Confessions of a rent-a-worker

Temp agencies. They’re the bottom feeders lurking in the depths of our faltering economy. Why do we need staffing agencies–whose supposed purpose is to help people find work–when the real unemployment rate is over 10%? That’s 30 million people out of work or severely underemployed. And 10% is the conservative estimate.

“‘In a fundamental way, what we’re watching is the shrinkage of America’s working class…As the post-recession period moves on, the nation is settling into the fact that what we have now is what we’re going to have. It’s not a transitory phase. If anything, it’s going to set in even deeper.’”  —Connecticut Post

I’ve worked with temp agencies twice in my life: once in New York City and now in Wisconsin. The temp agency I worked for in New York City was as corporate as they come, complete with the high rise office, the arbitration clause, the low hourly wages, and that helpful non-compete clause. From the agency’s website:

In consideration for my employment by S–, I agree that during any assignment by S– to any client and for a period of 180 days following the completion of my last assignment through S– at that client, I will not accept employment by, or perform services for, that client, either directly or indirectly through another staffing firm or otherwise, without the prior written consent of S–.”

Yes, that means that, unless the staffing agency places you in a temp-to-perm position, you’re not allowed to apply for a job at the company where you’ve been making connections and gaining experience. A lot of us fail to read this small print. Including me.

This temp agency placed me at HarperCollins doing admin work for 2 months. It was fun: I got to meet lots of book-wormy types, fish around on the bookshelves for galley copies, and try and catch the comings and goings of famous authors. Sure, there were plenty of downfalls, too: I didn’t get paid much, I had to clock out for my lunch break, and I was treated like a temp. I.e. I was never really part of the department. Nothing long-term in meetings was ever addressed to me, I was given tasks no one else wanted to do–like re-alphabetizing 15 bookshelves with no cart–and I was forced to share office space with other employees. People don’t always appreciate having a stranger thrust into their office, listening to their phone conversations and sniffling for 8 hours a day.

Still, particularly as a recent MFA grad, I loved working in publishing. The moment my placement was up, I began hunting around on publishing companies’ websites, hoping to find something, anything. I applied everywhere BUT HarperCollins, but my mere 8 weeks doing admin work in the audio department didn’t impress anyone. I finally broke down and applied to Harper, hoping that they might let the fact that I’d been placed through the temp agency slide. Nope. When I got ahold of someone in H.R., I was told that not only would they not consider hiring me for that 180-day period, but they wouldn’t consider hiring me for a full year. Apparently, hiring me within a year meant they’d have to pay a referral bonus to the temp agency, so it was a financial disincentive. So much for all the schmoozing I’d done.

An overflowing trash dumpster

Image courtesy of Albertyanks Albert Jankowski

After several weeks without placing me, the temp agency threw some little receptionist and admin gigs my way, but nothing as long as my placement at Harper. How long would I have to subsist on low hourly wages with no benefits, not knowing where–or IF–I’d be working from day-to-day?

According to the stats,

“Some 7 percent of workers nationally find themselves below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”–Connecticut Post

While I wasn’t below the federal poverty line–due to my constant effort to find freelance and part-time gigs–I was definitely toeing it. After my last experience, I avoided temp agencies for a long time, choosing to find my own low-paying jobs without giving 30-50% of my wages to a bunch of bloodsuckers. But, after finding myself stuck in between a dead-end job and sporadic adjunct teaching this year, I found myself lured again by the muddy bottom with promises of stimulating, well-paying jobs that (of course!) would want to hire me on permanently after my temp placement was up. Because when an employer is seeking a permanent employee, the first thing they think is, “Why don’t I go through a TEMP agency?”

So here I am again. This time I signed on with 3 temp agencies, determined to give myself as many options as possible. I got a couple of interviews (1 for a company whose raison d’etre is to do IT support for Walmart. Not my cup of tea) and, 2 months ago, took a position part-time with a non-profit. My contact at the temp agency insinuated that this company would let me write their newsletter, that I wouldn’t “just be doing admin work,” and that the organization would have a full-time position opening up soon.

Somewhat skeptically, I began working at the non-profit 5 days a week, keeping my retail job on the weekends. Unlike the temp agency in New York City, this agency’s non-compete clause is only 3 months long. Still, the position pays low wages, there aren’t any full-time jobs opening up that fit my skill set, and I don’t get to write the newsletter. I mostly do boring admin work. And, simply for processing payroll and mailing me a check, the temp agency takes 30% of my paycheck. While this isn’t advantageous to me, it can be to the company hiring the temp:

“This industry of middlemen provides huge savings for Amazon and other companies…That’s because the payroll taxes that businesses cough up for unemployment insurance can range widely depending on how often an employer lays people off. The government doesn’t factor in temps, so [staffing agencies] take the tax hit, letting Amazon base its rates only on the 90,000 permanent staff….”–

Does the non-profit care how much of a cut the temp agency gets? Probably not. They’re more concerned with paying a little more in the short term to avoid the headache of a true employee. The deal obviously benefits the temp agency–this is their bread and butter. Then there’s me, puttering away at the front desk every day, barely making ends meet. At staff meetings, I get to hear about the raises the full-time permanent employees are getting and how many paid holidays they enjoy. I’m not sure if my coworkers know how different my experience–and pay–is.

Almost anyone who has job searched in recent years knows where to look–the Internet. There’s,,, LinkedIn, and even Craigslist. In the online age–particularly with a recession–temp agencies should be obsolete. Instead they’re proliferating at a frightening pace:

“…the problem is growing as they [temps] account for 2.1 percent of the U.S. workforce—an all-time high, according to the Department of Labor. Companies…“are institutionalizing a permanent tier of temporary workers…’”  —

What’s the answer? Is there an answer? This problem affects workers from behemoth retailers to tiny non-profits. While I’d like to think that an organization focused on bettering society wouldn’t leave an employee teetering on the verge of poverty–with my hours cut during the holidays, I was eligible for Medicaid–the temporary worker virus is infecting businesses workforce-wide. I suppose we could start with boycotting. If workers refused to give a huge sum of their paycheck to staffing agencies, they’d cease to exist. After this last stint as a “variable cost” to help “improve operating margins,” I’m done being a disposable worker.


Categories: Economic rights

Tags: , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I read the whole thing, links and all. Nice job.

    Is there an answer? Yes, there is. Torches and pitchforks.

    We desperately need a labor party and a labor movement in this country. Ours is a country comprised of way too many happy idiots who accept the premise that economic prosperity ultimately trickles down from heaven unto its true believers. Working people just aren’t believing hard enough. Such a lack of faith is an unpardonable sin. Those people deserve what they have.

    Here’s a radical idea: Bernie Sanders for President.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with everything you’ve written here. That’s why working class people vote against their own self interest, right? They’re convinced they might become a rags-to-riches story and, when they do, they don’t want anyone taking their “hard-earned money.”

      We need Bernie for president–and a huge social movement to improve living conditions for the average American.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The particular phenomenon of worker abuse by corporate America that you have described here is yet another of an endless number of indictments in the case that capitalism and true democracy are mutually exclusive conditions. Capitalism is not about equality. It is not concerned with fairness. It is a system fundamentally predicated on the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of the common working people by an elite minority.

    That Bernie Sanders is being ignored by the American power elite–and the so-called “free press” that they own and control–is a clear acknowledgement that he represents the face of a real and dangerous challenge to their dominion over our political and economic systems.

    Liked by 1 person

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