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I am looking for the name of a short story about a man (a programmer, I think) who has worked for decades at the same job at a computer terminal and comes in after a particularly long weekend to find out that he's somehow been locked out of the system.

After some inquiry, he learns that due to a clerical error, a government labor department was erroneously informed that his employment was terminated. And as a result of the long weekend, the deadline for correcting the error has passed. When the current system was introduced, considerable time was allowed to correct errors, but the window was gradually reduced. (I think the justification for reducing the window for correcting errors was that it closed loopholes which were used to get around public employment policy.)

He also cannot be rehired because laws introduced in the last few years (to which he has previously paid little attention since he already had a job) give the government unemployment office control over who is hired to fill vacant positions. The unemployment people send him to another workplace where they sign him up to receive a paycheck and try to send him home. They will pay him because they are required to do so by law, but the actual work will be performed by someone else whom the employer hired for the same position. Dissatisfied with this arrangement, he refuses and gets a job as a janitor as part of a scheme to force the bureaucrats to fix the error and get him his old job back.

The programmer finally gets his job back by going to work as a janitor at the labor department. One evening a top official enters the computer room to find a pile of magnetic computer tapes with a floor buffer sitting on top of them. The programmer stands at an outlet some distance away with the plug in his hand. He announces that if the official approaches the tapes or if his demands are not met, he will plug the machine in, it will start (since the switch is on) and the magnetic field from the motors will erase the tapes. When the official is unimpressed, the programmer points out that the official has been a government employee for decades and that his employment records have likely been moved from online storage to tape, perhaps to one of these very tapes. If his employment record were to be lost, would he be able to convince anyone to reconstruct it? He could well find himself in the same predicament as the programmer. I don't remember the details of the ending, but I think the official relents, and the programmer gets his old job back.

I do not remember the date of publication, but I believe it was written before bureaucracies were heavily computerized. I want to find it again because I felt it was one of the few instance of the science fiction computers-taking-over theme done well. Rather than becoming sentient and seizing power like in Star Trek, the computers came to control people's lives to an excessive degree by enabling a new level of bureaucratic control and by making the bureaucracy even more inflexible. Computerizing the records and decisions makes them difficult to correct or override. An ordinary person has little chance of convincing those in charge to spend the time and error required to override the computers.

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    Al Row is right. I remember the floor-cleaner-as-a-data-eraser scenario! I gotta believe that story is 20+ years old, conceivably much older. Let me see what I can find.
    – Mister3
    Aug 20, 2023 at 5:33
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    I think I read this in Analog. And if you remember how he got his job back, you should put it in a spoiler tag. Because if it matches, I can assure you it was definitely in Analog.
    – Mary
    Aug 21, 2023 at 3:08
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    I just checked my copy of "Analog 6", and it's not in there. List of stories are in the first review: amazon.com/Analog-6-Harry-Harrison/dp/B000E8927A
    – Mister3
    Aug 21, 2023 at 5:35
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    Here are 258 stories that have been published in Analog. It would have been really handy if "Employment" would have been it, but nope. en.wikipedia.org/w/… I've scanned all of the titles and none of the hopeful titles panned out. I'm surprised how many of them I do actually remember. I guess I read more sci-fi than I'm realizing.
    – Mister3
    Aug 21, 2023 at 6:04
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    The more this story is discussed the more certain I am I've read it. IIRC, the protagonist is threatening to destroy a set of personal/employment record tapes. His manager is initially a bit blase about this, because everything is in the computer. The protagonist reveals that anything that hasn't been updated in (say) 2 years is no longer in active storage and that includes all the executives and other influential people who will be really upset at having to dig up all their records.
    – DavidW
    Aug 21, 2023 at 21:35

1 Answer 1

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+50

Job Inaction by Timothy Zahn. I read it in his anthology Cascade Point and Other Stories.

The programmer is Charley Addison and he works at Key Data Services. He comes into work on a Monday morning and tried to log in:

His first indication came when he tried to call up the morning's mail on his desk terminal. Instead of the usual sender headings, the screen lit up with a terse, red-bordered message:
ACCESS DENIED
CHARLES DOUGLAS ADDISON
8497-46-6604
IS NO LONGER EMPLOYED BY KDS.

As you say he becomes a janitor at the company and steals the employment record tapes:

Assuring the others he would take care of the boss, Charley waited until they had staggered out, and then set to work. Setting Lanthrop into a more comfortable position, he relieved the field boss of his master keys, replacing them with his own public-area set to keep the loss from being too obvious. His next task took him to the main file room, where the employment records and résumés of every worker in the nation were stored on huge reels of holo-magnetic tape. This was the riskiest part of his plan—the file room connected directly to the main computer room, and the dozen or so operators on duty had a fair chance of knowing that Charley wasn't authorized in there. Fortunately, the reels he wanted were "low-use" ones stored in the racks farthest from the computer itself, and he was able to pull the three he wanted without being seen. Back out in the hall, he hid the tapes in the bottom of the garbage container on his wheeled cleaning-supplies cart and, heart pounding painfully, pushed it down the hall as casually as his shaking knees would permit.

He then threatens the director of the National Employment Office Pines:

"Engaging in an old custom called blackmail," Charley told him, glancing at the pile. It was an unusual sight, he had to admit: three tape reels—minus their protective casings—stacked neatly beneath the old floor buffer. "Magnetic tapes have come a long way in fifty years, especially in storage density, but they still have an unavoidable weakness: they're susceptible to strong electromagnetic fields. That thing on top is an old electric floor buffer. It packs a huge electric motor."

Pines understood, all right. Already his eyes were flickering between the tapes and Charley, clearly wondering whether he could beat Charley to the buffer's switch. He was bracing himself to charge when Charley raised his hand, showing the director that he held the machine's plug. "The buffer's switched on already," he explained. "All I have to do is plug it in. You can't possibly reach either the tapes or me before they're ruined, so you might as well sit down and relax."

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  • Of course! And I've read the book Cascade Point
    – Andrew
    Aug 22, 2023 at 11:39
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    Oh, I'm going to kick myself. Zahn is my absolute favorite author. I didn't even think about checking his collections of short stories!! Good job @john-rennie, we can all sleep better tonight. I don't even want to say how late I stayed up scrolling through this list: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_short_stories
    – Mister3
    Aug 22, 2023 at 14:07

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