I’ve been working on site at a company in Ames Iowa the last 15 months. Ames is 37 miles from my house which is a lot closer than the 60 mile commute to West Des Moines. Everything has been going good. The company in Ames seems happy with my work, the company I work for makes money from farming me out, and I have a good paying job with health care, a 401k match, and four weeks’ vacation/sick time that grew each year I worked for the company which will be six in March.
Or should I say would have been six in March. Two weeks ago my boss drove to Ames to meet me for a ‘status meeting’ and lunch. Over lunch I found out that the status of our department was that the large company that bought our company years ago decided to close our department. This wasn’t a surprise for me since in the last year there has been an exodus of the senior leadership of the older company and the new company has been very aggressive about consolidating all the companies they have bought in the past few years which are now all located in one building in West Des Moines and have been rebranded into one company name with different divisions. The custom programming department I work for doesn’t seem to fit in the new company which is mostly focused towards selling and maintaining networking and phone systems with little to no custom programming.
I was told I had a number of choices. I could work another 60 days and receive a severance package and be unemployed, I could find another job before the 60 days in which case I wouldn’t be unemployed but the severance package would be problematic since I was leaving the company, or I could ‘transition’ to the staffing company that was bought by the large company that bought our company years ago and be farmed out to the same place in Ames to work.
My situation is no different than most people. I work to pay the bills and also to make sure I have health coverage. I had lunch with a man and a woman from the staffing company three weeks ago on a Friday. They were well dressed, very polite, smiled a lot, and paid for my lunch. We talked about my ‘brand’ and I mentioned that at 56 years old I was probably too old to have a ‘brand’. Then we talked about how since I was already working at the company in Ames it would be a seamless transition with the only difference being that the company I am working for was now going to pay this staffing company instead of my old department. Then the seamless transition started to split at the seams. The staffing company does not give their contractors vacation time or paid holidays and the contractors are assigned to a ‘higher tier’ of health care coverage. The ‘higher tier’ does not mean the contractors get more coverage, rather that the contractors pay much more for the same coverage.
I was told by the staffing people that I could expect enough of an increase in my hourly rate to offset the loss of benefits. It was a very nice meeting at a very nice restaurant and we all said very nice things (even me). I did notice that even though we were at this restaurant for so long that the all the other tables turned twice staffing guy only left a minimal tip.
That afternoon I got an email from staffing guy wondering if I had any questions. I had only one question and that was if there wasn’t a position from the staffing company available when my current assignment ended who would be paying for my health care. I didn’t ask the question because I didn’t know the answer – I asked the question because I wanted to see how long it would take to get the answer.
Since I couldn’t imagine a staffing company not knowing the answer to this very simple question when I got an email the next Monday that the staffing company was researching the answer to my question I started looking around to see what jobs were around. Luckily there are plenty of programming jobs around and I picked two companies I was going to apply to. The company I was stationed at knew that my department was being closed. I told them I didn’t think that I was going to be moving to the staffing company. This company has always been straight with me and told me that they would give me and my company three months’ notice before I wouldn’t be needed there so I wanted to be straight with them and let them know that I may not be able to reciprocate and give them three months notice.
I’ve been through this scene before. I worked for a staffing company that I signed a contract for two years at an agreed upon rate. At the end of the first year the company called me to congratulate me on the fact that I’d been renewed. I asked if this meant a third year only to be told ‘never mind’ because my ‘2-year’ contract was only a one year contract and the printed copy that said two years was only for my benefit. The nebulous mature of the ‘contract’ was confirmed when the staffing company cut my pay in the middle of the second year of the contract. At that time the staffing company told me they would ‘over-communicate’ with me to make sure I was in the loop. I never heard again from the staffing company until the day I told them I would not be available after the second year of my contract ended because I got a new job. Then the staffing company called me and told me that they had been working on my new deal and they were just about to call me and let me know about the huge raise I was going to get. What a coincidence.
Now maybe this staffing company was different than the other staffing company but I’ve had experience with plenty of these companies and so have my friends and for the most part we have come to the conclusion that working for a staffing company means you are eminently disposable. Maybe this staffing division is better than the rest and maybe they aren’t but a company that doesn’t offer their employees any benefits or won’t answer a simple question doesn’t make me think they are any different except maybe worse than the other staffing companies.
In the next week the place where I’m assigned asked me if I would consider contracting directly through them instead of through a staffing company. They checked with their legal department and I made an offer and it was accepted. 10 days after my initial meeting with staffing guy and staffing woman, staffing guy called me to run through the numbers. My pay would be raised by a little more than the amount needed to make up for no paid vacation, no holidays, and the massive increase in the cost of health benefits. It turns out that the staffing company’s health care costs as much as it would cost me to buy it privately. I asked for the answer to my original question and staffing guy told me that if I was not on assignment I was considered unemployed and had to purchase my health care out of my pocket.
Then staffing guy told me that I had to sign the ‘transition paperwork’ within two days. This reminded me of my previous experiences with staffing companies. While there are no quick answers for the contractors’ requests the questions from the staffing company seem more like demands that leave little to no room for reflection. I told staffing guy that since it took him 10 days to answer my question I would like to take 10 days to think about the offer. Staffing guy said OK and I waited a couple of days and tendered my resignation to my old job and let the staffing company know that I wouldn’t be joining them.
Working for myself is a boatload of hassle - there are extra tax forms to fill out, expenses to track, insurances to buy, and I even have to pay my taxes quarterly. I was happy working at my company (6 years is the second longest I’ve been working anywhere) but I didn’t leave them – they left me. As is the case with most working people I’m a red pen line drawn through my name from being unemployed but it seems to me I’ll have a better chance at avoiding the red pen by not having the layer of a staffing company in between me and the company that is ultimately paying the bills. The staffing company is kind of like a matchmaker in that they have access to both the programmers that need jobs and the companies that need people but in this case I was already bringing the company to the table so I didn’t need the staffing company and if circumstances change there are plenty of staffing companies around.
I don’t know how this will work out. It is like buying a car or any other big decision in that I won’t know whether it was a good choice or a bad choice until I get down the road a few years. I do feel good that when suddenly faced with an unpredictable situation I acted swiftly and honestly instead of sticking my head in the sand and hoping for the best like I did 10 years ago when the company I worked at for 13 years was sold and I waited fruitlessly for a promised retention bonus. So even though Monday I’ll be going to work in the same location in Ames that I went to today and will still be doing the same work with the same people it will be very different because I’ll have a new boss which is me. I hope we get along.