Temporary Insanity

"Why do you want to work as a temp?" It's 1997 and I'm sitting across a small, immaculate desk from John (not his real name), a personnel associate at Kennison Associates, a Boston headhunting agency that also does business as a smaller -- and therefore, I'm hoping, better -- temporary staffing company. I'm wearing my best suit and most boring tie and the $100 Italian loafers that will apparently never stop pinching my toes no matter how many times I wear them. I wish I could tell you that I came to Kennison as an investigative journalist, sent to expose inept hiring practices and cutthroat pay rates. Instead, I'm here as a broke freelance writer, come to subject myself to inept hiring practices and cutthroat pay rates. And to bogus questions like, "Why do you want to work as a temp?"There are several simple answers to John's question, but of course I can't voice any of them. "Because I need the money, you moron" leaps to mind. "Because I have no pride" is another possibility. But I swallow hard and tell John what he wants to hear: namely, that I need to supplement my writing income, and that I look forward to the challenge and flexibility of working in a variety of positions and work environments.John smiles at my answer and proceeds to give his own. People seek temporary employment, he explains, for a variety of reasons. Maybe they're new to the area and want to try out several employers before applying for any full-time positions. Maybe they're recent college grads, or housewives looking to boost their family income. "Temping provides a lot of people with the kind of flexible work schedule they need," he says, "but in our experience the ones who really succeed are the ones who accept a lot of assignments. The ones who are eager to work.""I'm very eager," I hear myself say.John subjects me to a battery of typing and software tests, all of which I pass with flying colors. On my way out he shakes my hand and says I'll be hearing from them.I never hear from them. Three days later, I cut off my ponytail and go to a second agency. Same suit, same questions, same answers, same battery of tests. This time, when I get home from the interview, there's already a message on my answering machine offering an assignment. It's an unglamorous front-desk job, but it pays $10 per hour. I take it, thereby joining the ranks of the fastest-growing sector of the American job market.For me, after three years in the daily grind of full-time work, temping felt at first like freedom. My agency called with assignments almost every week, and it was entirely up to me -- well, me and my bank account -- to accept them or turn them down. Several of my friends were temping at the same time I was, and we liked to get together after work and trade war stories, sharing a good chuckle over incompetent supervisors and stolen office supplies and entire days spent surfing the Net because nobody had remembered to give us any work. We felt like bounty hunters. We were the masterless Ronin samurai of feudal Japan. We convinced ourselves that all those poor permanent working stiffs secretly envied us. And who knows? Maybe they did.Despite all this, I gave up temping a year ago, vowing never, ever, to do it again. But I may have to break that vow eventually, because the way things are going, it's quite possible that sooner or later we'll all end up as temps.One of my gigs on the temp circuit was at a finance company called Funds Distributor, Inc. I was responsible for updating the company's contacts database, which meant I had to call every bank, brokerage, and corporate-law firm in the country to verify its address and make sure that Joe Megabucks was still working there.For the most part, all this required was getting a receptionist on the line. But getting many receptionists to answer even a basic question such as "What's your mailing address?" proved more difficult than one might think. Often the people answering the phones seemed to have little idea where they were or who they were working for. One woman gave me part of an address, then stopped short and confessed, "I'm sorry, that's where I was last week. I'm a temp.""Don't worry," I reassured her. "I don't know who I'm working for, either."Temps have been with us since the late 1940s, when companies like Manpower and Kelly Girl began placing ex-GIs on assembly lines and war widows behind desks. But the industry really took off during the recession of the early '90s, when the full-time job market ground to a halt. Between 1989 and 1994, the temp industry added 350,000 jobs to the 850,000 already out there, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The media painted it as a sort of college-to-career halfway house for Gen X slackers at their stereotypically vapid, disgruntled worst. There were vague rumblings about the death of long-term employment, but then the economy rebounded and began cranking out jobs faster than you can say "You want fries with that?" And soon thereafter, except for an occasional cameo in Dilbert, temps disappeared from the public eye. But the temp industry hasn't gone away. In fact, it's bigger than ever.According