Temporary Insanity

It's 9 a.m. on a rainy, cold Tuesday morning, the third week of my latest temp assignment as a receptionist. Aside from occasional copying and distribution, I sit idle, a distinct contrast to life outside my cubicle where people bustle back and forth between their offices, and file into conference rooms. Asking for more work hasn't brought any so I spend my time making personal "to do" lists and fall into a trance, a dimension away. Can I endure another two months, possibly longer, of this? On this dreary morning, the woman I report to (I'll call her Phyllis) has called me into her office to discuss my "comfort level" with the job. As usual, her rail-thin body is rigid, drawn close. Her jaw is clenched in an underbite and her face, framed by a manicured, mannish coif, has a look of severe determination. She's always uptight, a secretary who dutifully squeals to managers when people on her own level don't meet her expectations. Phyllis is so self-congratulatory the fact that she's being humored escapes her notice. When Phyllis begins to probe delicately in a voice icy with disapproval, I think, "Yes, I am uncomfortable." Do I understand my responsibilities? Do I have any questions about the job? She wants answers. Suddenly, I realize my uneasiness is growing because she seems to know something I don't. Sitting there in that prim rayon dress with the round white lace collar, she reminds me of a school teacher and I am engulfed by an urge to squirm -- probably the intended effect on her part. The next thing I know she's reciting a list of offenses including a failure to fill the copier paper supply (once), getting two people's mail mixed up (twice), reading at my desk (industry-related magazines and a software manual), and talking on the telephone (yeah, that was lame). These, I think, are not horrendous blunders, but the seriousness and formality of Phyllis' tone tell me that in her little world, their magnitude is great. When my apology brings an equivocal response, a vague reference to other things I've done wrong, I press for details. This only causes her to avoid my eyes and lose her voice. Her face becomes a study of some inner struggle -- probably the dilemma of continuing her quest of controlling me or cutting me loose. I expect the latter and beat her to it, telling her (very professionally) the match-up is wrong and I want out. In a moment of weakness, I agree to stay until she finds a replacement. This foolish promise causes my stomach to twist the remainder of the day -- she'll interview half the damn world. Around 4:30 pm, my computer terminal alerts me to an incoming E-mail. I open it. Great. Phyllis has composed a two-page memo describing her meteoric rise from a receptionist to a secretary in six years, complete with capitalized key points like something out of Howard Stern's biography. When I get to the overly sincere closing, I'm ready for the warpath. Jesus! This woman's sphincter has got to be tighter than a coiled window shade. I'd laugh if this came from someone else. But Phyllis interviewed me for the assignment and knows my professional background. This is a dressing down, passive-aggressive madness. I want to lash out at her absurdity, to draw pictures in the air, or at least smack some sense into her. Instead, I announce that I am ending the assignment immediately and I leave her stunned. When I arrive home, I tell my husband, "That's it. No more temping."I'm a model temp, one who can (usually) smile through the bullshit, put up with the jerks, and leave the place in better shape than when I arrived. Temporary agencies love this because it means happy clients, an assurance of continued billings. But they know also that even their best people can't please everybody, and soon after the incident, I am offered another assignment. I take it. I need the money. According to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services (NATSS), I am one of almost two million temporaries nationwide (about 2 percent of the total workforce), contributing to the $35-billion-dollar temporary help industry. Obviously, the temp trade is good business these days. Why do people choose this type of work? Why, when they face situations that would cause Brutus to cringe? Is it a business fad -- soon to fade? Or, is it here to stay, a reminder that mutual loyalty, 40-hour work weeks, decent pay, fully-paid health plans, and Equal Employment Opportunity are things of the pre-global competition past? Valerie, who went on more than twenty assignments before going permanent, is typical of most temporaries I've met. She liked the freedom and flexibility, the fresh starts, and not getting stuck in a job she hated. Over several years, there were a lot of places and people she never wanted to see again, but she finally found her niche. "Temps are under a lot of pressure to do things right the first time," Valerie says. "You get next to no training, or are trained by other temps. If you don't show that you're grateful to have a job, you can be replaced at a moment's notice. On the other hand, if you don't like a place, you get to leave when the assignment ends. If you're good, they'll give you more and more responsibility and it can lead to a permanent position, if that's what you want." When she was hired, Valerie increased her pay from $5 on the factory floor to $25,000 a year in the front office. This is the type of success story that Bruce Steinberg, spokesman for NATSS, wants critics to keep in mind. Temping can be a bridge to employment for many workers who otherwise would be out of work. Once the prerogative of the student or the housewife looking for pin money, working the temp trade