Chapter 7: Strikes Two and Three
On April 3, 2015, exactly one month before I was dismissed an incident ocurred that ultimately led to my demise. In order to provide a little background, I want to explain a little bit about the importance of finding a surrogate family when you are working on ships.
As rewarding as it can be, working on ships is extremely difficult. The hours can be long and grueling. Crew members live in tiny cramped cabins and do not have many of the creature comforts we are used to on land. We rarely leave our ship, and when we do we are often in ports or cities we are only slightly familiar with, and extremely limited as to where we can go or what we can do in the few hours we have ashore. For safety and professionalism, two-thirds of the people on the ship – the guests – must be kept at an arm’s length. Youth Staff members are subjected to an additional emotional roller coaster of really bonding with the kids who spend every day in our care for a week or two, only to see them off at the end of the cruise knowing we would likely never see them again.
The only real meaningful human relationships we are able to form are with other crew members. And these are the people we work next to, live next to, and see everywhere we go. Worse yet, contracts rarely last more than six months and crew members are often moving from ship to ship, so most of your colleagues are either leaving soon or you are. Under these conditions, drama runs high and relationships are intense. They say that a week on a ship is like a month on land as far as the amount of things that happen. And it makes sense: You are around the same people so much more on ships than you ever would be on land, and everyone is impressed with a sense of urgency to get the most out of our time together because it is so fleeting.
The worst trap that you can fall into – and one that many of us do – is to become emotionally walled off and isolated. Some people just get tired of the intensity and bizarre nature of human interactions on ships and shut themselves out by never leaving their cabin. Others go out every night and drink with a group of friends, but their connections with people are entirely superficial and they never let anyone get too close. I found myself in both of these circumstances at one time or another and it took me a while before I figured out a healthy balance.
Ultimately, what you end up doing is finding your tribe. You find a small group of friends whom you can spend all your time around and not drive each other crazy. You find people who will support you and inspire you. And if you are smart, you make sure that group friends consists of people who are all leaving the ship at the exact same time as you, or their contracts terminate at times that are spaced out enough for you to “replenish” the group of friends over time without everyone leaving all at once and leaving you behind without anyone.
In my time on ships, I made very good and close connections with a number of people. It was amazing and so fulfilling: In this crazy environment I had actually made more close human connections in a year than I had made in the past ten years. I feel like I was extremely lucky.
During my second contact, I had made very strong connections with a couple of people whom ended up becoming my surrogate family and I love each one of them so very much. They are pictured above in fact. Joanna Franciszkowska, Cedric Demers, and Jennifer Shtayn had become my surrogate family and on April 6th that family was about to be broken apart as Jennifer was being transferred to the Oasis of the Seas.
The above picture was taken at Belly Beach in Labadee, Haiti. It was an exclusive beach for crew members only and it was a frequent gathering place for the four of us to hang out and eat together. Because April 4th was to be Jennifer’s last time to dock in Labadee with the Independence, we were planning a going away lunch for her at Belly Beach.
When the Independence docked in Labadee, Adventure Ocean aboard the ship would shut down entirely and we would run a small crew on the actual resort. This only required six youth staff to be scheduled – three in the morning and three in the afternoon – and so, when Matt and Laura were managers, they scheduled our Labadee shifts in such a way that we were off every other week and rotated between the morning and afternoon shifts. However, at this time Maita was the AOM and making the schedule, and I’ve already explained how poorly that was going.
Unfortunately, I was on the half of the Youth Staff who was getting the short end of the stick when it came to port days off, and when we received our schedules for the upcoming cruise I had been scheduled to work the “day” shift on Labadee for the third time in a row. The “day” shift was the worst shift because it pretty much ate up all of your time in port and at the end of the shift you only had a very short amount of time to return to the ship. If you were scheduled the afternoon shift you actually had time to go somewhere and do something. So, of course, working the day shift three times in a row was pretty annoying. On this particular cruise it was especially annoying because I wouldn’t be able to go to the going away party for Jen.
This actually happened by sheer coincidence, actually. Before Kara came on board I had worked the day shift on Labadee, and Kara simply copied the previous schedule exactly as it was the time before to make her schedule. When Kara left and Laura came back as AAOM, Maita made the schedule and she again copied and pasted the previous schedule as it was. As a result, some of the Youth Staff received time off at Labadee three times in a row and they were well aware of the fact that they had drawn the long straw while other staff members had drawn the short straw.
