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Abracadabra: You’re a Part-Timer

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Posted on Aug 22, 2013
mtume_soul (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A man demands higher wages at the fast food strikes in New York City, July 2013.

By Barbara Garson, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

“Not that I ever heard,” Ina answered.  “I think—and I’ve been saying this for a year and a half—their ultimate goal is to have all part-time sales people working shifts of four-and-a-half hours.  That way they’re not responsible for lunch, they have a lot of bodies, they pay no commissions, no benefits, and it’s a constant turnover.  This is what I think they want even after the recession because,” here she leaned in as though to reveal a secret, “they haven’t stopped hiring people.”  She checked to see if I grasped the significance of that.

I did and so did her fellow saleswomen, but it’s hard to go job-hunting during a recession.  While a few of the old professionals had already left, most were holding on, chewing over any bits of information they could pick up that might indicate management’s intentions.  “In our store we know they’ve continued the health benefits until March,” Ina said.  “What will happen after is what we’re trying to find out.”

Eventually, the company broke the suspense.  Managers called the remaining full-timers into the office and gave them two choices.  They could take a small severance package and collect unemployment or they could stay at truncated versions of their old jobs if they wished, but as part-timers with no benefits and no commissions.  In a way, the company had made government unemployment benefits a part of its buyout package. They were saying, in effect: you go voluntarily and we’ll agree that we laid you off.

Four years after the official end of the recession I interviewed Ina again.  She was the only one of the former sales staff still working there.  Her earnings were less than a quarter of what they’d been a few years earlier. 

“I can afford to retire,” she assured me.   “In a way, I already am.  I just like coming out of the house and seeing my regular customers.  But everyone who had to support themselves left.  All the new people are young,” Ina complained. “They have no commitment to the job.  They skip days whenever they feel like it.

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“But why shouldn’t they?” she said suddenly, reversing her judgmental tone.  “It used to be if you missed a day, you missed a chance to earn commissions.  It mattered.  But at nine or ten dollars an hour, if they have something else to do they skip it.

“The job is only worth it if you’re a college student and the hours are a perfect fit for your schedule.  If that changes the next term, they leave.  And it doesn’t seem to make a difference to the company.  They treat employees like nothing now.  I don’t mean it has to be a family, but it isn’t even a team.”

I recently checked her company’s website under “careers” and it was true; they were advertising for more than 70 sales assistants for their various North American stores.  All but one of the positions was listed as part-time.  The sole full time job happened to be in Canada.

In other words, under the shadow of the recession, the company hadn’t sent jobs offshore or eliminated them.  It had simply replaced decently paying full-time employment, including benefits, with low-wage, contingent employment without benefits.  It had, that is, pulled the old switcheroo, turning good jobs into bad ones on premises.

Entering the Freelance Life

Here’s how the same magic trick works a little higher up the food chain.

Greg Feldman was a full-time professional doing computer graphics for an educational publisher which produces test preparation materials for school districts.  One day during the recession, his company laid off some 20 staffers including him.  As far as I can tell, its business wasn’t declining.  (Standardized test prep must be one of the last things desperate school districts cut.)

“When I got home I went into panic mode,” Feldman remembered.  “I said I better redo my resume before the weekend.  And I did.  But there were a couple of openings I could have applied for that day—one full time, one long-term temp.  But I waited till after the weekend to send it in.  That was in November [2008] and this is February [2009].  I’m on the websites every day and I haven’t come across any other regular staff positions since those two.”


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