to the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services (NATSS), an industry support organization, there were an average 2.5 million temps on assignment on any given workday in 1997, nearly 10 percent more than in 1996 and a whopping 75 percent increase over 1992. And that doesn't even count all the temps stuck at home with no assignment. This means that about 2 percent of working Americans now punch the clock for temp agencies. That may not sound like much, but to put things into perspective, the entire agricultural industry accounts for only about 1.3 percent of the work force.The only segment of the media that has paid any attention to the temp industry's unprecedented growth is the business press, which thinks it's great news. "The economic consequence of this phenomenon is a more flexible and efficient job market," crowed Fortune in 1995. Temping is a "path to greatness" for skilled workers, asserted a headline in U.S. News & World Report's 1998 Career Guide. "You get paid to go in to a company that needs extra help, so you can interview them for a change," gushes self-proclaimed wundertemp Brian Hassett in his book The Temp Survival Guide (Citadel, 1996). "That's why temping's so great."But this is only a sliver of the bigger picture, which isn't quite so rosy. For me, as for most people, temping turned out to suck, which is why I left it and why the average temp bails out in less than three months. But the temping industry isn't bailing out anytime soon. And as it continues to grow, it's going to suck not just for temps but for all of us.My first assignment for my new agency, John Leonard Personnel Associates, was at a super-secretive high-tech start-up in Kendall Square. It was so secretive that there was nothing on the front door except a suite number. Even my desk, which had nothing more confidential on it than a list of phone extensions, was hidden around a corner from the front door so prying eyes couldn't peek through the glass and see me date-stamping the day's top-secret junk mail. When the buzzer rang, I checked a security monitor to see who it was before letting them in.Despite all this secrecy, I can tell you that the company's name was Quantum Energy Technologies, and that it was developing alternative fuel sources. I can tell you this because nobody ever made me sign a nondisclosure agreement. Nobody ever told me what the company did, either -- "if anybody ever asks," I was instructed, "just tell them you're a temp and you don't know" -- but I figured it out by reading the mail.My many other pivotal tasks at Quantum included color-coding the vice president's files, ordering groceries for techie all-nighters, playing foosball with the CEO (I knew those four years at Wesleyan would pay off someday), and entering bills into an accounts payable database. Among the stacks of window envelopes that poured in every week was one from John Leonard, so I got to discover firsthand that for every 10 bucks the agency was paying me on this assignment, it was billing Quantum 16 bucks.Apparently I was so discreet at the super-secretive start-up that John Leonard decided I could handle mental health patients' confidentiality issues with equal aplomb. My next assignment was in the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital.Actually, I was told that I wouldn't be working with patients at all. My job was strictly administrative, keeping track of room bookings and coordinating schedules for the eight zillion staff meetings that take place every day in your average underfunded, overmanaged health care facility.So there I was, making a whopping $11.25 an hour (up from $10 -- my first raise, and in only two weeks!) and working in the health care industry. With no health insurance.Finding a temp with health benefits is like finding a politician with ethics -- they do exist, but don't hold your breath looking. Most temps are more like my friend Jeff, who worked for Kennison Associates for two years and had a toothache for most of that time. Kennison did offer insurance, but it was an employee-paid group plan and Jeff couldn't afford the premiums. So he suffered in silence.Jeff now works full-time as a desktop publisher, with full benefits. He's been to the dentist seven times in the past six months. "I just had my fifth tooth worked on," he reports, "one of which was a root canal that could have been avoided had I been able to afford a dentist."Officially, 49 percent of all temps work at agencies that provide benefits, the Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded in a 1994 industry survey. Since then the number has undoubtedly improved, as companies like MacTemps and Olsten Staffing Services have started to figure out that the best way to retain temps is to treat them like normal employees. But still, fewer than half the temps eligible for health benefits actually receive them, because, as the BLS noted, "they fail to meet the minimum qualification requirements or . . . they elect not to participate."Qualification requirements usually translates to the number of hours worked over a given period of time. Temps who don't meet the minimum don't get