|Free Agency — Breaking Up is Not Hard to Do
By: David Soyka
The percentage of free agents — workers who perform projects on a temporary freelance basis and/or act as pseudo employees under a limited-time contract — is at an all-time high according to one recruiting site. However, in this economy, it’s likely that this is less by choice than circumstance; nervous employers don’t want to risk the costs and commitments of “real” employees and prefer to hire freelancers, frequently through third-party agencies, who don’t have the loaded expenses of employees and, more importantly, can be quickly and easily shed as circumstances change.
If you’re now freelancing less because you want to than because you can’t land a “real job,” a few words of wisdom.
Thanks to Vizcaino vs. Microsoft, a landmark settlement in which temporary workers successfully argued they were essentially employees — they had designated offices, went to company functions, were listed in organizational charts — and therefore eligible for stock options (this was the 1990s when fortunes were made on Microsoft stock), companies today typically hire freelancers through third party contract agencies. To establish a legal distinction between employee and contractor, and to avoid future contractor claims to employee benefits, contracts have fixed durations of no more than a year, usually with limits on renewals. Moreover, there are no developmental activities or training opportunities, no invitation to company picnics, no company perks. Sometimes, you don’t get a regular place to sit.
You are a disposable asset.
While you do exactly the same work as regular employees, you are treated differently, sometimes in ways that not only lack in professionalism, but common courtesy.
As soon as you get your badge, your laptop, your passwords and start to settle in, it’s already time to start looking for side projects and planning for your next assignment. If you don’t, nobody else will. Not the company you’re working for, not your agency. See 1 and 2 above.
On my last contract, while employees frequently worked from home for any number of reasons ranging from waiting for a plumber to picking up their kids or taking advantage of a nice day, contractors could not. Contractors were required to account for every minute worked, even as employees on salary with the same jobs did not.
The situation was exacerbated by the antics of a dysfunctional manager. While I advised my agency and asked for help in mediating the problem, or to get moved to another assignment, nothing much happened. Nothing, that is, until a couple of weeks before my contract was due to end when my agency rep informs me that the aforementioned manager from hell preferred to work with a contractor she’s used before who just became available. Please hand in my badge and laptop and leave the premises. Immediately.
Now, you might think my agency should have suggested that perhaps this isn’t the appropriate way to treat someone who, personality issues aside, performed the assigned work in a timely and professional manner. Maybe even pay me for, if not the time remaining on the contract, the rest of the week. But they did just about what I expected. Which was nothing. See 1 and 2 above.
The one thing your agency does is send you a check. Admittedly a valuable service, but since they make their money from an administrative fee added to your hourly rate, it’s a service performed out of self-interest. Don’t expect your agency to do much else. You’re not their client, the company is. Again, see 1 and 2 above.
Nobody likes to be treated like a replaceable spare part. But, I had followed Rule 3 and had new assignments ready. Best of all, I no longer had to deal with a supervisor suffering from delusions of grandeur. Unlike the employees I left behind who had to continue to work with this person.
Which is perhaps one major reason to be a contractor. Just as long as you realize that while it’s easy for them to get rid of you, the trick is to always be fully prepared to leave.
David Soyka is freelance copywriter who has conceptualized and developed a range of strategic advertising, marketing, training, and technical communications for advertising agencies and Fortune 1000 companies in print, web, and broadcast formats. A former newspaper reporter and English teacher, he is a published author of ficiton and non-fiction, and a DJ at WTJU-FM. Find him online here.
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