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When Workers’ Lives Are Contingent On Employers’ Whims

February 1, 1995

THEY MAKE UP 25 percent of the work force and outnumber employees of the Fortune 500 combined, but contingent workers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the workplace.

These part-time, temporary and freelance laborers are seeping into all parts of the economy, from janitorial work to management, yet the work-family conflicts that often threaten their performance don’t get much respect. When speakers raised the topic at a work-family conference at Drexel University, discussion almost died. ``The reaction among employers is so strongly, `Why should we care?‴ says one expert.

Yet there is ample evidence that many contingent workers face daunting child-care and family problems, without any of the usual safety nets such as paid sick or personal days, flextime or even a controllable work schedule. ``They are falling through the cracks,″ says Kathleen Christensen, a professor at City University of New York who, in a new study with Boston University’s Center on Work and Family, found that contingent workers are largely excluded from employers’ work-family programs.

Consider Veronica Lofton. A single mother who works two part-time jobs _ one as a bookkeeper and another as a parking control officer in Oakland, Calif. _ Ms. Lofton gets no paid time off. (She also attends nursing school at night.) Even the most commonplace incidents ignite a chain reaction of stress. When her four-year-old son fell off the monkey bars at day care, she had to leave work to take him to the doctor. That cost her most of a day’s pay, and she is having trouble covering her bills. She hopes to make it up by selling Tupperware, her sideline business.

But she is already stretched perilously thin: When she got the flu last week, she kept working to avoid losing more pay, making herself so ill that she had to ask a relative to pick up her son that night. Such stresses, she says, are partly to blame for the recent breakup of her marriage. She was unable ``to give much time″ to it, she says. ``Everyday I would get up and say, `I have too much on my mind. I can’t talk.‴

TO BE SURE, temporary, part-time or freelance work is itself a solution to work-family problems for many people. When Terri Beddington, a former sales promotion manager, had to move to Old Greenwich, Conn., to care for her dying father, she was glad to find a temporary job near his home. ``It has really filled a need at this time of my life,″ she says.

But for a significant number of others, what looks like a lot of flexibility is really none. When Paolo Pontoniere’s schedule as a bartender at a San Francisco hotel was changed to five days a week from two with just 72 hours’ notice, he had to make ``tons of telephone calls″ to find a sitter for his three children. Employers ``look at the employee as a mechanical being, who has no life or family behind him,″ he says.

Low status on the job can create a domino effect of stress and turmoil at home. One temporary worker for an AT&T subsidiary has been told by her bosses repeatedly that she doesn’t qualify for permanent status, though they say her work is good. She calls her continuing temp status humiliating: ``My husband keeps saying, `When are they going to hire you?′ The tension is always there.″

Cheryl Rampage, director of graduate education at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, says, ``The lack of predictability and consistency″ linked to many contingent jobs ``is corrosive to family members’ sense of well-being. Children show it most acutely,″ sometimes by acting alienated and out of control, she says, ``but adults will also feel it, in the form of impairment of relationships.″ Job stress is more than three times more likely to spill over into the home than family problems are to crop up at work, says Families & Work Institute, New York.

WHEN SUE Schillerstrom, who is on call as a part-time medical assistant at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Hayward, Calif., is called in abruptly, ``the whole family has to compensate,″ she says. Recently, her 14-year-old daughter resented being unexpectedly left in charge of two siblings. She complained, ``I really wanted to talk to you after school today,″ Ms. Schillerstrom says. The problem, she says, is she can’t plan for her absences.

Why should employers care? If contingent workers ``are facing all sorts of personal problems, it is going to show up on the job. Either they won’t come to work, or they’ll be highly distracted,″ Dr. Christensen says. A Georgetown University study of contingent workers found that reduced productivity from high turnover wiped out the savings from hiring them.

And family turmoil can have longterm costs. For many of the years her three children were teenagers, Lucy Jobe’s schedule as a part-time waitress changed every few days, from night shifts to days and back again, while her husband worked everchanging rotating shifts. Her repeated pleas for a steadier schedule were rejected. As a result, family life lacked predictability. Ms. Jobe tried hard to compensate, fixing dinner for the children to heat in the microwave and leaving long notes.

But the Jobes believe the unpredictability played a role in the problems experienced by their son, now 19, who joined a gang and had some legal scrapes. They believe, and psychologists say, that children sometimes embrace gang life for its structure and predictability. ``He has mentioned it to me, he said, `I needed you here,‴ Ms. Jobe says. ``But what can you do? You’ve got to put food on the table.″

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