Fortunately for me, one such staff member, Jane Kenney, saw what was happening and knew about my situation and traded shifts with me so that I could go to Jen’s going away lunch. Unfortunately for me, the day before we arrived in Labadee, on April 3rd, another staff member came down with the flu and Jane lost her day off at Labadee to cover for her and I was stuck working my regularly scheduled shift again.
The other two staff members who were benefiting from the scheduling mistake and getting three Labadee port-days off in a row were Tom Huckle and Jason Altschwager. You might remember them from before. I decided to try my luck with them and appeal to one of them to trade shifts with me with the promise that I would trade back to them my next scheduled day-off at Labadee. Well, it should come as a surprise to you that Jason yelled at me and said that he had worked too many hours in a row and wasn’t getting paid enough for the amount of hours he worked and our work environment was “ridiculous” and overbearing and he desperately needed the time off that day – during the day – to go to the island and relax. This was before the Oxiver/cleaning meltdown he had with me, by the way.
Tom also wasn’t interested in trading. I offered Tom all of my remaining Labadee port days off in exchange for this one and I pointed out that he had been the benefactor of what was clearly a scheduling mistake since he had been scheduled off three times in a row at Labadee. “Are you seriously trying to guilt trip me? I don’t make the schedule! I just follow it!” he shouted and walked away.
Finally, I found one more Youth Staff member who had the day off, Brittney Mongelli, who had just signed onto the Independence that week. Brittney actually agreed to switch shifts with me, so I thought everything was going great. However, later that night, at around 10:30 p.m., while I was still at work, Brittney approached me and told me she had changed her mind. She told me that she had “promised herself she would go snorkeling” in Labadee and that she had forgotten about it. I asked her if it was a big deal if she just went snorkeling another time, we would be in Labadee many more times before she left the ship, but she said she really had her heart set on going.
Immediately after this exchange, Jane approached me and told me that Brittney had actually changed her mind because another staff member had changed it for her. Jane had witnessed another staff member telling Brittney she should not switch with me because I wasn’t a “good” member of our staff and I didn’t deserve any favors.
Of course, this was absolutely devastating for me to hear, and I felt like I was about to break down and cry and just needed some time to process what had just happened. Jane offered to cover my shift for me, so I left the room and went into another unoccupied room in Adventure Ocean to think. At this time, Maita was passing by and I explained the situation to her and told her how stressful and unfair it was that certain staff members were getting so much more time off in port than others. Maita simple said to me that any time off at any time was a privilege and I should simply be grateful for what I get.
Of course, this response was completely unhelpful and I realized there was no point in talking to Maita about anything – she didn’t really seem to care about the well being of any of her staff at all. So, I replied that I was done trying to talk to her about it, and I left and went to talk to my AAOM, Laura, about it instead. Laura was very sympathetic to my situation and she said that even though it was too late for her to fix the schedule for this cruise she was going to look over the last couple schedules and try to balance things out for future cruises.
That is all I wanted to hear, really, someone to acknowledge that there was a problem and acknowledge how it was affecting me and bonus, to say they were going to try and make sure the problem didn’t happen again. The difference in those two responses, by the way, is a great example of the difference between great management and terrible management.
Maita’s fill on the Independence came to a close that week and Matt signed back on the ship on April 6th. However, a few days later Mike Hunnerup called me into his office to meet with Matt and discuss what happened that evening. Apparently, prior to disembarking, Maita had complained to Mike saying that I had “lost my temper” with her that night and walked away from our conversation. Here we go again.
If you think this was my second strike, you would be wrong. This did not result in a written warning or even a verbal warning, much less a POL. Instead, Mike and Matt drew up an “action plan” for me to better manage my interactions with coworkers. It was at this time that I brought up the previously mentioned incident with Jason that had just happened that day. It was at this time that Matt and Mike explained to me that the best approach for me to take if I didn’t want any more confrontation with coworkers was simply to not talk to anyone about anything job related ever and always go straight to Matt if I had a question or concern.