has become a lifeline for many of America's displaced workers. It sounds ideal -- a profitable arrangement for both parties -- companies and temps getting to know each other before making a commitment. But courtship is a simplistic view, one that NATSS and business are playing up. Many temporaries I have encountered tell a different story, one where the balance is tipped in favor of business, leaving them on a perpetual merry-go-round of assignments or stuck in long-term, low-paying slots alongside permanent counterparts who are enjoying higher pay and fringe benefits. Valerie, for example, says that she had to jump through a lot of hoops before finally getting hired. Another temp I know worked for a year and a half before she was hired. Both emphasize medical insurance coverage as the most important reason for going permanent. Betsy, an African-American woman in her mid-forties, started temping when she was laid off in 1992, hoping to find a full-time job. She stayed at one company for nine months, but was not offered a permanent position even though the amount of work and responsibility would have justified it. After that assignment, Betsy quit temping and started her own home-based business. It's been over a year, but she spits words like bullets when describing what happened. "I told the client I was a typist, but they had me use a scanner which caused me to have to do a lot of reformatting," she recalls. "A co-worker kept ranting and raving at me for not being fast enough. One day, I'd had enough and I told her to screw off. Then I told the supervisor what had been happening, thinking she'd understand, but instead she shamed me and said nothing to the other woman." The contingent segment of the workforce (made up of temporaries, part-timers, and contractors) has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years, prompting some legislators and labor analysts to cry foul. One union official called it the "worst form of wage slavery imaginable." Other critics refer to these workers as nomads, wandering souls who never really connect with corporate culture, leaving disharmony and disrupted productivity in their wake. How did we arrive at this point? According to Labor Secretary Robert Reich, four stages of change have taken place in the labor market. In the mid-1980s, part-timer benefits packages were reduced; in the second stage, middle management was laid off; in the third stage, benefits packages were reduced across the board for all employees; and now, the trend is to do business by contract, to use contingent workers. Though Reich recognizes the expenses borne by employers, he notes the two trends are on a collision course -- empowerment and contingent workers -- and warns you can't do both. "Critics don't understand what the temporary business is all about, " says Bruce Steinberg of NATSS. "They tend to lump temporaries, free-lancers, independent contractors, part-timers together, calling them 'contingency workers.' Temporaries are a separate category, used for work overloads and special projects." Why then, I ask Steinberg, is it so common for temps to be on jobs doing the same work as permanent employees for long periods of time, sometimes for more than a year? He replies that companies want to get on with the business at hand, do what they're good at, allow outside services to handle staffing; and in some cases, to get out of the staffing business entirely. Hiring temporaries saves money and there are fewer legal hassles. Not surprisingly, NATSS' recent name change to include "Staffing" along with "Temporary Services" reflects its membership's response to the needs of customers. According to Steinberg, client companies want one-stop service providing both temporary and permanent employees. With an average temp turnover rate of 400 to 500 percent, moving into permanent placement makes good business sense for temp agencies. And, if the pendulum swings back in favor of hiring permanent employees, they'll already be in the market. But contingency workers seem to be here to stay. Since 1982, their numbers have increased by 250 percent, while full-timers increased 20 percent. Manpower, Inc. is the nation's largest temporary agency -- and private employer -- with 600,000 on its payroll. Though that figure can fluctuate, Manpower employs more than General Motors and IBM combined. Last year, 87 percent of Fortune 500 executives polled indicated no intention of decreasing their reliance on temporaries. Analysts quoted in Fortune said that by the year 2000 there will be 60 million Americans working outside the mainstream definition of "permanent, full-time employees." Blame global competition as the birth mother of this new breed. Or, celebrate it. That all depends on how you deal with it as a worker. Empowerment, the noble philosophy of the '60s human potential movement seems like a conspiracy today. If you're ill-prepared, faint at heart or unambitious, finding an old-fashioned paternalistic company will be hard. In the New Age of work life, it's survival of the slickest. A pamphlet I received in the mail exhorts employees to work harder, faster and smarter; to commit like they own the companies they work for; to be team players. Written by a Ph.D. who consults to Fortune 500 corporations, this is the finest example of ivory tower, elitist bullshit I've seen in a while. What's scary is that everywhere I work, the walls echo it. Behind its guise, the gap between labor and management is widening, with legal protections and bargaining power dropping away and fear taking hold. Most workers I've met see right through the chiding and cheerleading -- to lay-offs lurking just around the corner. They