A temporary lapse of reason

Corporate America is stuck between a rock and a hard place. More accurately, between customer and service. Ultimately, any company that has a customer is in the customer service business. But few CEOs and other big wigs like to think of themselves that way. They like to think they’re developers or accountants or what have you. Besides, delivering service and supporting a complex product costs money, and cost is a four letter word. Solution? Hire temps!

Reuters – Wal-Mart Stores Inc has in recent months been only hiring temporary workers at many of its U.S. stores, the first time the world’s largest retailer has done so outside of the holiday shopping season. A Reuters survey of 52 stores run by the largest U.S. private employer in the past month, including one in every U.S. state, showed that 27 were hiring only temps, 20 were hiring a combination of regular full, part-time and temp jobs, and five were not hiring at all. The survey was based on interviews with managers, sales staff and human resource department employees at the stores.

The new hiring policy is to ensure “we are staffed appropriately,” when the stores are busiest and is not a cost-cutting move, said company spokesman David Tovar. Temporary workers, he said, are paid the same starting pay as other workers. Using temporary workers enables the company to have adequate staff on busy weeknights and weekends without having to hire additional full-time staff.

Tovar said fewer than 10 percent of its U.S. workforce is temporary – or what the company internally calls “flexible associates” – compared to 1 to 2 percent before 2013. The majority of its workforce is still regular full-time staff, he said.

When you stop and think about it, from the perspective of a sociopath or a megalomaniac, this makes all kinds of sense. Temps aren’t employees so they don’t get employee benefits. No insurance, no paid days off, no sick days, no 401-k, not even unpaid holidays. The low paying job I have now started as a six month temp assignment, woops, a flexible associate. I like to think of it as getting on the elevator to economic hell, or being placed on the economic no fly list. I vividly recall going to the bathroom once at three in the morning between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where another temp was puking his guts out loudly and endlessly.

He was afraid he’d have to leave for the day. See, the temp staffing agency gave us three strikes, no doubt at the behest of the employer but conveniently blamed completely on the staffing agency. Miss more than a few minutes of the shift and it was a “point”. Three points and you were fired, no excuses. Doesn’t matter if you got rear-ended at the stop-light on the street outside and were comatose in ICU, doesn’t matter how good you performed, you’d be fired before regaining consciousness.

Not long afterward the company itself adopted essentially the same policy. The company practically bragged about this. Rolling it out at a meeting to decidedly scattered, nervous applause as if they were proud of it. On a side note, when you try to explain how bad things have become, how completely corporations run roughshod over basic human decency and ruin lives right and left these days, the people you are talking to can’t really seem to process it. Especially if they’re baby boomers or older, they judge everything by their own experience, much of which developed during times when the ability to fog a mirror was a guarantee of a job and a living wage.

Somehow I made it through that ordeal and was one of a dozen people eventually hired full time out of three hundred temps at the bargain rate of $11.00/hour. Good thing I didn’t have that massive heart attack sitting at my desk, until later. I’d have been shitcanned still in the hospital. Not that it would have mattered much, as a temp there was no healthcare insurance outside of some junk policy offered by the temp agency. Which you had to work at least 12 months to qualify for as I remember.

This was at the height of the recession. Which resulted in hilarious one-on-one meetings where genuinely enthusiastic but hopelessly outclassed high school and college drop outs in the role of group managers and team leaders tried to appear relevant coaching veteran engineers and execs in the role of subservient CSR’s, despite the fact that we could run rings around the younger “bosses”. There was one meeting where I tried to point out a well known glitch in statistic software used to predict contact volume with a full time employee in that department. If memory serves this poor guy had studied communications and drama, before dropping out of a local community college. To say he was lost when I tried to explain precisely what a bell curve was and why integrating functions of the family e to the negative X squared is problematic is saying it kindly. Good times.

After almost three years and earning the number one performer award last year out of hundreds of peers, I’ve worked my way up to the incredible rate of about $12.42/hour. Another few pennies and I’m capped out, meaning I can never earn more no matter how long I work there or how well I do.

