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Working People : Unappreciated Temps: ‘Work Force Lepers’

Philip Leslie is on assignment as a permanent temp

“You’re a temp, aren’t you?”

The receptionist addressed me with darting eyes when I presented myself one morning to start an assignment for a brokerage company. Answering yes, I expected at the least to be offered a seat while I waited. But she resumed answering calls, and I found a seat myself, watching while other arrivals were warmly greeted with offers of coffee.

It was this occasion, just one of many, that explains why the word “temp” makes my skin crawl.

In the “old days,” many temps were poorly skilled. But thanks to the “new days” of takeovers, downsizing and economic recession, there now exists a large pool of highly qualified, professional and well-educated workers to service the needs of corporate America. You can find everyone from stenographers to chief financial officers, medical technicians to physicians, even scientists with Ph.Ds.

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Instead of corporate America heralding this largess, we are still treated like lepers in the work force. We are often expected to come into an assignment and within minutes fix whatever was broken before we came in. We wear dozens of hats each workday, all of them “to please the boss nine ways to Sunday.” Yet our pay and the way we are treated never reflect this.

Regardless of our level of experience or education, we are usually shunted into the smallest of cubicles and desks. An associate, a man with an MBA and CPA, started an assignment as a chief financial officer for a large retail operation. His work area was an open desk by the employees’ kitchen.

One mean-spirited global entertainment company I worked for removed the telephones from the cubicles of its temp workers, even though there was no evidence that unwarranted personal calls were being made.

Recently, an office manager at one large corporation who needed a place to dump some filthy old file boxes waiting to go into storage eventually found the space in the very clean and well-organized cubicle of a bright woman I know who had been temping for the firm quite a while.

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Another trend I’ve seen is the consolidating of all of the mundane, tedious and unpleasant work on temps. I once had an assignment doing nothing but bank reconciliations eight hours a day, five days a week, while four staff accountants played with their new computer programs.

And then there’s the appreciation factor. I worked on housing accommodations for a nationwide insurance company after the Northridge quake. On my initiative, I discovered an angle allowing the company to save over half a million dollars. A feeding frenzy developed among my “permanent” supervisors, all of whom wanted to take credit for my idea. I never received one cent by way of appreciation. Not even a formal thank you from the client or the agency.

A recent article extolled the virtues of working temp, describing the flexible hours, great pay and even the chance to learn new skills. The truth of the matter is that the flexible work hours are usually only what suits the client; pay is generally half of what the client is billed, and new skills are whatever the client will teach.

As far as ever getting permanent jobs, many agencies hope this never happens even though most hawk both lines of business. Once they find out you’ll work temp, you’ll virtually never be sent on interviews for permanent jobs. The phrase in the business is “turning out,” as though temps were prostitutes. I wonder if this is what the writer of the article meant when she talked about “carving a lucrative career from temping.”

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But one thing is certain: We are rapidly growing in number. It is conceivable in the very near future that temps will make up 20% of the American work force. A fact, no doubt, that will cause pounding of hearts among the agencies. But it also means one-fifth of the work force is “in transit,” on hold without benefits or a defined career path, subject to the constant and daily whims of capricious employers.

So say “hello” to that temp in the cubicle next to you. It might really make someone’s day. After all, temps are human beings, too. Besides, with the way things are going in corporate America, you might be one of us a lot sooner than you think.


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