keep their mouths shut and go along with the big guys' propaganda so they can feed their families until the inevitable happens. He who rocks the boat lands in muddy water.The just-in-time, here today, gone tomorrow temporary worker makes a mockery of America's labor and civil rights movements. Discrimination is hard to prove. The new courtship ritual lets employers pick and choose until they find a fit, i.e, the right color, age, background, physical and emotional attributes, and politics. With permanent employees, differences are worked out. A temp or contractor who doesn't fit in is easy to can. There's no recourse. Business has the advantage of money and legal staffs of lawyers who know all the handy loopholes. In fact, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a legal gray area when, on one assignment, I made noise about a health hazard caused by carpet adhesive fumes and was pulled off the job. Tattling to OSHA got me a front row seat watching legal responsibility volley back and forth between the temporary agency and client company, with the ball finally landing in the company's court. Getting reimbursed for my medical bills has been a different story, however. As Donna Wilson, president of Ohioans Helping Injured Ohioans, says, temporary agencies, who are self-insured Worker's Compensation providers, really dig in their heels. I was told my claim didn't get processed for six months because of a misunderstanding; papers got lost, and when I received one check, I was told the payment had been a mistake! Fortunately, most temps don't find themselves in sticky legal situations. Their biggest concerns are pay and benefits. With the exception of specialists in medical, professional or technical fields who make a decent living at temping, people in the "Pink Collar Ghetto" can earn half as much as full-timers at large companies. Also, getting a raise is like pulling teeth. Agencies charge clients between 35 and 60 percent over what they pay temps. If you're at the top of the rate scale you're maxed out -- bumping into the agency's profit margin. Another drawback is that eligibility for health coverage, holiday and vacation pay depends on the number of hours worked. Studies show that most temps work sporadically or end up finding full-time jobs, so they never take advantage of what's offered. Even if they do meet the requirements, health care costs may be beyond what they can afford. Two legislative bills calling for pay and benefits parity have been buried in Congress. They are HR 2188 ("Part-time and Temporary Workers Protection Act"), authored by Rep. Pat Schroeder, and SB 2504, introduced by former Senator Howard Metzenbaum. The Schroeder bill has been introduced several times without ever getting out of committee. And even though it will probably be reintroduced again this year, "We don't have high expectations with the new majority," says Doug Nelson, one of Schroeder's legislative aides. The bill addresses concerns that the growing contingent work force creates an underclass composed of mostly female and minority workers, a class which could account for half the work force by the year 2000. Figures like these are unfounded, according to a NATSS position paper which tries to invalidate the need for such legislation. Arguing that current labor laws already apply to temporary help agencies, the paper also cites statistics showing that contingency workers' desire for benefits is minimal. In further defense, it draws a parallel to Europe, where companies responded to heavy regulation and high labor costs with massive lay-offs. Job growth slowed to a snail's pace. Increasing the cost of part-time and temporary labor here will cause the same outcome; it will close opportunities for skills training and transitioning which means "many more Americans might not have jobs at all." Temporary work is not for the meek. Plenty of insensitive people still believe that temps are misfits -- bottom feeders -- and that, combined with knowing that one can be replaced at a moment's notice makes most temps feel insecure. It can be a way to successfully crack the hidden job market and earn income while doing it. It can be training ground. Or a trap. As the saying goes, "you create your own reality." Temping has made me a stronger person in many ways. Sometimes I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day practicing until I've got certain things down. No more "first-day" jitters. I can walk confidently into just about any job and learn it quickly. No more entanglements. As neurotic political passion plays are staged and backs are stabbed, I look on detached, sometimes amused. There's one thing that's really tough, though -- being big enough to pity those who are so damn miserable inside that they need to poison or scapegoat me. Regrettably, I let Phyllis piss me off so badly it prevented my handling of the situation with more finesse. After I cooled down, I remembered one of the first things she said to me about her feeling stupid. It seemed to come out of nowhere so I asked her why she felt this way, and she replied that the other workers were more knowledgeable, smarter. No doubt, my qualifications scared her, too. I suspect Phyllis would have liked to have gone farther than being a secretary and is frustrated, trapped by the choices she's made. I don't want to be like that. In fact, a year from now, I don't want to be temping. Really. Being a nomad, pulling up stakes just as I start to get comfortable, and suffering the nagging feeling that I'm wasting time and talent is a drag. Valerie and Betsy have found what's right for them. I will, too.

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