Temping is discouraging for many reasons. There’s the low pay, the insecurity, the menial tasks, the complete lack of benefits like healthcare or sick days. Most discouraging, however, is the knowledge that all of the decisions about one’s employment are made not to accomplish a needed task but to save money.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Temp is a euphemism for day laborer. George and Lennie are no longer merely ranch hands. They work in law firms, banks, insurance companies and in your own workplace.
The main temp agency that I work for is a national company that operates under several brand names and is, in turn, owned by a much larger, international staffing company. The agency’s office I work for is dedicated exclusively to temp staffing for a very large, very famous, and very well-funded private university. I won’t name names, but savvy readers should be able to do the math.
This temp office eliminated temp-to-hire positions because of the recession. Now temps often cover for university employees on leave, but they also do much more than that. Several offices at this unnamed university rely on temp workers during their busiest seasons. It is temps—not permanent workers—who process applications, organize reunions, usher concerts and plays, and man orientation events. Unlike regular employees, however, they work for the temp agency.
There are several things about this arrangement that are exploitative, but I’ll give just two. First, temp workers often do essentially the same work as permanent staff for lower pay, no benefits, and markedly less respect. Right now I make almost $13 per hour, and the temp agency gets about $3.25 per hour on top of that; a permanent employee doing the same work would make somewhere around $22 per hour plus about $7.32 per hour worth of benefits. That’s around $13 per hour in savings. And remember: the university doesn’t have to pay me on holidays or when I’m out sick, they didn’t have to pay a human resources department to interview and hire me, and they can let me go any time they want without giving me severance pay or unemployment.
Second, the vast majority of seasonal temp assignments last exactly three months, not because three is a magic number, but because three months is the longest an assignment can last without the temp joining the union’s bargaining group, which would mean giving the temp the same benefits as a permanent employee. Again, the main advantage to using temps is that they lack any benefits or protections.
Of course, many university offices have a legitimate need for seasonal labor, but nothing is stopping them from hiring those workers directly and offering them full benefits. They choose to use employment agencies instead not because they need temporary labor, but because they want cheap labor. It is greed, plain and simple.
Terkel’s allusion to the characters George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is apt. In one well-known passage, someone tells Lennie,
I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.
Every temp I’ve ever met, myself included, wants one thing more than any other: a permanent, full-time job. And just like Lennie’s land, almost no one ever gets it. There are more and more temps and less and less permanent jobs, and that’s by design. After all, if they gave us real jobs then they’d have to give us decent pay and benefits.