This action plan, while not part of any official punishments or proceedings still seemed to be important. It was frustrating because it basically required me to not have any conflicts with any coworkers ever which in the current work environment that Maita had left behind was difficult for anyone to avoid. People were on edge and you never knew what was going to set them off. And several people with whom I worked especially disliked me, that was abundantly clear, if for no other reason than the fact that I always went above and beyond to do a good job and I took great care to always make sure I was following all the rules and doing my job right. At this point, it didn’t matter if I said anything to anyone, as Luis had demonstrated, other people were more than willing to approach me out of the blue and try to pick a fight and even if I tried to walk away from it that was going to be used against me and I was going to be somehow held liable.
I had a suspicion that this “action plan” had really placed me in an impossible situation, but I really was in denial about it. Of course, action plan or no, impossible situation or not, I was about to make one really boneheaded mistake that would be my undoing. On its own, that wouldn’t have been enough to fire me, but since, as it turns out, the Independence regular cruise director, Joff Eaton, really wanted me to go management found it incredibly easy to simply make up the third reason.
And my second written warning was for… are you ready for this? Pretending to shave for about ten seconds in front of the kids in Adventure Ocean. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, doing a ten second gag like the one in the video below, apparently is a terminable offense.
And my third written warning was for… Well, it all happened on the same day, so let me just tell you how that day went:
The day was April 30, 2014. It was a day like any other. I arose bright and early to go to work. My roommate, Cedric, was still asleep. Cedric was a figure skater and he worked afternoons and partied at night, so it was rare to ever see Cedric awake before 10 a.m. In order to not disturb his rest I was in the habit of showering at night and shaving in the morning in a crew bathroom after breakfast. So, like I had many days before I got dressed for work, grabbed my shaver, and proceeded to get breakfast at the back of the ship.
After breakfast, I went to the crew bathroom and shaved, then I went upstairs to Adventure Ocean. And like many days before, I brought my shaver with me. You see, my cabin was in the very front of the ship below deck. The staff dining area was in the very back of the ship several decks up. And my workplace, Adventure Ocean was also in the very back of the ship. The ship in question, the Independence of the Seas, is longer than the Empire State building is tall. So, walking all the way to my room and back to work just to put away my shaver would take over 10 minutes. I didn’t have that kind of time to waste.
The day was April 30, 2014, a day like any other day. I clocked into work and I started to set up the room. I placed all of my person belongings behind the DJ booth – an area strictly forbidden for the children to go into – next to the plastic container of used Oxiver rags – a chemical hazard that was required to be strictly out of reach of the children. The dirty Oxiver soaked rags were safe from the children’s reach there behind the DJ booth. And so, I thought, was my electric shaver.
The day was uneventful for the most part. I was asked to sign a going away card for Brittany Mongelli. She had only been aboard the Independence for a few weeks and I had never even had a scheduled shift with her. I rarely saw her. In fact, I had only one interaction with her and it was a really bad one. So, that is exactly what I wrote in her card. I had been listening to the Nickle Creek song, Somebody More Like You, in which the singer, clearly someone who has just been dumped, croons, “I hope you find somebody more like you.” Double meaning. A humorous insult. Cute. I close my remarks with the phrase, “I wish you well and hope you find lots of people in the future to work with who are just like you.”
Not a very nice thing to say, but I wasn’t feeling very nice. Brittany had, after all, lied and broken a promise to me – someone she didn’t even know – because someone else – someone else she didn’t even know – had told her I wasn’t worthy of anyone doing any favors for. She wouldn’t read the note until she was off the ship and well on her way home. At which point she would probably just blow it off. What did she care? What did I care for that matter?
A few hours later we had enough kids in Adventure Ocean to split them up into rooms by age group. So, I gathered up the handful 3-5 year-olds and took them into the Aquanauts room with one of my colleagues. Oh wait, I left my stuff behind. I went back into the Explorers room, the room with the DJ booth, the room about a dozen 6-8 year-olds and grabbed my shaver. As I was exiting the DJ booth one of the boys asked, “Is that an electric shaver?”
“Why yes it is,” I replied.
“Do you shave your face with it?” another boy asked?
