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


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

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

Dan Fischer, 61, says his yearlong contract to install software for health-care provider Kaiser Permanente was abruptly cut short after nine months. “Boom, it was gone,” says Mr. Fischer, a contractor since 2013. Contract assignments usually include a clause saying they can be terminated anytime.

In June, he finished a two-year assignment at Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., where he worked in a cubicle alongside other outside workers in an area they jokingly called Contractor Row. Most of the hand-me-down swivel chairs at their desks were broken, says Mr. Fischer.

After working from his home in Colorado for a few weeks, he discovered upon returning to Charlotte that his ID badge no longer unlocked the doors. Since there was no manager to agitate on his behalf, he had to work from his apartment until the ID was reactivated a week later. Mr. Fischer saw his wife every eight weeks or so when he flew back to Colorado for a visit.

Mr. Fischer hit the bank’s time limit for contractors this spring, which meant he had to stop working there for at least 90 days. After that, he went back to Bank of America doing the same job as before, except he is called a consultant and is on the payroll of a different contracting firm. Bank of America and Kaiser declined to comment.

Bob Zwicker had a 10-week contract in 2015 designing an electronic circuit for a medical-device maker. Officially, he was on the payroll of a contracting and recruiting firm near his home in Olympia, Wash. After that, he became an employee of tech outsourcing firm HCL Technologies Ltd. of India, which put him on an 18-month assignment at Microsoft Corp. to test power adapters for Surface laptops and tablets.

He gives Microsoft credit for maintaining a manual testing operation, rather than simply automating the task. He spent his time at a workbench with his laptop and electrical equipment, running rote checks such as testing adapters.

“I used to design such things,” says Mr. Zwicker, 65, an electronics engineer.  He attended product meetings and felt that he had the respect of Microsoft managers, even though he felt his opinions carried less weight than those of employees.

His contract ended in June, a couple of months ahead of schedule. Mr. Zwicker says he was told the position wasn’t in the budget for the next fiscal year. A new consulting project involves more design work and is a better fit.

At Microsoft, he missed making decisions on his own and having pride of ownership in his work. Those are the moments “where you realize, if this thing doesn’t work, it’s my fault,” he says. Microsoft declined to comment.

Outside workers say they are leery of doing anything that might backfire into them suddenly losing their contract assignment or hurt their chances at landing a full-time employee job.

Veronica Peinado, a project manager in Raleigh, N.C., says a manager recently asked her to conduct a product analysis, which wasn’t part of her contract assignment. She put about 60 hours of her own time into the project.

Ms. Peinado, 59, says the manager didn’t thank her when she turned in the project. A few months later, her contract ended with less than two weeks notice.

She also was forbidden to ask the company about her compensation or schedule. To take a day off, she was supposed to inform a staffing-agency representative, who then told another outside firm, which sought approval from the company, even though she spoke every day to the manager who ultimately said yes or no.

“It’s very, very weird,” says Ms. Peinado.

Ever since Microsoft agreed to pay $97 million in 2000 to settle an eight-year-old class-action lawsuit filed by “permatemps” who accused the tech giant of using temps to do the work of employees, companies have tried to keep their outside workers at a distance.

This article will be concluded in a future blog.

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