I'm Just a Temp: Living and Working at the Bottom of the Office


St. Paul, Minn.

I tell you this with a wave of one hand and an aw-this-isn't-even-worth-mentioning tone in my voice. You say, "Oh," and raise your eyebrows and nod, but the thought bubble over your head reads: "Loser. Can't she get a real job?"

If you know me, know that I graduated from a major university ten years ago, have worked at newspapers and a magazine and recently spent two years working in South Africa, you are thinking, "Carol should be doing something more worthwhile. She needs to get her act together."

If you don't know me, you ask a few polite questions, then zoom away to make small talk elsewhere. And I am relieved.

Why am I embarrassed about being a temp, and how did this word "just" creep into my job title? After all, I enjoy temping. I like meeting new co-workers, navigating through unfamiliar office cultures and storerooms, picking up new computer skills, and leaving a job with my mission accomplished. I can ignore office politics. I never get that stuck, stagnant feeling that comes with many full-time jobs. And temping lets me earn a decent wage while pondering what career path to explore next.

Maybe I'm embarrassed about my job because its very title implies that it should be short term and that any day now I'd better get serious and find a "real job."

And I suspect I've added the word "just" to my title because most temp jobs put me at the bottom of the office hierarchy and require little skill. I haven't done so much collating since leaving Catholic grade school. Dull chores like stuffing envelopes, making photocopies and sending faxes have consumed an alarming amount of my time over the past ten months.

But boring temp jobs don't last forever. Right now I'm filling in for a St. Paul public school secretary who has been home ill for weeks. The principal has little time to train me, so mostly I'm on my own. My job is challenging and stressful -- almost like a real job! I shuffle mountains of confusing papers! The phone keeps ringing! And here come two teary fourth graders from the gym -- one with two loose teeth, one with an ugly bruise and a red tooth mark on her forehead. Quick! Ice packs are in the faculty lounge refrigerator!

Temping is a goldmine for nosy journalist-types like me who relish jumping into other people's worlds and exploring. I have seen what my fellow Americans do every day after they drag themselves to the office. It ain't always pretty.

I almost walked out on a one-day assignment at a store where people can rent things and ultimately, if they are faithful and make the miniscule weekly payment for many, many moons, own them. Long before heating my lunch in a showroom microwave tagged at $7 a week for 78 weeks (that's a $546 microwave, folks), I had figured out that this place sucked its life blood from people too poor to pay cash and not qualified to get loans.

It was my job to call references -- relatives, friends, landlords, employees, welfare caseworkers -- of potential renters, and at first I felt a little slimy about it.

But then I decided that if this was the only way somebody could get the washer and dryer or home entertainment center of their dreams, I'd help!

So I threw myself into the job. I got a sore neck and a red ear doggedly phoning to ask, How long have you known so-and-so? Can you confirm so-and-so's address? Would you say that so-and-so is reliable? If we need to leave a message for so-and-so, can we leave it with you? (this one, a supervisor told me, would help the company track down renters who absconded with the goods).

When I finally called it quits my supervisors were stunned at how many people I'd reached. The guy who signed my time card shook my hand and sincerely thanked me.

Another job I had qualms about was in the legal department of a major corporation that had been picketed for its role in the defense industry.

I turned down the job when my agency told me it would last for months. But I consented when they asked me to spend five days learning the job from one long-term temp and teaching it to another. I wanted to see what it was like to work there.

I was enlightened.

The temp about to leave mostly wandered around saying farewells, so he didn't spend much time training me. But that was OK because there seemed little to do, and I suspected he didn't understand it all -- like how the legal files were organized. He told me I worked too fast, and boasted he made lots of overtime money by stretching every workday to nine hours.

At first I thought he was just jaded -- a temp with a bad attitude who was spoiling the reputation of all us temps. But he might not have been the problem. A secretary working near me said employee morale and loyalty were low because the company kept laying off workers, and often replaced them with long-term temps. (But not everybody was bitter, I observed; one day department big wigs rehearsed the theme from "Gilligans's Island" in a closed meeting room for a company talent show.)

This strategy of keeping a core of full-time employees and filling out the staff with temps has become increasingly common among recession-fearing companies over the past two decades. It's part of downsizing.

I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, folks, but cheap, disposable workers like me are helping erode your working conditions. Despite the 20-50 percent mark-up fee charged by temp agencies, we temps are cheaper than full-time workers who demand paid vacations and health and retirement benefits. And getting rid of us is a no-muss, no-fuss procedure -- much easier than lay-offs. We temps also manage to water down union power because we're aloof to workplace conditions. After all, we'll soon go somewhere else.

The bad thing about this for me, of course, is that there is quite a bit of uncertainty in my work life. The worst part about temping is finishing one job and not having a new one lined up. I get up early and get ready in case a job comes up. The agency doesn't call. I finally go run errands only to find a job option on my answering machine upon my return. I call the agency and find that the job has been taken by someone else.

Sometimes jobs end suddenly. One Monday I started a two-month job that ended after one day because of miscommunication between my temp agency and the company. The next day I started a two-week, part-time job that ended after four hours; I was basically fired because my supervisor found my attitude "too casual."

Personality clashes like this are another hazard temps must be wary of. I concluded that though my supervisor had seemed amused by my informal, friendly manner, she must have found it disrespectful. I felt so bad about this that, for my penance, I took a low-paying, two-afternoon job packing into boxes 70 ugly lamps rejected by a retailer. I worked alone in the basement. There was plenty of time to think.

I needed to learn my place, I decided. At my next job, I vowed, I would be mousy and hide my personality and background for at least a week, until I felt sure no one would be threatened by me. I would be "just a temp" until I felt invited to emerge.

But such guardedness is seldom needed. Most co-workers have been friendly, and many have become friends. When I worked at a cookie distributorship, I was sent home with sample boxes every night. People have even given me farewell lunches and presents.

It's not people at my job site, I have found, but my own employer -- my agency -- that leaves me feeling like "just a temp."

When I was battling a sinus infection in October, my job site supervisor, a nurse, concurred that I should spend a few days recovering at home.

But the temp agency treated me like a kid feigning illness to skip school. They seem oblivious to the fact that I, like the agency, lost money if I wasn't at work.

"This is three days now," a woman from the agency scolded over the phone. "This is just not acceptable. We're supposed to be providing temporary help, and if you're not there, then we aren't doing our job, are we?"

Her attitude would have bothered me less had the agency been providing insurance and paid sick days to keep me healthy. Instead it was as if I were no longer a human being vulnerable to illness and requiring recuperation time, but a machine that would be replaced if it malfunctioned. I was "just a temp" - a bundle of labor units to be peddled by the hour.

This sense of being a machine at the agency's service struck me later when I asked a counselor if the agency threw an annual Christmas party.

"No," he said off-handedly, "they save the money they'd spend on a party and give us a bonus instead."

I didn't bother explaining that I was asking about a Christmas party for the drones. And I knew I wasn't in the category of employees getting a holiday bonus.

But hey, who cares?

When I left my three-month job at the International Diabetes Center, co-workers invited me to come back for their Christmas party. And I know the principal will invite me to the faculty party at school.

I have friends!

I'm appreciated!

I may be just a temp, but I'm still a worthwhile human being.


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