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Impermanent Work In and Out of Academia

Published onJun 16, 2023
Impermanent Work In and Out of Academia
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In the 1990s, temporary office work was an emerging employment option for many people, a predecessor to the gig economy that promised flexibility. As an undergraduate, it allowed me to work during school breaks and earn a decent wage. I signed up in my first semester at college and worked as a temp for about two years. I returned to it in summer 1993 as I waited to start my master’s program. I never worked as a temp again, although I later adjuncted for a range of universities. By that time I’d taken multiple courses in political economy and come to understand the role both types of work—temping and adjuncting—played in a larger capitalist economy. Both are examples of a now-common labor market where the worker is nameless and impermanent and the work is underpaid with few if any benefits and done primarily by women. In this essay, I discuss some of the more memorable jobs and duties I had as a temp and an adjunct and place this labor in a larger political economy perspective.

On my first college break in 1989, I called a temp agency in the Washington, D.C. area. I submitted a resume, answered some questions, and took a timed typing test. I soon learned that I could earn more the faster I typed, though no benefits were offered. A few days later, I was called for my first job at a processing factory. I was instructed to wear a skirt and dutifully reported to a large un-air-conditioned warehouse with rows of desks. I was assigned one alongside hundreds of women, mostly older, unfriendly, and casually dressed. That week we sorted Greenpeace donation responses by the hundreds. I learned this was where the temp agency sent you to ensure you could show up on time and work all day.

I passed that test and was offered another job at a state agency where I was assigned a cubicle with an unfriendly supervisor. She showed me how to divide a multi-colored collated form into red, yellow, and blue piles. Breaks were monitored. Skirts were preferred though not required. I met another temp and we became friendly, going on double dates on weekends. The supervisor eventually introduced me to a permanent worker who had attended the same college as me and had also started as a temp. She suggested I’d make a good full-time permanent employee and should aim for that upon graduation. Privately, I was horrified at this idea, and kept remembering that I was doing this to pay for college. After six weeks I asked for a transfer. I was warned by the temp agency that this meant my guarantee of work would end, but I took my chances.

What followed was an interesting range of jobs. I went to a nondescript office at the end of a long hallway where work was overseen by a commandeering woman who ordered me to sit and await her instructions. At this job, doctors randomly showed up at different hours, went into otherwise empty offices, and worked for a few hours reviewing and signing medical charts for insurance purposes. I filed the charts and watered plants under precise instructions. My manager closely followed my every move and strictly supervised bathroom breaks.  Over time, I was sent to other nondescript offices and left on my own to answer phones with little supervision. I learned to bring books. I also learned how to fix paper jams in copy machines. A favorite job was one scheduled in the evening at a nearby Catholic college where I learned to operate a switchboard. There I got a free hot dinner and was left in peace to read and answer a line that rarely rung.  Once I was sent to the Pentagon where my father worked. We drove in together and he helped me find the windowless basement room where I was to report. The manager led me to a desk with one red phone that he told me would not ring, and I was not to answer if it did. I spent a pleasant week reading my book, wandering around the concourse of the Pentagon during breaks, and meeting my dad at his office at day’s end.

After a year or two, as I gained more archaeology experience, I stopped temping in lieu of paid archaeological fieldwork, where field pants and boots replaced mandatory skirts and dress shoes. After college I married and my husband and I moved to Athens, GA to start an MA program. To make money, I contacted the only temp agency in town. I was sent to the local cable company to answer a rather busy phone. After the summer rush died down, I was given odd jobs, including painting the manager’s office, which I was happy to do (no skirts required), but his leering looks and not-so-subtle comments added to the growing repertoire of sexual harassment I’d endured in both temp work and archaeology. I had no recourse as a temp, but an observant manager moved me downstairs to assist the female dispatcher. I liked working with her, and the cable guys—they were almost all men—reminded me of archaeological technicians. We got along well and exchanged tips on keeping cool when working outside. That Christmas another co-worker about my age invited us to a party at her house where she mentioned “Michael” would be in attendance. I didn’t realize until we arrived that she meant Michael Stipe. She worked for his film company as a second job. Now I was truly an Athens local, having met the REM front man at a party. This was also my last temp job.

After earning my Master’s of Arts, I took a job adjuncting for a year at Appalachian State University. Like temping, it paid poorly ($12K for a three-quarter load for a 9-month semester) but I was promised benefits. Only after moving there did I realize the promise of health insurance had been false. I broke down crying in the HR woman’s office. As a Type I diabetic, without health insurance I would quickly go broke. She closed the door, had me fill out the paperwork for health insurance, and made me promise not to tell anyone. Unlike temp work, I did have my own office and I enjoyed the autonomy. I was happy to fix the jammed copier to make a good impression. One fellow professor sexually harassed me, and like a temp, I had no recourse, although other professors came to my aid.

