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

The four-part article on contract workers concludes with more case studies.

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

At the large logistics firm where Mr. Preiss, the former IBM employee, was reprimanded for laughing too loudly, contractors were denied access to company email and calendars, making it hard to schedule meetings. The contractors had to use a separate email system, but employees often didn’t respond, so Mr. Preiss had to buttonhole them at their desks.

Mr. Preiss recalls spending three weeks trying to set up an important meeting with a company executive who worked in a different building. He finally asked the project’s leader to schedule the meeting. The person did but forgot to invite Mr. Preiss or mention the meeting until everyone else was assembled in a conference room, he says.

After the scolding about his laugh, Mr. Preiss felt obliged to train himself to snicker, he says. “Either that or just smile or put my hand over my mouth or whatever I could do to muffle the sound,” he says.

 

On some Wednesday nights, he gathered with friends for trivia night at an Irish pub in Roswell, Ga., near Atlanta. Most of the men work as contractors, so they called their trivia team Outsourced. They have had some second- and third-place finishes.

Between trivia questions, Mr. Preiss and teammate Rob Jones often swapped stories about work. Among their frustrations: Employers want to essentially rent employees for short periods but then wonder why workers hop from company to company.

Mr. Jones, 59, has held more than a dozen jobs in nearly two decades of project-management contract work. He calls himself “one of those ‘forgotten men’ you hear about that has not had a raise in 18 years.”

The 2001 Toyota 4Runner that Mr. Jones drives has 215,000 miles on the odometer, but he won’t buy a new car. Monthly loan payments would be too risky, he says, since he never knows when a job will start or end.

In the late 1990s when companies were panicking about Y2K bugs, Mr. Jones bargained directly with clients and commanded $65 an hour. Few large companies are willing to manage thousands of self-employed contractors anymore, so they sign high-volume contracts with a handful of staffing or contracting agencies.

Mr. Jones says he now gets take-it-or-leave-it offers from recruiters, and the rate is usually about $45 an hour, or about $30 in 1999 terms. Some big projects offered as little as $24 an hour.

Foreign workers with H-1B visas compete for the types of jobs he used to do, he says. Such workers often are paid less than U.S. workers doing similar jobs.

“What am I doing wrong?” Mr. Jones asked a former boss, who took him out for a beer but offered no helpful advice.

Mr. Jones says he is now looking for any kind of work he can get, such as a government job, something “with a little bit of a pension to it.”

This concludes the four-part article on contract workers.

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