money stayed in the safe until the next morning. Someone robbed the store on a night when there was almost two thousand dollars in the store, and the kid working had the safe open. Corporate security was not happy. Even though the cops had a good idea who robbed us and even had a trail to follow almost all the way to his door, company security interrogated the employees and the manager. The kid who got robbed at knife point decided it wasn’t worth it and quit. We were already down one person, so we were suddenly very short-handed.

One morning I got a call from my manager. She needed help in the store. A compressor had gone out in the night and we needed to throw away all the ice cream. We had to make a list of what we chucked. We had fun climbing in and out of the freezer, and we ate a few of the ice cream sandwiches that hadn’t completely liquefied. We became friends that day and hung out together over the summer.

The next month there was an inventory audit, and we came up about $600 short. Deja vu. Corporate was about to send in the security team, but we had a copy of our ice cream debacle to use to jog the corporate memory banks. The follow up inventory the next month came out $600 over. I don’t know who they wanted to blame for that.

While I worked there, they asked me to cover shifts at several other stores. In one store, the manager was our former papergirl. In another, I met a regional manager who was the older brother of my middle school buddy. I covered a few shifts at my mother’s store and, when my manager transferred to a store in Waterford for the shorter commute, I covered a few shifts for her new store, too.

My store didn’t get a new manager quickly. They tapped me to cover the weekday shifts and any other shifts I couldn’t get the part-timers to work, like Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. I did the grocery orders, collected the vendor bills, pulled the expired food, did the books and all the bank runs. I worked 60-70 hours a week for about six weeks and never got a dime of gasoline or grocery commission. Then the hammer came down on me.

I got sloppy while working day and night. I didn’t watch the part-timers closely and one was fiddling with the gas prices. One time I closed the store to go to the bank because there was too much money in the store, and a customer complained. And I didn’t always pay for what I ate or smoked on duty. Corporate caught up with me. They demanded I pay an amount they estimated I had misappropriated, or they would make sure I couldn’t go into the Navy. Then they fired every worker in the store and started over again.

I was ready to go by then. It was only a few more weeks before I went to boot camp. My grandmother had gone to work in my mother’s store, so the family was well represented. My former girlfriend even worked for my mother a while. My mother stuck with it a year or two longer. She liked her store and enjoyed seeing many people she had known for decades, but they experimented with her override until she gave up, too. It was just a company where you knew where you stood; if you worked in the store, whatever went wrong it was always your fault.

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