My husband and I then moved after a year to Florida, where I picked up a once-weekly night course about an hour away. Email was in its infancy and not provided to adjuncts. Communication from the college came via paper mail, and I was given a box on campus in a large mailroom. I would hurry there from my day job, my footsteps echoing through an empty, soon-to-close mailroom, and quickly grab missives from a chair I never met. I would teach for three hours then drive home in our only car. Once I was tailed closely on a dark road while my check engine light went on, and I prayed to make it back to Gainesville, which I did. I eventually moved into full-time cultural resource management work, where frequent travel made teaching impossible in the days before virtual platforms. In 2004, I returned to school to earn a Ph.D., and my teaching experience allowed me to teach my own classes. Around 2010, as I was finishing my dissertation, the local community college suddenly needed someone to take over a class, so I stepped in. I got great reviews and the next year when available classes opened I was given a few, which continued for a few years.

I learned how to teach online and took as many classes as they would give me, teaching twelve classes over the course of one year, including five during a semester in which I gave birth; however, by 2012 the college limited all adjuncts to three classes each to avoid providing benefits. I generally enjoyed the students and the college, though I never met my chair and saw my dean only once or twice. I supposedly had a shared office but could never procure a key to it. Once it took weeks for the secretary to get me a new textbook because she wasn’t sure I existed. My copier experience came in handy as these were dispersed across buildings with a code for adjuncts to use, and they often jammed. Promises of full-time employment were made but never materialized, and I eventually procured a tenure-track job and moved on.

The similarities between the two jobs—temping and adjuncting—were often obvious to me. Both promised flexibility but, in reality, employees were penalized if they didn’t like a job or couldn’t take whatever course was offered. For example, after leaving the government job, the agency “punished” me by sending me to jobs no one else wanted until I proved my worth again. This resulted at times in no work or no ability to plan ahead, as I would be called in to work one or two days with very short notice. As an adjunct, I was offered courses I had little training in or knowledge of, and often kept just ahead of my students, pouring hours of effort into creating lectures and PowerPoints. I learned to say, “that’s a great question, why don’t you look into it?” when students asked me about material I really didn’t know. I also had to teach at whatever time and day worked for the college, and if I balked because of childcare, they could easily find others to take my place. In both jobs, I learned to navigate things on my own, fixing jammed copiers of all makes and models, navigating difficult co-workers, and generally making do with whatever materials were available.

Both jobs were also staffed predominantly by women. Office work is traditionally female work, and so temps were almost all women. Supposedly they offered flexibility for mothers or those returning to the workplace, but this was misleading. As a college student, I found it hard to plan my week because I might be called in to work the next day. I can’t imagine attempting to find childcare at the last minute, and being blackballed by an agency if you were forced to turn a job down. I did experience this as an adjunct with two young children, creating a complicated childcare arrangement, hurriedly feeding myself in the car, rushing to class, and rushing home again, trying not to think about how the low wages I was earning ($2500/class, no benefits) were being siphoned for childcare costs. I instead focused on how this would add to my experience and teaching repertoire, in the same way I rationalized low-paid temp jobs as a way to increase my typing speed. Because both jobs are staffed primarily by women, they also tend to involve high levels of sexual harassment. I doubt my experiences are atypical in either job, but they did inform my later work, when I oversaw a study of sexual harassment in archaeology and worked to improve things in the field (Meyers et al. 2018).

More generally, temporary work presaged the rise of adjunct labor at U.S. universities, where over 75 percent of professors are employed as adjuncts. Both foreshadowed the rise of gig economies, where workers have few rights or recourse when harassed, few or no benefits, and low pay. Permanent jobs remain held predominantly by men, adding to an unequal labor force. What my experiences exemplify is that this unequal labor force is present at all employment levels. Combined with the anonymity of both jobs and the very real threat of replacement, this creates a fragile economic base of workers.

References

Meyers, Maureen S., Elizabeth T. Horton, Edmond A. Boudreaux, Stephen B. Carmody, Alice P. Wright, and Victoria G. Dekle. 2018. The Context and Consequences of Sexual Harassment in Southeastern Archaeology. Advances in Archaeological Practice 6(4):275–287

Author Biography

Maureen Meyers is a Senior Archaeologist at New South Associates in Stone Mountain, GA with expertise on Mississippian chiefdoms, contact-period Natives, and sexual harassment in archaeology.

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