bennies. One can't help noticing that such a mechanism might encourage temp agencies to overstaff deliberately, in order to avoid giving too many employees enough work to qualify for benefits. It would be almost impossible to prove that there are agencies with such policies, but "there most likely are," admits Nikki Granner, general manager of employment services for MacTemps. "Historically, this has been an uncaring profession."Elect not to participate refers mainly to the fact that half of all temps are offered only insurance plans that they must pay for themselves. This was the program John Leonard offered me, and since my take-home pay averaged out to about $275 a week, I wasn't exactly in a position to shell out big bucks for an HMO plan.A few companies that use long-term temporary help do offer benefits to those workers, but most don't give their temps so much as a sick day. Even if the company in question happens to be a hospital. In fact, not providing benefits is a key reason why companies consider temps to be a cost-effective alternative to full-time employees, despite the costly fees temp agencies charge their clients.I stayed healthy at Cambridge Hospital, and my agency next shipped me off to South Station, where I manned the front desk for the property-management office. The week after that, it was off to yet another front desk, this time at a law firm called Cooley, Manion, Moore and Jones. By this time I had been temping off and on for five months and had logged enough hours to be eligible for a bonus day, one of the few useful perks offered by John Leonard.During this period I watched my pay decline, from $11.25 an hour at Cambridge Hospital to $10 an hour at South Station to $9 at CMM&J, putting me on par with the national average for temps. Despite learning three new computer programs and upping my typing speed by 15 words per minute, I was becoming a poster boy for downward mobility.Industry spinmeisters like to paint temping as a viable career path, but for most it's still a dead end. The reason is purely practical: agencies keep track of their temps on databases that are sorted according to skills and previous assignments. So if you do one gig for your agency as an envelope-stuffer, your name is going to keep coming up every time there's an envelope-stuffing job. Temp agencies are not career counselors; they're hole-pluggers, and once you get labeled as a square peg you're unlikely to get called for the round-hole assignments. This is why John Leonard kept calling me for front-desk jobs, no matter how many times I retook their software and typing tests. And if you're broke and desperate -- which most temps are, or they wouldn't be temping -- you take the first assignment that comes along.There are ways around this, of course -- "surfing" between multiple agencies being the most obvious -- but still, most temps I know spend a long time doing the same kind of jobs for the same range of pay. Worse, the wage deflation I experienced is fairly commonplace.This isn't the picture you get from the industry itself. The NATSS bragged that industry-wide, payroll expanded by 19 percent in 1997. But it failed to note how much of this increase actually went to rank-and-file temps and how much was due to what the same press release ballyhooed as "expansion of staffing services beyond traditional temporary help." What that refers to is the growing presence of "professional" temps -- engineers, programmers, and other highly skilled workers. Such specialists command higher hourly rates and therefore boost the overall industry payroll, but that doesn't make life any better for the average clerical worker. To put it another way: if your basketball team acquires Michael Jordan, your shooting percentage will go up -- but that doesn't mean the rest of your players aren't still sending up bricks.Even master temps will acknowledge that temping is less a career ladder than a career pinball machine, where even the most skilled workers can spend years bouncing from job to job with little advancement in responsibilities or pay. Dennis Fiery, for example, author of The Temp Worker's Guide to Self-Fulfillment (Loompanics, 1997), lists every hourly wage he received during the time it took him to write his book. In chapter one, he's making $15 an hour; midway through his opus, his pay has plummeted to $11; by the conclusion, it's crept back up to $13. If this is self-fulfillment, I'll settle for vacation pay.Temps respond to these drawbacks by bailing out of the business as soon as possible. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the temp turnover rate to be between 400 and 500 percent annually -- in other words, the average temp stays with an agency for less than three months. I lasted longer than most, sucking up desk jobs for John Leonard for six months until I finally found a software-training gig that paid more than twice what I'd ever earned as a temp.But however much it churns through workers, the industry itself is a permanent fixture, and that's where its real effects are felt. Even in this land of free enterprise, the lack of rules governing temporary employment is astonishing, and the resulting economic implications are disturbing. For example:Under federal law, anybody, in any occupation, can be employed as a temp -- including, say, nuclear physicists, police officers, and brain surgeons.There's no limit on how long a company can employ the same temp. This is why some people end up as "permatemps," working at the same company for months on the false promise of eventually being hired. In Tennessee, a group called Citizens Against Temporary Services petitioned the state legislature to legally limit these so-called temp-to-hire arrangements to 60 days -- and lost.There's no restriction on what percentage of a company's work force can be made up of temps. U.S. News & World Report, for example, cites a Colorado company called American Precision Plastics that, in just four years, bumped the temp contingent of its staff from 10 percent to 90 percent.Temps take away jobs that might otherwise be filled by full-time workers. The companies that use temps admitted as much in a survey by the Conference Board, an independent business-research group. The survey asked companies to list their reasons for using temps; 48 percent said one of the reasons was to "control headcount due to downsizing."Temps are increasingly being used as "scabs," sent in to replace striking workers. Such a scenario is currently being played out at two Massachusetts nursing homes, the Glenwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Lowell, and the Oakwood Care Center, in Brighton. Union workers at both locations went on strike in part to protest understaffing and the use of temps in place of full-time workers, which, the union argues, results in poorer treatment of nursing-home residents. "Many of these patients have special needs," says Service Employees International Union Local 285 representative Tom Higgins. "Some can't even communicate verbally. Caregivers really need to know the patients -- that's what leads to quality care." Sunrise Health Care Corporation, which owns both nursing homes, has responded to the strike by bringing in more temps.The instability (or "flexibility," as business analysts like to call it) that temping promotes within the job market has broader economic effects as well. In a study released by the Economic Policy Institute, researchers found that people who switched employers no more than once during the 1980s saw a 29.4 percent increase in their income during that decade. Those who switched jobs three or more times -- defined by the study as having "weak employer attachment" -- saw their income decline by 13.2 percent when adjusted for inflation. No equivalent survey has been conducted on temps, but since they're the ultimate embodiments of "weak employer attachment," it's a safe bet that most of them aren't socking away big nest eggs.Finally, most labor and contract laws don't take temps into account when it comes to accountability and liability issues. If a temp suffers permanent retinal damage from standing over the photocopier too long, he or she may have a long legal battle ahead to collect workers' comp. If that same temp deletes the company's entire credit report as an act of revenge, both the temp agency and the employer will do everything in their power to pass the buck to each other or to the temp, and quite possibly get away with it.But the biggest reason we should be wary of becoming Temp Nation can best be expressed by the following story. This actually happened to me while I was working at Cambridge Hospital, on that psychiatry-department gig that wasn't supposed to involve any contact with patients.On about my third day on the job, my phone rang. I picked it up and was greeted by a deep but unsettlingly frail voice asking for my boss, who wasn't in. I said as much, and the man replied, "That's bad. They said to call. See, I'm one of his patients, and I'm ... I'm feeling a lot of anxiety and I'm having thoughts of suicide."I said, "Please hold."What would you have done? I had no training in how to talk to a suicidal person. The hospital's primitive phone system wouldn't allow me to transfer him. There was no one on the floor to tell me what to do. And technically, I was not the least bit responsible for this man's life because I didn't work for Cambridge Hospital. I worked for John Leonard Personnel Associates, and dealing with patients was not part of my job.In the end, I did manage to work up the nerve to pick up the phone, talk the man down from whatever state he was in, and persuade him to call the doctor's pager. And I found out later that he was indeed fine.But he easily might not have been. Because instead of a health care professional, he wound up talking to a temp. A temp earning $11.25 an hour with no benefits for a job that had previously been filled by a temp, would be assumed at the end of the month by another temp, and presumably would forever after be filled by a temp, all in the interest of "flexibility."Andrew Hermann is a freelance writer living in Somerville. He can be reached at hermann42@aol.com. This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.

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