“Why, yes I do,” I replied. In that moment I had a flash. That old Mr. Bean sketch where he shaves his face, forehead, nose and tongue, “Like this,” I said, and I flipped on the razor and waved it around my face and stuck out my tongue and pretended to sweep it over my tongue.
The razor never actually touched my face – I would probably be missing half an eyebrow and have a burn on my tongue if it had. The kids all laughed and giggled. It was a great gag. I had done it other times with a Taboo buzzer. It worked every time. Adventure Ocean people – we Youth Staff – we did lots of strange and funny things for laughs from the kids. My mentor and supervisor, Matt Ducharme, often shoved his entire finger into his nose to the delight and disgust of the children watching. Unsanitary and unprofessional looking? Sure. But the kids loved it. My shaver gag was just like that, I thought.
Then I walked out of the room and into the Aquanauts room. I placed my shaver in a locked drawer and I placed the key in my pocket. And that was that.
But on that day, April 30, 2015, I was being watched very closely. Luis Lugo was watching. He didn’t think my shaver gag was very funny. He was thinking something completely different. Luis was thinking it was a good way to get me fired.
Luis went to the Cruise Director and told him I had been shaving in Adventure Ocean while there were children present. Was I actually shaving? No, I was pretending to shave. But that didn’t matter. Later, I was told, they pulled security camera footage to verify this story. That is why it took them until May 3rd to confront me about the incident. On the footage it did appear that I was “shaving” in Adventure Ocean. I don’t really know what the footage showed or what angle it was from. Having seen plenty of security camera footage before I knew it must have been grainy and shot from far away on a camera lense that warped the picture. It was probably difficult to tell the difference between actual shaving and waving a shaver around several inches from your face. When I “shaved” my tongue, I thought, surely they knew it was a gag though and I wasn’t actually shaving.
I was told that having an electric shaver in the same room with children was a violation of the U.S. Public Health (USPH) code. Later, much later, I obtained a copy of all the USPH regulations. There is nothing in there about electric shavers. There’s not even anything in there about toothbrushes. There isn’t anything in there about toiletries in general, and certainly not anything about not having them in the same room as children. I was on a ship though, and didn’t have any internet. I took their word for it.
I said I was sorry and had no idea this was not allowed, I had been bringing my shaver into work with me for weeks. I made the argument that it was also against USPH to have used Oxiver rags in the same room with children (this is actually true), but it was okay for us to walk through the room with the rags in our hands and it was okay for us to store the rags behind the DJ booth which had a locked door. I had done nothing different with my electric shaver than we did with the used Oxiver rags.
“Yeah, but you did know you weren’t allowed to have your electric shaver in the room. I had just said so in a meeting earlier this week,” Matt said to me. What on earth was he talking about? “I said no personal electronic devices are allowed in Adventure Ocean, and an electric shaver is a personal electronic device,” he continued.
This was a bit of a stretch. Usually when people say “personal electronic devices” they are referring to cell phones, MP3 players, tablets, and maybe even laptops. When have you ever heard someone refer to an electric shaver as a personal electronic device? In fact, when Matt had told us not to bring personal electronic devices into Adventure Ocean it was because we Youth Staff had in fact been bringing their cellphones, MP3 players, and laptops into Adventure Ocean. Mainly we plugged them into the sound system and played music in the room off of them. There was always music playing in Adventure Ocean.
In fact, under direction from management (Maita and Kara), I had recently completed a huge project copying all the Adventure Ocean CD’s onto a portable hard drive. A bunch of CD’s had gone missing when being brought back and forth between the different rooms and this hard drive was supposed to make it easier for us to look up music and play it. And this hard drive was most frequently plugged into my laptop.
But, Matt had decided to put a stop to that. It was against policy. We weren’t allowed to rip those CD’s into MP3’s. Worse yet, many staff members were playing their personal music in Adventure Ocean – music which hadn’t been licensed and approved by corporate headquarters. The whole situation had gotten out of hand and Matt had decided to put a stop to it. So, he had sat everyone down, explained the situation, explained how unprofessional it looked for staff members to have their cellphones out while they were watching other people’s children, and told us not to bring out personal electronic devices to work anymore. I had no idea an electric shaver was included in that mix. I told Matt and Mike as much. They wouldn’t have it.
