Keeping good workers is tough these days

Baltimore business owner vents about the men he tries to help

January 09, 2013|Dan Rodricks

Steve Appel, who's been in the business of selling cool furniture to Baltimoreans since the 1980s, called me after one of my give-a-guy-a-chance columns. It was 2009, with the recession lingering and the national unemployment rate at double digits. Baltimore's was just under 11 percent — and higher, as always, among guys between 18 and 24.

Appel, the affable co-owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods in North Baltimore's Belvedere Square, had an opening for someone from that demographic to make furniture deliveries. The job was 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. It paid $12 an hour.

Appel wanted someone who was "strong, on time, and friendly."

I steered an unemployed 20-something fellow his way, and Appel hired him.

The worker "was gold for a while," Appel says. "Always respectful of me, our delivery truck and the work. He was well-spoken, well-dressed, always on time, even brought his mother for me to meet. … He didn't drive, so I bought him a bike so he could get back and forth to work. You know, a good guy …"

But one day the guy fell off the delivery truck and fractured an elbow.

"He got a TV lawyer, sued my insurance company, got a little chunk of money, and spent it all in Atlantic City the same weekend," Appel says. "Then he had the [nerve] to come back and beg me for his job back. My insurance rates went up because of him."

That quote makes it official: This is a give-a-guy-a-chance-to-vent column.

Appel has been doing fine all these years, a well-known retailer (with business partner Lee Whitehead) who sells contemporary furnishings and has an interior design concern. He loves the city and lives here. He likes, when possible, to give a guy a chance. He's taken on young guys no one else would hire because of their criminal records. (Appel says he only hires ex-offenders with nonviolent histories.)

Over 25 of his 27 years in business, he managed to hire workers to deliver and set up furniture, without a single workman's compensation claim, and without drama.

But something — he's not sure what — happened in the last few years, something extravagantly frustrating for a small business owner.

"What I have found is so unreal it scares the hell out of me," he says. "These guys do well for the first couple of weeks, and then …"

And then they have "issues." And the "issues" trigger a crazy, downward spiral.

Appel has a rule about cellular technology. He tells his workers they can't text or use phones for personal calls on the job. He's overheard too much drama in too many calls — fights with girlfriends mainly — so he tried to put a stop to it.

"Since I do most of the deliveries with my guys, I got to a point that I couldn't bear to overhear their cellphone conversations begging for another chance and telling more lies."

For a while, each new hire seems to follow the rules.

"But once they are comfortable around me and with the job, they start up with the texting, hiding behind Dumpsters talking to their baby mommas, lying about needing to leave early," Appel says. "They seem to want to either work just long enough to be eligible for unemployment or they look for reasons to file for workman's comp."

Another fellow, about 25 years old, worked at Nouveau last year. "He was such a nice guy," Appel recalls. "He had a heart of gold, but just couldn't pull it together. He got in fights at night. He had two girlfriends, and he lived for the drama of the two girls fighting back and forth.

"It's really hard to describe the amount of energy these guys put into living that life — lying, phoning, texting, running from one bad situation to another. It amazes me. If that energy were spent on anything positive, things could be so much different."

There were a few other guys, all in their 20s. One whined constantly. "We fired him in July," Appel says. "He felt we were working him too hard, always asking to carry heavy things …"

(Earth to Mr. Whiner: It's a furniture company!)

He and another guy, Appel says, "went to Philadelphia on a delivery, went under a bridge that was too low and tore the top off my truck. The repair was $1,600. Then he got mad because we couldn't afford Christmas bonuses. … The entitlement these guys feel blows me away."

Right now, things are cool at Nouveau. The young man making deliveries seems reliable. "He's like gold," Appel says.

But the last couple of years might have soured him.

"I'm pretty burned," he says. "In the past I've lent small amounts of money for a guy to get a car. I offered to help with education if I saw a chance in them. I used to think we could make a difference in someone's life, but now I'm not so sure."

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