The Contract Employee—America’s New Working Man and Woman: Part One

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This four-part article from the Wall Street Journal explores the newest form of employment in America today—the contract worker. Highly advantageous to the employer, disadvantageous to the employee, allowing him or her to be exploited without benefits, standing or seniority. Everything that formerly offered opportunities for pride in one’s work is now ripped away. As a contractor interviewed for the article says,”There just is no career anymore.”

By LAUREN WEBER, September 14, 2017 for the Wall Street Journal

Michael Preiss was happy to escape the corporate grind after being laid off by International Business Machines Corp. in 2001. He became a contractor, earning more than $100,000 a year from steady assignments helping companies figure out how to do things faster and cheaper.

That work eventually dried up. The past decade has been a revolving door of outsourced jobs for shrinking pay, fear that any day at a company could be his last, and reminders that full-time employees live in a different world, even though they often sit at the next desk. Mr. Preiss says one manager reprimanded him because co-workers complained that he laughed too loudly.

“My career is shot,” says Mr. Preiss, 59 years old, who lives in Atlanta. “There just is no career anymore.”

Millions of contractors now do heavy lifting, paper pushing and other jobs for American companies that have replaced employees with outside workers. Within the next four years, nearly half of the private-sector workforce in the U.S. will have spent at least some time as a contractor, temporary employee or other type of outside job, estimates MBO Partners, a provider of support services to self-employed professionals.

 

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The contractor model offers companies lower costs, more flexibility and fewer management headaches. Workers get far less from the arrangement.

The costs hit home in every paycheck and every day on the job, according to interviews with dozens of current and former contractors, as well as many of the more than 150 responses to a Wall Street Journal survey. The survey asks readers of articles in this series to describe their experiences working as a contractor.

Outside workers usually aren’t surprised when they get no paid holidays, sick days, employee-sponsored health insurance, 401(k) plan or other perks routinely offered to traditional employees at the same companies.

What wounds more deeply are things taken for granted or barely considered at all by regular employees, outside workers often say. The work lives of contractors frequently feel like a series of tiny slights that reinforce their second-class status and bruise their self-worth. Even when contracting jobs are easy to get, they can vanish instantly, and turning contract assignments into a real career remains out of reach.

At many companies, contractors aren’t allowed to attend important meetings, go to the company gym or bring their kids to Take Your Child to Work Day. They keep quiet because only full-time employees are expected to speak up. Working harder, smarter or longer offers little advantage when applying for a job directly with the company.

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Nothing is loathed more than the nametags or identification badges that advertise the lowly ranking of contractors in the workplace pecking order. Technical writer Don Cwiklowski Jr. worked as a contractor at Mastercard Inc. for four years. He says co-workers often glanced at the badge dangling from his neck, saw the red color that signaled his contractor status and looked right past him.

He got a green badge when he was hired as a full-time employee at Mastercard in St. Louis in 2012. Some of the same people who had shunned him started saying hello in the hallways, says Mr. Cwiklowski, 53.

The company says it “puts our people at the center of everything we do” and isn’t aware of the examples cited by Mr. Cwiklowski.

Such experiences are becoming more common as the outsourcing wave moves from less-skilled jobs such as security guard and cafeteria worker to a wider range of corporate tasks. Those include information technology, customer service, research, human resources and sales.

This article will be continued in future blogs.

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