I read an interesting article today about local companies that offer “summer schedules.” These enlightened employers let employees to work longer days between Monday and Thursday in order to take off all or part of Friday, which lets the employee have a longer weekend during the summer. That truly is a benefit. However, not many companies offer it, especially if the type of work being done is blue collar or low wage.
There’s a different kind of flexible work that is becoming popular: contingent labor. Employers want the ability to increase or decrease staffing quickly without taking on the burden of full time employees. Employment services or outsourced work firms hire staff on a contingent, and then “fill orders” with the employer who needs flexibility. From the employer’s point of view, this system works great. The employee has a different perspective.
Under a contingent system, there is no guaranteed number of hours (and usually no benefits). There is also no set schedule. When there is work, the employee has to work if she wants to get paid. Some employers market these jobs as having a flexible schedule. The problem with this claim is that it is one way. Contingent work models make no commitment to the employee. In fact, they are modeled in a way to make each employee immediately replaceable, a cog in the machine.
I once managed a contingent workforce. In hiring new staff, I underscored what the job entailed and what it could not promise. For people with full time jobs or other sources of income, a contingent work model real can offer flexibility and a little extra cash. The problem is that more and more jobs that were full time are now becoming contingent. Jobs in manufacturing, assembly, distribution were once good jobs that gave employees a secure 40 hours a week and insurance. Many companies are now using a lean full time staff and supplementing with outsourced, contingent labor.
Again, if we are solely looking at this trend from the employer’s perspective, it’s a winner. Labor costs are reduced and all of the hassle of HR administration is borne by the temporary service or outsourced firm. The employee now has to bear the burden of finding enough hours to pay bills along with the insecurity of having no medical insurance. Where summer work schedules discussed above are an example of an employer being flexible, the employee must be flexible in the contingent model, ready to scramble when the phone rings.
As Michael Harrington wrote in The Other American, the working poor in the U.S. are often invisible. We take their labor for granted and train our consciences not to care about what they are paid. The problem is that the number of people in bad jobs – low wage or contingent – is growing. With no sense of security and little income, they buy only what is needed, which explain why “dollar stores” are booming. The entire economy will suffer as this trend continues. As a country, we need to wake up.