Friday, 11 March 2011

Working woman's woes

It's nearly ten years since I quit work, which is virtually the same period of time I spent in my last job, ie working for the NHS. Has the time flown? Yes.

It has flown faster than an afternoon sitting in my prison cell office wondering what on earth I was doing with my life. Five o'clock, or 5.30pm depending on what bus I had decided to catch, couldn't arrive soon enough for me.

This from the woman who, a few years previously, cheerfully stayed until after midnight writing documents - and then hand-delivered them to the board members who needed to see them as soon as possible. I'm sure they didn't get up at 1.30 in the morning to read them, but the effort had been made.

And do I miss work? No. There has not been one single day when I wished I was back there.

Am I bored? No. In fact the only reason for even considering working again is the obvious one. Money.

So this week, I have put in an amazing effort and worked four days in a row. Well, that's not strictly true. I didn't go on Tuesday, although my partner did.

We were decorating a new flat in one of Gib's rather up-market developments, hanging wallpaper to two feature walls. The paper was expensive and very stylish.

Day one was spent lining the walls. The walls were almost nine feet high, (nearly three meters) and the sitting room was 20 feet long (six meters). So there we are, standing on two step ladders with a huge long piece of lining paper that needed to be hung horizontally nine feet up. And the only way to move across the room was to start hanging in one corner, and then one person holds the concertina-ed lining paper while the other person moves their step ladder, we stick the next section, hold the paper, move the step ladder, etc etc. It took ages.

At one point, in the bedroom, I was standing awkwardly on the ladder and my head started swimming and I could feel the balance going. Not physically, just in my head with the sensation of falling backwards. I leaned forward, and it went away.

Day two was sizing the lining paper, which was why I got a reprieve.

Day three was hanging the expensive Parisian paper with a 64 inch pattern repeat. Paperhanging is like dressmaking, or making curtains - it's all in the measuring, the setting out, and - the cutting. One wrong cut, and you are stuffed.

I spent ages deciding on the best place for positioning the flamboyant pattern, and, just before we were about to start the cutting, I changed my mind about how to position the six pieces of paper, ie 1) centre it, 2) start from one corner and just work across, or 3) have two slightly narrower pieces at each end so that there was a virtually perfect match right across the wall. To me, a feature wall is just that, and it needs to look good.

Including measuring, matching, cutting, hanging, replacing the electrical fittings, washing out, and clearing up, it took us nearly six hours to complete the wall. My head was overflowing with measurements and calculations.

While we were waiting for the paste to soak I started working out the number of drops for the large sitting room wall. Basically there wasn't enough paper. We hadn't ordered it and we hadn't measured it, so not our responsibility - but ours to sort it out.

The wall needed nine full drops, two short pieces over the door, and a narrow drop on the side of the door frame. We would have to cut and splice the narrow piece. It also meant we had absolutely no margin for error, and if there was a fault in the paper, we would be nowhere.

I woke up at 3am with visions of an unfinished wall if we cut the paper wrong, or snagged it, or there was a fault, or ... or ....or.... I tried to work out a way of making a full length drop behind the door and couldn't. Then I started calculating drops for another job we had been asked to do. Ten drops, I thought to my insomniac self, got to be four rolls. I so did not want the stress of worrying about running out of paper. And why am I waking up at night fretting about work? That's one of the reasons I chucked it in the first place.

When anyone ever says that decorating is easy - they should try doing it for a living.

Day four had already begun, and when I woke up again, I did not want to go. It felt like one of those days where you have to chair a difficult meeting. I insisted on double-checking the measurements of the wall, even though they were ingrained in my head. We laid the paper out and made the cut.

Then I insisted on putting it against the wall, just to check it was right. Pretty fatuous waste of space really, because once we had cut one piece of paper, there wasn't anything we could do. If it was wrong, ie too short, we couldn't finish the job anyway. I just didn't feel like finding out we had got it wrong after nine pieces had been cut. It was OK.

We finished the wall in almost the same time as the previous day. It was a straight match so the cutting and hanging was easier, even though there were more pieces.

And this morning, I woke up so pleased that it was not another work day. Phew. I was mentally and physically drained when I had finished work on the past two days, for 'just a bit of paperhanging' as people invariably say. That's before you even take into account keeping an eye on the cat who seemed to think wallpaper was the tastiest delicacy ever invented. Nicely chewed edges would look really good.

