“Businesses are operating fundamentally differently now than they did before the recession,” said Steven Berchem, chief operating officer of the American Staffing Assn., a trade group for temporary help agencies. “Companies are saying, ‘I don't need to hire a worker in a permanent job for many of the things that used to be done before.'”

That means people such as Martha Gonzalez of Indianapolis are always on call but never guaranteed a weekly paycheck. The Hyatt housekeeper has no sick or vacation days, and she never knows when the staffing agency might call and say she won't be needed for a while.

“You can't really miss a day,” said Gonzalez, 28, who goes to food pantries to feed her family when work is slow. “If you miss a day, they'll fire you.”

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend's salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

Few people have had a better view of the changes taking place in the workplace than human resource professionals. They used to oversee hiring, alert employees to professional development opportunities, put out company newsletters and stage special events to boost morale.

Now they're asked to cut back on those benefits and to evaluate employees based on statistics to figure out who is dispensable.

“In this economy, they're looking for shortcuts, better ways to spend less money,” said Florence Kurttila, who was a human resources specialist at a manufacturing firm until the recession put her out of work.

Kurttila was among HR professionals attending a conference in Sacramento last year in hopes of finding a job. Five years ago, companies averaged nearly 4 human resource workers for every 100 employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Today, the ratio is around 2 per 100 workers, and they are more likely to be terminating employees than helping them get ahead.

Like the colleagues they advise in cubicles and on factory floors, HR workers are under pressure. Computer programs that evaluate employees have made some of them superfluous. Many companies no longer see the need for an in-house HR department and have outsourced the work.

“The relationship between employers and employees has changed,” HR specialist Donna Prewoznik said over a glass of white wine in the conference hotel's ballroom. “Employees haven't had raises. They're tired. Their hours are reduced. They feel a little bit betrayed.”



About this story

This is the first of two articles about how technology and global competition are changing the workplace.

Monday: How businesses monitor and measure employee performance.