What I wonder is why they used full-time regular employees at all, why pay me that extra buck forty-two an hour, given the many advantages of a second class workforce? No doubt there’s some convoluted corporate bullshit about team spirit and career minded people from on high, but how that pads earnings and buoys the stock is beyond me. Apparently it’s beyond more and more corporations, too.


  1. Trebuchet says

    There’s a fine line between managing costs and just being cheap. Good cost management improves the bottom line. Just being cheap results in unhappy employees and unhappy customers, and hurts the bottom line. My former company came down on the wrong side of the line with great consistency, as does much of corporate America. I suspect the Harvard business school (which I blame for much of what’s wrong with the USA) actively teaches being cheap.

  2. erk12 says

    A few years ago a global fast food chain was in the news about how they were hiring x-thousand more workers (I can’t recall if this was province or country-wide). The co-op student in my lab at the time happened to have an after school job there, so I asked her about it. She said what they had actually done is cut down the current workers to a maximum 4 h shift, so they wouldn’t have to pay the legally mandated 15 minute break. This meant that they needed more workers to staff hours 5-8.

    Publicly they had good PR for “creating jobs” during the recession, in reality they were being cheap. Luckily the student wasn’t totally dependent on the money, but she’ll have a larger student debt.

  3. says

    Sadly, this temp worker mania isn’t limited to private corporations. Check out the job listings are any community college these days. You’ll see tons of posts looking for adjunct (read: part-time, temporary) faculty, but not one opening for full-time faculty. They just aren’t hiring full-time instructors any more. It’s all adjuncts. We’re talking about temporary jobs where the minimum qualification is a master’s degree.

    I think this is the future for us all. You can kiss things like 401k plans and health benefits goodbye. We’re all going to be independent contractors soon, whether we want it or not.

  4. lanir says

    It makes no sense to me why corporations are willing to pay for temp AGENCIES on top of temp workers. It’s the same thing all over again. You’re still paying for the worker. You’re paying for the worker’s insurance (indirectly via your bill from the agency) and any miniscule benefits that come attached – which these days should include healthcare of some sort or your employers are gibbering morons who want to lose money (healthcare reform at work). End result? Unless economies of scale are at work or something, effectively all they’ve done is add a middleman. Who isn’t an unpaid volunteer.

    It also makes no sense to me why temp workers and other low paid employees are treated poorly. If anything I’d think you would want them generally happier so they would be willing to settle for less money in return for a fun job. Instead it’s like Republican hell on earth: you’re stuck with some useless jerk constantly yanking your chain while expecting you to do all the work. The extremely obvious real-world corollary to all the Ayn Rand fantasies but reversed because hey, rich morons taking advantage of less priviledged people is how the real world actually works; it’s most emphatically NOT the other way around no matter how you squint when you look at it.

    I’ve had recent anecdotal evidence that rammed both of these points home. Friend and I both left temp jobs. The higher paid of us got basically no flack for it. The lower paid one essentially got asked if they just couldn’t handle the menial tasks they were asked to do. Really kind of mind blowing.

  5. Gvlgeologist, FCD says

    In a strange twist of fate, I work at a community college with one of the largest full-time faculty percentages in the state. We’re also one of the highest ranked community colleges not only in the state, but in the US. I wonder if there might be a connection?

  6. says

    Lanir — there’s three main advantages to temp workers for the client company. One, the biggie is benefits, benefits are more expensive than some people realize, execs and officers want those sweet benefits for themselves and their families but they can’t get most of them unless they’re available to all employees, related to that no down time as overstaffing during lulls and absences during rushes for any reason are reduced, two they can be added and removed without all that messy term paperwork and DoL stuff, this saves on internal staff hugely, from HR to lawyers, three it allows the company to test drive prospective employees before hiring them directly thus getting the cream of the crop. Which almost always translates into healthier (Code word for younger and/or single with no kids), more compliant (less likely to puruse raises or benefits or complain about cuts), and more productive. In short it allows the company to skirt all kinds of costly rules intended to protect employees and still remain legal. These reasons and others are why, in some countries, use of temps is greatly restricted similar to the way child labor and prison labor is restricted in the US.

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