Now, if you have waded through hanging those two walls, here are a few points about working for yourself which are not related to the job above, rather, on years of self-employed working.

Working for yourself means just that. It means that, you choose what hours you want to work, obviously fitting in with clients' hours where possible. While we would prefer to start at 7.30am or similar, clearly it's not practical when people are rushing around getting ready for work. That's assuming they are even out of bed at 7.30am.

But when we say we are finished for the day, that's just what we mean. No, we are not working a standard eight-hour day just because you do. Or because you want the job finished faster. Because as the day goes on, we get slower and slower. And more and more tired. Then there is more chance of making mistakes. And if we finish it quickly you think we are too expensive.

We give a price for the job. We don't charge by the hour, by the day, by the roll, or by the gallon. It is up to us how we complete that job to the best of our ability in the time we want. We give a written fixed-price quote. When people accept that, we don't expect them to complain later if we finish the day's work by early afternoon (as happened a while ago). We do tell people that the job will be done over a specific number of days, but we won't necessarily be there all day. Clearly in one ear and out the other in a lot of cases.

Truth is, we are running a business, not a charity service. If we are fast at the job, surely it should be to our advantage? It doesn't mean a cheaper price for a client because we complete it quickly. What they are paying for is a good quality job. Easy. Isn't it? People can always say no to the price we quote.

On one job, the client was out until early evening, so she told us we wouldn't see her until the next day. Fine by us. Next thing we knew, she was ringing up in her lunch break asking where we were. Amazing that she could manage to find the time for a lunch break to pop home after all. And really, there was nothing else we could do that day, so what did she want us to do? Sit around doing fuck all to make her feel she was getting value for money?

We can, and usually do, work quickly. We take our time with the measuring and cutting. We could work slowly. And what is the added value in that? The job is the job, however long it takes.

I don't think people realise that when there are two people working that means the hours worked are multiplied by two. I don't think people realise the cost of setting up a business. Vehicle insurance, personal and public liability insurance, office costs, consumables, materials, capital equipment, and in Gib, annual trading licence and employment department certificates. No holiday pay included of course, social security to pay, and no pension rights unless you provide your own.

All people see is someone working a short day and they add up the cost of the job and divide it by the number of hours to work out an apparently expensive rate.

Then of course, there is payment time. There are those wonderful customers who just give you the cash or a cheque straightaway. Some of them even think to say that they like the job. We like that, it is nice to think that someone appreciates a job. When someone says 'Fantastic!' that is even better. Then there are the ones who hang you about, and it doesn't matter that you write payment on completion on the quote. On occasion, I have been known to say, after listening to a load of woffle 'So where's the money?'

But none of this compares with some of the people we know who have far worse experiences. As I wrote earlier, being self-employed, in theory, implies that you have some control over what you are doing. You give a price to do the job the customer wants, to a good standard, and complete it in a mutually convenient time. You are providing a skill, expertise and labour in return for the money you consider it to be worth.

No. One of our friends has, on more than one occasion, given a price - and then his customer turns round and tells him what he is prepared to pay. And what does said friend do? He accepts it. He needs the money and his customers know that. He's also been asked to do extra work on top of the original job and just not been paid at all for the extras. This is most definitely not being self-employed. Nor is giving a set price per day or per hour. You are basically working for wages. Or when he was walking down the street, a previous customer said 'You still painting? Be at my house in five minutes.' He was there of course. An order is an order. Even when given by someone who later negotiates the price down.

This is not a one-sided post though. There are occasions when the customer does not get a good deal. A painter we know went to do a job painting a couple of rooms in a flat. When the clients arrived home after work, he was happily asleep on the kitchen table having drunk a couple of tinnies, and three-quarters of a bottle of vodka. He hadn't done any work of course so he didn't get paid. But it didn't cost him anything for a drink that day.

1 comment:

Marvin -The Hollow Hound said...

sorry just realised still signed in as my dog.....but have just read this post and thoroughly enjoyed it. Plus the points about being self employed - and how it should work as opposed to how it does work - should be typed out and sent out with all estimates in future!!