The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At NPR, an army of temps faces a workplace of anxiety and insecurity

NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Julia Botero was happy to catch on, and determined to stay on, at NPR. After completing an internship at the public broadcasting organization in Washington in 2013, she began a year-long stint as a temporary employee, moving between producing jobs at NPR’s signature news programs, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.”

Botero quickly realized what she was up against. As a “temp,” she floated among unfamiliar co-workers and faced an ever-changing set of responsibilities, some of which she’d never been trained for. Her work contracts were sometimes as brief as two weeks, at the end of which she’d have to persuade a manager to extend her.

Worse was the sense of constant competition among her fellow temps, many of whom were angling to be hired for a limited number of permanent positions. “The only person I felt I could trust,” she said, “was the person I was dating, who was in the same position I was.” After a year of such uncertainty, she left, taking a job as a reporter for a group of public radio stations in New York state.

What’s surprising about Botero’s experience is how unsurprising it is at NPR.

For decades, the public broadcaster has relied on a cadre of temporary journalists to produce its hourly newscasts and popular news programs. Without temporary workers — who are subject to termination without cause — NPR would probably be unable to be NPR. Temps do almost every important job in NPR’s newsroom: They pitch ideas, assign stories, edit them, report and produce them. Temps not only book the guests heard in interviews, they often write the questions the hosts ask the guests.

And there are a lot of them. According to union representatives, between 20 and 22 percent of NPR’s 483 union-covered newsroom workforce — or 1 in 5 people — are temp workers. The number varies week to week as temps come and go.

NPR’s management cites a somewhat lower figure, 16 percent, although its count reflects managers and interns and other employees in departments that aren’t represented by the union. NPR says the overall ratio of temporary workers to permanent employees has remained more or less stable for several years.

Resentment among temps about their status has boiled beneath the surface at NPR for years, but the tensions have begun to bubble up over the past several months. Some temporary employees raised complaints in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal involving Michael Oreskes, the former head of NPR’s newsroom. Oreskes was accused by several women, including a then-temporary employee, of misconduct. Oreskes was forced to resign by NPR last year; several women said his behavior highlighted the vulnerability of temporary employees, who fear they could be blackballed for complaining or resisting an overly aggressive manager.

The outrage over Oreskes coalesced into a broader employee inquiry into the status of temps at NPR. Following “listening sessions” conducted among 40 current and former temporary journalists, NPR employees produced a report in May detailing a number of grievances and allegedly abusive practices.

Among them: Temps were often left in the dark about how long their assignments would last, how much they’d be paid, who they were reporting to, or what their title was. They also said they received little feedback from supervisors after completing an assignment, and were “routinely” overlooked in NPR’s recruiting efforts.

Several temps interviewed for this story use the same word to describe NPR’s temp system: “Exploitative.”

By any measure, NPR is unusual among broadcast media organizations in the size of its temporary workforce.

About 5 percent of the staff at a typical TV station was employed on a part-time or temporary basis, according to a survey conducted last year by the Radio Television Digital News Association. Radio stations, which usually have much smaller staffs than TV stations, reported an average of just one part-timer or temp in the survey. The number of temporary workers among stations has declined steadily over the past 10 years as the recession has eased, said Robert Papper, who conducted the survey.

Other kinds of news organizations employ few temps. The only journalists officially designated as temporary in The Washington Post’s newsroom are six “extended interns,” who are employed with the expectation that they will someday fill a permanent job when an appropriate one opens, Managing Editor Tracy Grant said.

NPR hires temps to address “a range of needs,” said Loren Mayor, president of operations. She said temporary workers fill in for permanent staffers when the latter go on vacation, take sick leave or parental leave, or when news events warrant.

“As a media company that strives to be innovative and nimble, we need talented people who can come in on a short-term basis to help us experiment with a new idea or pilot a new program,” Mayor said. “As a breaking news organization, we need additional reporters and editors to staff up for targeted news events like elections.”

In a lengthy response via email, Mayor made no mention of any financial advantage in employing temps. But the potential seems obvious: Temporary employees are paid only when they work, and they work only when managers decide. This gives NPR, a nonprofit organization, flexibility in managing its payroll and broad discretion over work assignments.

In a follow-up interview, a spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, said costs aren’t a factor in NPR’s employment of temporary journalists.

NPR’s temps are guaranteed minimum wages under a contract with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the labor union that represents most employees. The pay scale starts at around $21.63 an hour, or about $45,000 per year based on 52 weeks of full-time work. Temporary employees also qualify for health insurance and other benefits if they work more than 30 hours per week in a two-week pay period.

But not much else is assured for this group.

In interviews, eight current and former temps described their employment at NPR as a stressful, precarious experience. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to not jeopardize current or future assignments.

Like Botero, several said they didn’t feel prepared for some of the assignments they were given. They also described a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, given that NPR maintains a large pool of temps who can easily replace them.

“I felt like I could never make a mistake because, if I did, they’d just hire someone else,” said a former employee, who temped for two years before moving on. “I felt like I couldn’t take Christmas off, I can’t go to my high school reunion. Because if I do, I’ll be out of the loop.”

For temps who don’t land a longer work assignment, NPR’s system all but guarantees financial uncertainty, several said. A week’s employment, for example, might be followed by a longer, uncompensated layoff followed by another call to return. A long stretch between assignments not only plays havoc with a temp employee’s income, it also threatens to leave them with gaps in their insurance coverage.

“There were many weeks when I wasn’t sure if I was coming back,” said Becky Sullivan, who temped for 2½ years before becoming a permanent producer on “All Things Considered.” Sullivan, who is a union shop steward, said, “It’s an experience I hope I never have to repeat.”

Under the SAG-AFTRA contract, management can terminate a temporary employee without cause, whenever necessary, and without explanation.

What’s more, NPR is under no obligation to offer a temp a permanent job, even after years of employment. Some employees have been temps for so long they’re known as “permatemps.”

One former temp said she spent three years in various jobs at “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and its weekend version before giving up hope of landing a permanent position. Her responsibilities ran the gamut: editing, research, pitching story ideas, writing segment introductions, mixing recordings, doing interviews.

She applied for jobs when they came open, but never got hired permanently. “At that point, I was really frustrated,” she said. “You ask yourself, why am I still doing this and no one will hire me?”

She left, and eventually landed a job as a producer at a podcasting company.

Another temp described her frustrations to union organizers earlier this year this way: “You feel like you have the boyfriend who’s never going to put a ring on it.”

According to people who organized the meetings, Mayor never responded directly to the group of temps that made the recommendations in the wake of Oreskes’s forced resignation. But Mayor said NPR has begun to implement changes to improve the lot of temps.

The most significant change: NPR in April converted 26 positions that had been filled by temporary employees into permanent jobs (the union said all of the positions were held by temps who’d be on the job for more than a year). Mayor said more temp jobs will be made permanent in the future, although she offered no commitment to a number or timetable.

NPR’s union representatives remain guarded, however. They noted that during bruising negotiations over a new three-year contract last year, NPR’s management proposed eliminating all benefits for temps (except those required by law), including health insurance and holiday pay. Those proposals were withdrawn amid broad staff opposition.

Mayor said NPR’s goal is “not to eliminate the use of temps, but to make sure we are employing temps for the right reasons.”

She added, “We are aware that it can be challenging for people to deal with the insecurity temporary employment brings and we want to work with our union to find ways to address this.”