Monday, August 9, 2010

American Workers — Screwed.

I posted the following comments on the website of NPR's Takeaway:

If I remember correctly, Lachman Achuthan now believes that the US is now bound to see a double-dip recession. There's no way around it.

The temp workforce has steadily grown for at least 20 years. Temps enjoy _no_ safety net. When they lose their jobs, they go straight for welfare, food pantries, etc. They do not qualify for unemployment compensation.

I'm not strictly a temp — I'm a freelancer, and I've been one for twenty years. Freelancers are effectively specialized temps. Both temps and freelancers fall under the general category of contractual workerse. Editors in a variety of media, designers, creatives of many kinds, are often temps. Their industries are seasonal; work is project-based and thus highly variable. Moreover, many companies have laid off people and then just brought those very people back as freelancers or temps.

Wages in the freelance industries have been going down for ten years. They peaked in the late 90s and 2000. In New York after 9/11, things just fell apart and have never fully recovered.

Now with the prolonged, severe downturn, I'm seeing pay decline to where it was 20 years ago. I know _extremely_ experienced people — award-winning editors, designers, animators — take jobs at levels they haven't accepted since they were in the 20s. (These are people in the 40s.)

So, consider any measure of the quality and quantity of work in the 'standard' on-staff work environments, and you can be confident things are _worse_ for freelance and temp workers.

Legal protections for temps and freelancers are often non-existent. Discrimination (especially on the basis of age) is rampant.

A growing problem centers on the unpaid or very low paid "internship." Companies seeking to cut costs turn a paid position into an unpaid internship. The federal and a few state governments (including New York's) are beginning to pay attention to this, but again, there is remarkably little protection for contractual workers.

If/when jobs pick up for temps, it will still be in the context of a prolonged decline in conditions for American workers that began in the Reagan years. Americans worker longer and for fewer benefits than any others in the G8 (with the likely exception of Russia — hardly an encouraging benchmark). Social mobility in the US is the lowest of any leading industrial economy — much much lower than in the countries of Western Europe. There is growing talk in the Obama administration and in Congress of raising the retirement age to 70. (It was already raised to 67. By contrast, France recently angered citizens by raising its retirement age . . . from 60 to 62.)

In the 1950s, economists were concerned about a future workforce facing too much time on its hands, once retirement was lowered to 55, or less, and work weeks were shorter. Exactly the opposite has occurred. Americans are more productive, more hardworking, and we are rewarded ever less.