“Do you realize how unprofessional and unsanitary that would look if a parent walked by and saw you with it?” Matt argued back.
“I honestly can’t imagine a scenario where a parent saw me doing a funny gag that had their children laughing and thought what I was doing was unprofessional and unsanitary,” I replied.
‘At least I can’t imagine them thinking it was any more unprofessional or unsanitary than you shoving your entire finger up your nose,’ I thought. I didn’t say it out loud, although I wish I had. I simply thought it in my head. It didn’t really matter though. There was no point in arguing. They wanted to have me done and there was no logic or reason that was going to get me out of it.
In the end, they told me, because what I had done was a violation of USPH they were required to give me a written warning. They didn’t want to give me a written warning, but they had to. It was just policy. Besides, they said, I’ve already had another written warning so policy also says I have to get written warnings from here on out if I do anything wrong no matter what. Well, I now know that neither of those things were true. It didn’t matter at the time, though. They wanted to have me done and there was no logic or reason that was going to get me out of it.
Later that night, I received another call to Mike’s office. This time it was about the note I had written in Brittany’s going away card. Brittany had not seen it, she had not even received her card yet, but someone else had and they told her about it and together they went to HR to file a complaint. That someone else I would later find out, was none other than Luis Lugo.
“You’ve violated your action plan,” Mike said to me, “I am very disappointed in you.”
You’re right. I made a mistake. I should not have confronted Brittany about that. I was just trying to clear the air and be upfront. And I figured writing it in a note to her that she wouldn’t see until she was off the ship was the least confrontation way I could go about it since she never had to see me again anyway. I’ll be honest, though, I’m not really sure that anything I specifically said was inappropriate or threatening. I certainly didn’t curse, belittle, or threaten her. All I said was that I barely knew her, the only interaction that I had with her she broke a promise and that really hurt, and I hoped that she had lots of luck in the future and found people work with like her.
“It sound threatening if you read between the lines,” they said to me. I can imagine if she had read this she would have been very uncomfortable.
Well, I’m not much of one for reading between the lines, really. And that last part, about working with people like you is only threatening if you think you are a bad person. I’m pretty sure Brittany doesn’t think she is a bad person, and if she does, then I suppose the threat is only one of self-induced karma, which isn’t really a threat at all. So the only threat here is existential at worst.
“Well, the fact is, it would have been okay if you had said this to her in private, but you write it in her going away card for everyone else to see. You aired your dirty laundry and that made other people uncomfortable, so that is why we are having this conversation right now.”
You know what? I really didn’t even think of that. You’re right. I made a mistake. Our going away cards have 15-20 pages in them and everyone writes on their own page. It has never once occurred to me to flip through it and see what other people wrote, and it didn’t once occur to me that other people would flip through and read what I wrote. I messed up. I am so sorry.
Well, it didn’t matter if I was sorry now. I had violated my action plan, and for that they would have to give me a written warning. And besides, I’ve already had another written warning so policy also says I have to get written warnings from here on out if I do anything wrong no matter what. It didn’t matter what I said. It didn’t matter what I thought. They wanted to have me done and there was no logic or reason that was going to get me out of it.
And that is how I received two written warnings within 24 hours. Technically, the fact that they were giving me written warnings on May 3rd for actions I had taken on April 30th was also a violation of Royal Caribbean’s progressive disciplinary policy which stipulates that any action to be taken must be taken within 48 hours of an event. However, they told me that the time frame was based on when this was brought to their attention and everything had only just been brought to their attention very recently, so they were within the 48-hour window.
Joanna, my dear beloved friend, had warned me just the day before that this was coming. “They want to fire you, I just know it, they want to get rid of you,” she told me.
That night, I went to sleep feeling completely defeated. Joanna had been right. They were trying to fire me. The next morning we were in port in Ft. Lauderdale and then we were heading across the Atlantic to go to Europe. I only had six more weeks left in my contract. Could I lay low enough to stay out of trouble and not get fired? I wasn’t really sure, but I was sure determined too.
Well, I was never going to get that chance. The next morning, as we were docked in Ft. Lauderdale, just before I disembarked the ship, I received a phone call from Matt. They were calling a Master’s Hearing to decide my fate.