Since the government announced back in 2007 what the entire country already knew—the United States had hit a recession—people have felt the economic pinch in different ways. Most sobering are the ghost desks in offices where laid-off employees and friends used to sit. However, I found that the most familiar sign of the recession is not in the cubicle office maze or boardroom: it’s in the break room.
At my old job, we were fortunate enough to have a lunch/ break room that provided an ever-stocked variety of coffee blends and condiments, tea and hot chocolate, snack and soda vending machines, and two large refrigerators to store packed lunches in. It’s definitely a perk to cozy up to a hot drink in cold weather. And in an economy of necessity, perks can be day-to-day coping mechanisms that make strain more bearable.
The company committed, at the least, to ensuring that their employees had no excuse to fall asleep at work. This commitment fostered several headquarters-wide coffee initiatives that higher-ranking employees undertook with great seriousness. With great fanfare, they switched coffee vendors 3 times in 12 months, presumably to lower overhead costs where they could.
One day, an e-mail dinged in my inbox excitedly announcing a 1:00 PM coffee taste testing and post-wrap survey. Amused, I marked the time down and made plans to pop over to the break room later. The little coffee tasting turned out to be the highlight of my week. The Land of Plenty included grapefruit-sized banana nut, chocolate chip, and brownie muffins, Danish strudel pastries, fruit, and, of course, 20 flavors of coffee. I think the mutant muffins, rather than the coffee, won over the employee masses—corporate declared that the test merchant beat out the old one. But not five months later, that coffee vendor was gone, too, replaced unceremoniously with the plastic black canteens and logos of another company.
Coffee brand adjustments notwithstanding, it was the microwave dilemma that struck me the hardest in my observation of our break room recession. Two industrial-sized microwaves occupied the countertop in the room. We never knew how valuable those appliances were until one of them quietly gave up the ghost on a Tuesday when everyone seemed to have sack lunches. The warm-up line stretched past the defunct microwave. People squeezed as close to the counter as possible in order to avoid being smooshed. They should give us extra time since the microwave is busted, I cheerfully grumbled.
That was the last day anyone looked remotely cheerful about the microwaves. A month later, I knew for sure we were in a recession when I had my lunch technique down to precise steps.
1. Enter the break room and assess the population density.
2. Stake out an area closest to the microwave and swoop in before the seat was claimed.
3. Firmly place my humble little ham and cheese sandwich in the queue of Totino’s pizzas and return to my seat to pretend-chat and eyeball the timer.
Those steps had to be followed in exact order, or it could be 30 minutes in the lunch hour before you finally got down to the business of chewing.
Microwave politics were cutthroat. If you were careless enough leave the room—and your lunch in the microwave— for five seconds more than the timer was set, your food might end up on top of the big box. And this would occur after much retort and backstabbing discussion, furtive glances at the back window to see if the offender was returning. Hungry, desperate employees skipped the sometimes 15-minute queue to sneak into the managers’ break room and bravely use their empty microwave.
Despite the company’s many visible
people-cutting cost-cutting efforts, they apparently could not afford to get us another microwave, and 1 month stretched into 10. We stopped complaining, mostly; “it’s a recession” became the punch line to the joke of the missing break room appliance. Eventually, the lunch food queue seemed less ludicrous and more normal, like the rising percentage of job losses and unemployment. The lines got shorter because people lost their jobs. I averted glances away from the empty cubicles and dusty chairs at work left by my laid-off co-workers.
And that’s the true sadness of a recession—not the disappearance of perks such as corporate appliances, but the gradual erosion of ease about the small things in life. Life in layoff culture is a fitful sleep on eggshells. You guiltily close your eyes to the carnage, hoping you won’t be next. And so, for the stalwart remaining microwave in my office break room, we discovered a begrudging gratitude…for what little we escaped with.