The Expendability of Labor

A Worker’s Experience

Before I’d even moved to Olympia, a friend told me that there was quite a ‘high end’ nursery in Olympia called Bark and Garden. He felt that, considering the size of the operation and the expense of the products offered, that they might be a great place to work.
I did stop by and seek to make out an application, but the sales clerk simply said, ‘Leave off a resume, and if Kern, “the owner”, thinks you qualify, you will get a call.”

After about 5 days, I did get a call to come in and met the owner. He grilled me for a while and suggested I could not handle the work load. I assured him that though I was an older worker, I could offer much in the way of plant knowledge. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture from WSU and I had worked as a gardener for the City of Tacoma for over six years, during which time I was a licensed pesticide applicator.

Kern made me an offer of $11/hour, stating almost apologetically that he would raise my hourly wage after a month on the job.
When I asked if he was just hiring me to get through the spring rush season, he assured me emphatically that he wanted year round long-term workers and that I would not be let go on the Fourth of July weekend, the traditional time of year retail nurseries ‘sack’ their extra help.

My initial hire date was Monday, March 29. Kern advised me that ‘since it may get busy out back, do not count on taking breaks. You better keep a candy bar in your pocket.’ I was given an apron with instructions that it was my duty to take it home and wash it. Also Kern wanted me to do some sort of Vinegar treatment to the apron so that it would not bleed. I was then given a walkie-talkie radio and sent out to the back lot, where the perennial trees and shrubs were on display.

The in house protocol and jargon were quite a learning curve all their own and I could sense that the management had little patience with my lack of finesse and style. No initial walk through or guidance was offered and I had to figure out where things were pretty much on my own. No mean task considering the Nursery covers several acres and involves over 6 hoop houses and over a dozen coworkers.
I soon discovered that employee turnover was very high at Bark and Garden. The marquis flashing in front of the nursery was still seeking avid gardeners to come and work there til the day they let me go. I did reflect that if this nursery was always hiring, quite probably it was always firing too.

I did note that during break time, very few of the workers came to the break room. The hand book stated that breaks were to be offered, ‘at the employer’s discretion’. I never did quite understand what this implied, so I simply took the two breaks of ten minutes during my shift.

On Thursday, April 2 of the month, I was told by the owner’s wife, Danette to water the trees along the back fence. I pulled out the garden hose and began to do so. Since they were short of staff, I had to often put the hose down and help customers locate plant material or answer gardening questions. On this particular day, a very cold wet front had moved in to the area and there was a cold driving rain. Not having been provided adequate raingear or boots, I contacted Danette, and requested that I be allowed to move inside one of the greenhouses to work. It seemed strange to be watering the trees during a cloudburst and heavy rain anyhow. I sensed that this request was ‘out of line’, but she did permit me to work in back, weeding the flats. Since the rain did not relent, Management sent all of us home an hour early, rather than pay us a full days’ wages.

On Friday, April 3, Danette asked me once again to water shrubs in the back area. As I did so the customers were also wandering about, and so I had to go from watering to waiting on customers. Danette complained that the hose lay across the walk way. I replied to her that the connection lay across the sidewalk and that as I watered the plants, the hose invariably would pull across the walk way. She seemed to consider my reply insubordination and was clearly agitated by my comment.

When I called up front from time to time for Customer Service, I did notice that the other workers did not want to respond. Danette, the owner’s wife, insisted that we follow a certain protocol, when a customer bought a larger plant or tree, I was to make out a green slip with the tree name and container size. I was to tell them that the nursery charges an extra $5 to $10 dollars if they want to take that container home. They would take my signed green slip up to the till, and then another employee was supposed to bring a hand cart back to retrieve the tree, bag it up and take it to their vehicle.

Not all of the employees liked to do this, and I was chided several times by distraught coworkers who would grab the tree in one hand and take it up front, risking a back injury.

When I reflect on the plant material in general, I have to state that the condition of many plants was very poor, though it was not reflected in the prices, which were some of the highest I’ve ever seen in retail nursery. Many of the larger tree specimens in 10-15 gallon liners were infested with horsetail, a particularly noxious and hard to kill weed. Many of the smaller trees and shrubs had remained in small containers for far too long and were severely root bound. Whoever has the sad misfortune of buying these plants will not see them last long. There is no proper system for irrigation of these plants, and the efforts to water by hand are spotty and haphazard at best. I also saw for sale, a few plants that are considered by the weed board as noxious, including Buddleia, and English Ivy. Of course the Horsetail comes with no extra charge.

On Saturday, the weather had cleared and all indications were for a good day of sales. Indeed, I was quite busy with customers and had overall a good time waiting on the people and helping them find trees or shrubs in my area. Having been with the Nursery a week, I was starting to get a sense of where things were to be found and even how to speak walkie-talkie. Was able to help customers solve their problems as to fitting certain trees or shrubs into their own garden area, and I especially enjoyed helping with the fruit trees in back. It was one of the most enjoyable days I can recall working at the Nursery.

At about 5 pm, after I had clocked out and was heading home, Kern the owner stopped me and said, “David I am going to have to let you go, it’s just not working out.” Surprised and saddened, I started to walk away, but then I turned back and asked him why. Kern said that I had several complaints that I was harsh with customers.

This came as a great surprise to me, and I really do not believe it was true. When I objected, Kern said, “Well that is how the customers feel, and so I have to go with that.”

I replied by saying, “Feelings are subjective. What matters is if it is true.”

In conclusion, I consider this Nursery to be a very user unfriendly workplace. I suspect that one of the real reasons I was let go is the fact that I did take my legally allowed breaks and since we had a time clock and had to ‘punch out’ to take such breaks, the office could monitor those daring enough to do so.

David Johnson is a Veteran of the US Coast Guard, living in Olympia,WA. He has a Bachelor's degree in Crop Horticulture and a Certificate in Viticulture. He has worked as a Gardener for most of his adult life since the Military. David can be reached at: Read other articles by David.