As the country endures its day of paranoid scuffling, maudlin wallowing, and commercial 9/11 reality-tv overdose next week, I will be manning the phones at a major newspaper conglomerate. Because I’m the temp.
Looking for work post 9/11 has been an utter joy – armed with not one but two Masters degrees and skills, as one of my “counselors” describes them “out the wazoo”, I am signed up with no fewer than nine temporary employment agencies. Notwithstanding, I remained virtually unemployed throughout the summer and came within a few days of losing my apartment in a rent-stabilized building in beautiful inches-away -from-gentrification Inwood. Rather than waitress or try to start a business with the eight dollars in my savings account, I decided to temp.
The way temp agencies used to work is as follows: you’d spend around three hours of your own time taking typing tests, Microsoft office tests, grammar tests, personality tests, drug tests, and various other patience tests, and you’d be signed up. After that, the agency would send you on a sort of test assignment for less money than you’d agreed to, just to see how much shit you’d be willing to eat. Once you’d proved yourself as an agreeable little wage slave, you’d simply be rung up and told where to go to earn your 60%. 40% of the hourly rate for which the client company was billed would of course go to the agency, a collection of people with very nice clothes and who, unlike myself, did not have skills “out the wazoo” or, in fact, any skills at all.
Flash forward to the summer of 2002, months after a bunch of zealots blow up the World Trade Center. Now, instead of corporations telling wage slaves that we are lucky to have a job, they have taken the low vibe still lower by telling us we’re lucky to be alive at all. Since corporations, companies, and, indirectly, temp agencies now know that New Yorkers are psychologically debilitated, they feel free to treat us like post-incendiary debris. Because we’re sad. Because we’re vulnerable. Because we’re temps.
Temp agencies are now functioning in a whole new way. Since their clients can afford to be picky, they are requiring that temps send resumes to prospective masters and be interviewed just like real employees. If the client doesn’t like your qualifications, your job history, your salary requirement, your shoes, your sex, your weight, the alignment of your chakras, or your astrological profile, there are two to three hundred other people they have to choose from. It’s a buyers market. I remained unbought from February until around the second week of August, and the only thing that prevented my applying for food stamps was my Dad scoring a trifecta at Monmouth.
Another new quirk in the post-9/11 temp/temp wrangler relationship is something I call the Charlie Brown Football Syndrome. Temp agencies will call and tell you that you have an assignment. After you do your dance of happiness at being able to pay Con Ed back for all the air conditioning you were forced to use in July, you are told that your resume will be faxed over, your interview is scheduled, you’re in it to win it. Two days later, your temp counselor calls back and says that the client is re-thinking the necessity of having you in there at all. Perhaps they’ve decided to overwork their permanent employees. Perhaps they’ve decided that paying twenty-seven bucks an hour for a total stranger to type up invoices is a bit excessive. And, more than likely, perhaps your counselor wanted you to commit your time to her agency rather than the other eight you’re signed up with just in case the job did come through and her chance to exploit you was actually going to materialize. So your “yes” deteriorates into a “maybe” as the red past-due stripe on your Con Ed bill glows brightly enough to bring on an epileptic fit.
Most of the time, in the new temp economy, you lose the assignment before you even begin it. On a few occasions, you report to the job, only to discover that you, your one and only skirt and your Payless pumps, are being sent home again. The “temp to perm” assignment that was set up in front of you, ripe for the field goal, is yanked away, and you go sailing through the air with four hours’ pay, to land, once again, flat on your ass.
A few weeks ago, I was sent to the Human Resources department at an insurance firm I will call Moss and McMerkin. Moss is one of the companies that had offices in the World Trade Center, and much of the work they were generating had to do with trying to arrange benefits for families of now-deceased employees. I was given the job without the preliminary interview, and was pleased that the job itself seemed straightforwardly secretarial. The temp that had preceded me had gotten a full-time job, miraculously, and had been in the temp gig for eighteen weeks. During my first week, I was made welcome, signed up for an i.d. badge, given my voicemail, e-mail, and my nameplate for my very own high-topped cubicle. After my hours were safely faxed to the temp agency, I headed out for a Friday evening satisfied that I was finally going to be able to get out from under the massive number of unpaid bills that were littering my hallway.
At 7:30 PM on that Friday evening, I got a call from the receptionist at the temp agency asking to “go over” my assignment. “Well,” I said, “At least I didn’t get fired.”
Well, actually, I had been. And it seems that I had worked an entire Friday for people who knew full well that they had decided against having a temp at all – and none of them had the decency to tell me. They had acted like nothing was wrong. When I said, “See you Monday” they had smiled and waved. So why had the agency waited until well into my own time to have a receptionist call me and tell me the bad news? Why hadn’t my highly overpaid and often unnecessarily chummy counselor called me herself? Apparently, the client had had temps go crazy before. Now they waited until you were well away from the premises before they canned you to prevent you from deleting their files, stealing office supplies, or, perhaps, emptying your bowels somewhere you shouldn’t.
So this is how Human Resources works. I can only imagine the degree of sensitivity and tact they were able to effect in dealing with the families of the victims of the Trade Center disaster. Perhaps they had offered them a generous 10% discount on a whole life policy. Or a lovely plush toy.
So now I actually had personal effects tucked into a drawer in a desk that wasn’t mine in a place I was no longer welcome. This is considered professional and efficient by temp agencies these days. As a consolation, they offered me a day of work in the mailroom at JP Morgan picking the lint out of three ring binders for $12 an hour. And, by the way, JP Morgan required a urinalysis.
I finally got an assignment through another temp “service” which is actually just one hyperactive woman working out of her apartment in Chelsea. Unlike the bigger agencies, this woman was able to get me an actual assignment that has so far lasted more than one pay period. She did tell me that she thought it might result in a permanent job but, of course, I had to conceal the fact that I have two Masters degrees from her in order to get her to find me a job in the first place. The idea of taking a secretarial job again for $15 an hour after getting a very expensive MBA at a top 20 school makes me want to projectile vomit, but I show up for work every day and try to be polite.
Three days ago the newspaper publishing firm I temp for announced that due to concerns for the personal safety of their employees, they were awarding the day of September 11th as a vacation day. They also announced that the temp, yours truly, would be on hand to answer the phone and take messages. Apparently, no one is concerned about my personal safety. I wasn’t aware that temps were impervious to anthrax.
So here I will sit, on September 11th, our new national un-holiday, earning very little money for doing very little work, while the permanent employees stay home and watch CNN to process their residual trauma. Oddly enough, I am likely the only person there who actually lost a personal friend in that tragedy. My friend Ed Pykon, who conceived his only daughter in a free hotel room in the Bahamas that I had arranged for him and his young wife. I’ll be thinking of you, Ed, as I sit here at a switchboard, playing electronic solitaire, eating Thai food, your favorite, in your honor, on a day that will live in idiocy.
I miss you. Perm.