Amber Petrovich is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.
You’ve probably seen me around your office. Maybe we’ve even had lunch together. I’m the contract (or freelance, contingent, temp, outsourced) worker your company hired on a short-term basis to get that project done or cover the busy period. I’ll be here anywhere from two weeks to two years, depending on your state’s labor laws.
Have you noticed an increase in temp people such as me? That’s because, according to a 2016 study, “94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work.” In July, the human-capital consultants G. Palmer Associates forecast a 3.4 percent increase in demand for temporary workers for the 2018 third quarter: “The momentum in the temp help employment market continues to be positive due to GDP growth and the expected effects around lower corporate tax rates and less government regulation.”
Alternative work. Contingent work. The gig economy. The world in which I live, floating from gig to gig, unable to gain a solid financial footing, is one without pay raises or basic benefits. Yet it also enables companies to increase profits and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to issue rosy reports about the lowest unemployment rate in decades. New hires for temp work count as jobs “added.” When you hear about low unemployment rates, it’s because people who hold these jobs aren’t counted.
I’m not unemployed. I’m underemployed. People like me are everywhere. The American Staffing Association pegs the number at 3 million nationwide in any given week. And if my temp assignment happens to be a longer one, you and I might spend some time getting to know each other. You might hear me mention how hard I’m trying to find a full-time, permanent job. I’ll probably ask you for help, but you, of course, don’t have much say in the lengthy, complicated process of requesting additional head count in a large company.
And I get it. A corporation doesn’t have any reason to approve those requests. Because, let’s face it, I’m a heck of a lot less expensive than a permanent full-timer. I have to be here full-time, but if I’m sick, they don’t have to pay me. If I want to take a vacation day, they don’t have to pay me. If I have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment, they don’t have to pay me. Then again, I also don’t receive health-insurance benefits, so I try to avoid doctors and getting sick in general.
Sorry about this, but if I do get sick, I’ll probably show up at work anyway, because I need those hours!
You mentioned you’re going to the employee stock ownership plan meeting tomorrow, but I won’t be going, because that’s another benefit I don’t receive. In fact, for more than a decade now, I’ve struggled to build retirement savings, because my hourly wage barely covers living expenses, in addition to buying independent health insurance. And God forbid I become seriously ill or injured and can’t work, or if I become pregnant and need to take (unpaid) maternity leave. I’d go broke.
It’s a fun time of year, though, with the holidays here, right? You were all hoping the boss would tell the department we don’t have to work on Monday before Christmas. Three-day week! I’ll keep it to myself that I really didn’t want that day off because I always stress about any lost wages. Glad I managed to save at least a little money — maybe I’ll need to dip into savings.
And I’m not the only one in that position. A 2017 study that the Freelancers Union and Upwork commissioned found that 63 percent of freelancers had to go into their savings once a month. The report also found that 36 percent of the U.S. workforce, or 57.3 million Americans, is freelancing or doing gig work. Upwork’s business model is matching freelancers with employers, so of course it celebrates the news. Freelancing redefines stability, the company says. And it’s flexible!
It is flexible sometimes. Occasionally I get freelance work I can do at home. But two-thirds of the freelance off-site jobs I’ve held averaged an hourly rate of $10 — not much for Los Angeles, but freelance rates are almost always nonnegotiable.
So here I am, working next to you for the next few months. Don’t get me wrong — I love being here. The whole department is full of extremely nice people. That’s not always the case. As an outsourced nonemployee, though, I don’t have much leverage for complaints. I don’t have much leverage for anything. But I do have a “job.” Maybe as companies increasingly become dependent on temporary labor, they’ll see the wisdom of paying a decent wage and even kicking in a few benefits.