Temporary workers of the world . . . unite?

Connie Schachtel looks for all the world like a card-carrying citizen of Microsoft nation.

A bright, hard-working technical writer, she has the aura of a young fast-tracker who's just a mouse-click away from a big promotion.

Yet, while she's not riled enough to quit, Ms. Schachtel feels disconnected from the ubiquitous corporate culture Microsoft so carefully nurtures. Even with pristine job-performance reviews, Schachtel and hundreds of her peers remain outsiders.

They work while wearing a workplace smear. Some co-workers call them "A-Dash Trash," a put-down that refers to the "a-" at the beginning of their company e-mail addresses.

Schachtel's shortcoming is that she is a temporary, rather than a permanent, employee. "There's a caste system and fundamentally it's not fair," she says. "In terms of pay and benefits, I make much less [at $22 per hour] than a full-time tech writer makes."

At first glance, the static at Microsoft seems just resentment among well-paid twentysomethings. But problems with temps at one of the world's more far-sighted companies suggest that similar anger could be smoldering at thousands of US firms.

Under current trends many working Americans could one day feel such discontent.

Temps are one of the fastest growing types of hires, by one measure expanding this decade by 138 percent. Two-thirds of some 550 companies surveyed in 1997 said they would step up their use of temps and other "flexible workers" in the next five years. And even though temps make up only about 5 percent of the work force, half of US workers will take temp jobs at some point in their lives, says Susan Houseman, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Measures in the growth of flexible workers vary. But on an average day, employment by temporary-help services expanded from 1.17 million in 1990 to 2.79 million in 1998. Over that period temp agency receipts ballooned nearly threefold to $58.7 billion, according to the the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services in Alexandria, Va.

Fighting what they call second-class status, Microsoft temps like Schachtel have launched the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech) in order to win better pay and benefits and wipe away their stigma. (See story, below.) The WashTech temps seek a firmer footing amid the weakening long-term embrace between boss and worker.

"People want to be anchored, they want security, and when corporations tell workers they can't expect security anymore, we have to make sure workers who are not permanent employees can get what they need," says Marcus Courtney, a co-founder of WashTech and a former Microsoft temp.

Microsoft says 30 percent of temp jobs lead to a permanent position. Moreover, by hiring temporary workers, the company discourages an unfounded expectation for lasting employment among workers filling just short-lived jobs, says Microsoft spokesperson Dan Leach.

Still, across the work force most temps miss the pay, benefits, and legal protections of permanent employees doing similar work. Generally, their health and pension benefits are scant. Their protection from discrimination, harassment, workplace hazards, and other job vulnerabilities is often weak because they serve two masters - the temp agency and workplace boss.

And many labor laws are not structured with temps in mind, say labor activists. "A lot of labor laws and regulations were written for standard, full-time, permanent employees," says Ms. Houseman.

The temporary-staffing industry denies its employees get a raw deal. Temp benefits have improved this decade as staffing companies compete for high-quality employees in an extremely tight labor market. And the industry must follow state and federal employment laws like any other.

"There are probably few businesses that would have to become more adept at understanding and complying with labor and safety laws than staffing firms," says Richard Wahlquist, executive vice president of the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services in Alexandria, Va.

Moreover, staffing companies allow employees to better mold their schedules and careers. They offer a flexibility suited to a fluid labor market that rewards workers who continuously gain valuable skills rather than just seniority at a single company.

Such flexibility is also a boon for business. Temp services allow management to screen prospective permanent employees without the same risks and liabilities of traditional hiring.

Also, many temps are cheaper than permanent employees because the client company need not pay benefits like medical insurance, payroll taxes, unemployment insurance, and worker compensation.

Temp services are also most appealing because they allow business to finely tune payroll. Traditionally, during downturns companies retained a large percentage of permanent employees at a high cost to profits. Or, they laid off employees at a high cost in disruption and morale.

By using temps, businesses can hire or release their "just-in-time" ranks according to market changes. Meanwhile, companies can hold onto a core of secure - and ostensibly happy and productive - permanent employees, say management experts.

"Virtual companies" following such flexible management models confound the temp workers who want greater stability.

Microsoft says the average length of a temporary job is 10 months. Yet many temps remain at the company for well over a year, often drifting from one job to another in "permatemp" limbo.

"We make jokes all the time," says Schachtel: "Next we'll have to show our employee badges even for water; the permanent employees will be able to use the drinking fountain, but we'll have to use a hose."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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