Temporary Life 2: Revenge of the Human Resource
For three years I remained a temp or, should I say, impermanent. To those for whom I worked I was as insignificant as the tasks they assigned. And when those tasks were done, I was less than insignificant—I was gone. More than any other class of employee my presence was explained and defined by the job. I repeatedly lived the abridged fate of every office prole. I sustained the lie of my indispensability until I was dispensed with.
Unfortunately, the lie was one that I sometimes believed. Yes, there were jobs at which I felt as if I were personally and practically valued. But a call from the agency marking the end of my assignment would soon enough obliterate such feelings and almost always leave me disillusioned and confused.
Eventually I learned to fortify myself against delusions of personal worth and public utility. This wasn’t too difficult, as a few times a day I’d hear myself referred to as the temp, the term that replaced my name whenever permanent employees (perms) referred to me in the third person. I came to recognize that they had no reason to refer to me as an individual. They knew I’d be gone in a week or a month and all efforts to bond were a waste. Who wants to invest time and energy in a relationship that doesn’t and won’t matter? So we mutually precluded the language of camaraderie, as prostitution precludes that of domesticity. Yet, like johns, the perms would sometimes confide in me, as my powerlessness and insignificance inspired a degree of liberty.
Eventually I objectified them. They were chumps in a sitcom that lasted from 8 AM to 5 PM. I’d overhear accounts of their extraprofessional adventures together, which management never discouraged—”It builds relationships, unites the team.” A group of them would go to a ball game or out drinking. Someone would yak buffalo wings in the ficus pot. The next day there’d be yuckety-yuks—talk among everybody but the temps. It was tacitly understood that perms should not build relationships with temps. Sure, some made a genuine effort to be friendly, but they could never be trusted allies. Whenever they had to account for their inefficacy, a temp was the scapegoat. The result was that a series of temps would sometimes pass through the same assignment. These temps suffered termination in turn at virtually no cost to the buck-passing perms. Naturally, such perms made enemies of these temps. But is a powerless and invisible enemy really an enemy? Or just someone, somewhere, holding a grudge to no effect?
As temps have none of the practical benefits of a permanent job—neither salary, paid vacations, benefits, professional alliances, specialized training nor vested interests—why should they have any of the social benefits? Their role as outsiders is not existential drama; it’s a circumstance. Impermanence insinuates itself into all their work relations. They know that the comrade of today is the incognito of yesterday and tomorrow. This, of course, is not entirely disadvantageous. Isolation sharpens their powers of observation. They have to learn things with a minimum of background and a maximum of applied reason. They have to peg people on immediate evidence and deal with them professionally. They are operatives, really, nothing more. Like Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, they do a job and disappear. In my own experience, I most respected those who understood this and treated me as such.
As most companies contract temps when workloads are supposedly too much for the perms to handle, temps tend to see a lot of understaffed or, more often, poorly managed offices. I hated getting new assignments at big companies as it was likely I’d end up in a badly managed office where a number of small, necessary, ongoing functions would be shunted to temps. These functions were mostly petty tasks—copying, filing, formatting, distribution, etc.—requiring a minimum of skill and commanding the least prestige. The perms in such offices had learned to push these tasks onto temps because they preferred not to, or would not learn how to, do what would have taken less time to execute than delegate. Prejudice regarding what was above or below their professional stature was common. When I started working as a temp, I could immediately tell that a place was mismanaged by the variety and insignificance of the tasks. It seemed that management had granted its staff an underling more out of benevolence than necessity.
In such places the workload was practically nil. However, I found that if I returned finished work too quickly my only reward was more work or a decision to do without me. It didn’t take long to realize that a temp shouldn’t over perform. A temp should ask for a turnaround time at the outset and hand back the work a bit before that. And if the task only takes two minutes? Should the temp say, “Hey, this’ll only take two minutes. Anything else I can do?” Hell no. First, perms don’t want to be bothered with the knowledge that management is wasting money, as they’re usually powerless to do anything about it. Second, downtime is the only payback temps get, and the only way they get downtime is by keeping perms in the dark. Third, temp agencies profit by prolonged assignments, so finishing quickly and thereby becoming obsolete is not, shall I say, rewarded.
Among temps, common circumstances result in confidences. I can say with certainty that I never met one who didn’t engage in payback—that is, who didn’t take home office supplies and/or profit from downtime. I met temps who went to work with empty briefcases and left with full ones. I met temps who pursued their own interests all the livelong day. One ran a record label, another edited a lit mag, another plowed through the works of all the major American playwrights. On most assignments I worked less than 50% of the time and on some as little as 5%. I sometimes found myself in departments where five or six temps were ducking in cubicles pretending to be busy. Like all petty pilferers, they had a rationale: half of their rightful income was siphoned off by the agency and their actual employers had no responsibility toward them. They had no bargaining power with any of the parties involved and none of the benefits of autonomy. They were a species of human tool and quite conscious of it. So, like most people who are conscious of being exploited, they had their underhanded revenge.
Among the temps I encountered there were two distinct types: job shoppers and day jobbers. Job shoppers were temps who, looking for permanent positions, used temping as a way to jockey into favor. Day jobbers had alternative careers that didn’t pay enough to keep them afloat (e.g., writer, musician, herbalist, Olympic athlete, etc.). Day jobbers tended to be less subservient, thus more resilient. Their sense of self-worth was not staked on the way they made money. Job shoppers, however, tended to be obsequious and gregarious in order to insinuate themselves into positions of permanency. They used their downtime to schmooze. They could not be trusted.
I remember how one of my agency consultants tried to convince me that I was self-employed and therefore should take pride in my so-called autonomy. The spinmeister knew as well as I that being a temp was nothing to take pride in. My autonomy and individuality were suppressed by the inherent demands of the job. No one employs a temp on account of character or personality. Temps are operatives with a skill set. More than any other type of worker, they are all that is suggested by the term human resource: labor to be used up or stored up, to be tapped when demand exceeds supply and kept in reserve when supply exceeds demand. They are corporate management’s ideal labor force: a quantifiable resource. As a temp it was best, therefore, never to loose touch with that fact and act accordingly, payback included. For, as all exploited and powerless people know, what Shylock in the Merchant of Venice says is true: “You take my life/when you do take the means whereby I live.”
© Copyright 2005, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.