A client called me with good news last week. He had received a job offer to work as an assistant at a doctor’s office. His voice didn’t sound good, so I asked what was wrong. He told me that he didn’t want to sign an employment agreement. The language scared him. He sent a copy to me, and he had every reason to be afraid.
The business manager told my client it would be a full time position with benefits. The employment agreement said something very different. It stated that the employee would work when the business manager said work was available. If work was slow, he could be sent home or have a day cancelled. The employment agreement also contained a non-compete agreement that limited my client from working with a 15 mile radius of the doctor’s office for a period of 18 months. This clause would limit my client’s ability to find work close to his home. He asked the business manager if this language could be changed. She told him not to worry about it. She said that they just get this form signed to make the lawyers happy.
My client talked to a lawyer who warned him not to sign the agreement and keep looking for another job. I agreed with this advice. This kind of agreement is all one way. When there is work, the employer expects the employee to come in and do a good job. If there is no work, the employer saves the cost of paying employees. All the risk is borne by the employee. The non-compete is often used by such employers to keep employees from leaving.
Be careful. Only sign an employment agreement after you have read and understood it. If you have any doubts, ask your prospective employer to let you take the document and think about it for a day. Anyone who tries to force you to sign the document and take the job right away is clearly trying to trick and control you. Don’t be fooled. Take the time to know what you are signing.
The great labor reporter Michelle Chen has written a piece for The Nation that examines the use of temporary labor. She breaks out the various methods large companies use to pay less and not be responsible for worker safety issues or unemployment claims. Many contingent workers have experienced wage theft. In essence, these workers are meant to be replaceable at a moment’s notice. Chen gives a great overview of this disgusting system. I strongly recommend her article.
Huffington Post has posted a Reuters report that Walmart is only hiring temporary employees in several states. This move lets the retailers staff busy times without taking on full time employees, The report also notes that hours of some full time employees are being cut. Other retailers are following a similar model.
As I blogged yesterday, the biggest problem facing workers today isn’t unemployment. It is wages. It doesn’t matter if someone is at a low wage job or if they are paid a decent hourly wage with limited hours, in either case, the worker is not making enough money. Walmart and other companies are looking ways to push up profits and share prices. Too often they are doing so on the backs of working people.
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.