Monday, March 2nd, 2009
It’s become commonplace for big companies to to use employment agencies to fill in headcount cheaply. These agencies employ workers, often called “temps” or “contractors”, but in reality they are full time employees (i.e. they receive W2s) of the employment agency.
This is a really shitty set up for the workers, and this recent 10% rate cut by Microsoft is a perfect example why:
Let’s pretend you’re a temp at Microsoft. Every day you go to work at a building that says “Microsoft” on the side. You sit around with other Microsoft employees and do Microsofty things. But in reality, you don’t work for Microsoft at all. You work for Volt Workforce Solutions, an employment agency. You’re vaguely aware of this — after all they pay you and you fill in their time card, but this is a pretty common practice (you hear) so you’re not too worried about it.
Then one day, Volt sends you an email saying “Agree to this rate cut.” What happens if you don’t agree? To be blunt, you will be likely terminated — after Volt follows the procedure in the employee handbook, natch. There is a chance you’ll be reassigned to another contract, but it’s likely that you’ll just go.
And the best part is there’s jack shit you can do about this.
In at-will states (like Washington), it is perfectly legal to fire any employee for any reason, bar a couple of exceptions: discrimination, for taking medical leave, and for refusing to commit an illegal act. All the employer has to do is not do any of those things and follow their own procedure (usually outlined in their employee handbook).1
The comments on the post I linked to above break my heart. There are so many people in my industry that are completely clueless and have been suckered in by the promise of a good job and the chance to get ahead. Rugged individualism is rampant in the tech industry — there’s this myth that if you’re smart enough, or do a job esoteric enough, you’re somehow magically protected from being fired.
This isn’t a dating sim. You can be fired for any reason at any time. Here’s an anecdote for you:
I once worked at an employment agency for a big tech company. Two weeks before my contract was up, I told my bosses that I wouldn’t be renewing with them, but that I’d had a good run and no hard feelings. And that was the truth: I was tired of the corporate cube farm life and wanted to do something else.
A few days later, before I head in to work, I get a call. It’s from my employment agency. I’m told not to go into work, and to instead box up any property and ship or deliver it to some address out in the sticks.
I eventually learn that all of the contractors on my group had been dismissed as well. Speculations were made that it was for cost reasons, but nobody had a good answer.2
This is reality. This is how the system works. No puppies. No sunshine. No rainbows. No magical job security because you’re awesome.
Reasons for optimism
It’s not all bad news. The site I linked to at the beginning of this entry, msratecuts.org, was set up as a result of the recent 10% reduction. The first step towards fixing this situation is to realize that there is incredible power in numbers.
There’s also this David Sirota piece in The Nation last year that talks specifically about about Microsoft’s temps and the efforts of WashTech to organize them.
A note on comments
Consider this list before commenting:
- Unions aren’t bad. Neither are they good. A union is a type of organization, like a corporation or boy scout troop. Some unions are bad. Some unions are good.
- Spare us all the rugged individualism, please. Think through the implications of what you’re saying and watch Gattaca a few times before you start ranting about Social Darwinism.
- Sit still for five minutes and think deeply about this: “There are other people in this world who are less fortunate and talented than I am. It’s possible that their situation might be different from my own, and my comment should reflect that.”
Of course, the worker gains the benefit of being able to leave their job at anytime, too. Using that in a bargaining situation is a bit like threatening to nuke your own country and cackling as you describe the fallout to your (nonplussed) downwind neighbor. ↩
FYI: I hold no grudges against my direct managers or coworkers there. In fact, they’re quite awesome. The project was a lot of fun and they did the best job they could in a really hellish corporate environment. Hats off to them. ↩