Erin Hatton, a University at Buffalo sociology professor, makes a compelling case that the temp industry played a disproportionate role in creating the American dystopia of the white-collar office:
“For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the “Never-Never Girl,” who, the company claimed: “Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”
Oh, how nice. I worked as a temp paralegal in New York City for a while after college, in a workplace that my friend Adam accurately described as a white-collar salt mine: 12-hour workdays, no benefits, rules against speaking (supposedly, a firable offense). On one occasion, a seventy-some-year-old man (presumably, unable to retire) threw up all over himself and his workstation, rather than risk going to the bathroom or (God forbid!) miss a day of work when he was sick. All this occurred in the Midtown offices of a white-shoe corporate law firm. Of course, even temp paralegaling in Midtown had a set of perks that wouldn’t be offered to temps at, say, a billing office in Toledo: We got free little glass bottles of Sanpellegrino, passable comped meals at the firm cafeteria, black-car service home to the suburbs on late nights, and a 34th floor view of Manhattan — not to mention what seemed (as a recent college graduate) to be good compensation for our time. But when the case we were working on looked like it might settle, they fired us all by phone, and cancelled the key-card privileges to the building. No “thank you” from the firm. No offer of a reference letter. In fact, we were curtly informed that we were not to contact the employer for any reason after leaving, and that we could pick up our belongings from the office of the temp agency. So, I should probably express my gratitude to the partners at the firm where I worked for providing me an early object lesson on why big corporate law sucks. And it’s not hard for me to believe that the temp industry, and the lawyers who work with it, have been central to replicating degrading working conditions for people across the U.S.