News / USA

US Freelance 'Perma-Temp' Economy Takes Hold

In US, a Freelance 'Perma-Temp' Economy Takes Holdi
October 24, 2013 9:05 PM
A shift from full-time permanent employment to part-time temporary work has swept the U.S. economy, gathering speed since the 2008 financial crisis. One in three American workers is now either freelance, a project-based contractor or permanently temporary, according to the Freelancers Union, a private non-profit group. Most do not have benefits or security. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver profiles two New York professionals who are finding only short-term work - one at the beginning of her career, and another who thought he was near the end of his.
Carolyn Weaver
Harry Zupnik, an information technology specialist who lives in a New York City suburb, was laid off in 2007 from a large telecommunications company. “Since then, a little over six years, I’ve had approximately 24 months of employment,” he said. “And all the employment I’ve had has been project-related, temporary jobs: Come in, do a project, finish it, get out.”

Zupnik had hoped to be semi-retired by the time he turned 60. Instead, he’s afraid to turn down any job that comes his way. “I spend all of my time scrambling,” he said. “When I’m not working, I’m afraid to take vacations. I’m afraid because of the cost, and I’m afraid to take vacations because, oh my gosh, I might miss a project opportunity.”

Zupnik is one of the millions of Americans whose work lives have shifted radically in recent years. One in three working Americans now is part-time, freelance, in a temporary or project-based job, or employed as a “perma-temp,” according to the Freelancers Union. Most have no job security or benefits, such as employer-subsidized health insurance or a pension plan. The Harvard Business Review recently called it by far the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. job market.

The numbers are expected to grow, in part because of a mandate in the new health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, requiring companies with more than 50 employees to offer health insurance only to those who work at least 30 hours a week.

Peter Capelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the change began in the 1980s, with the first wave of restructuring and outsourcing, together with the decline of unions and skilled manufacturing jobs.

“It has pushed the uncertainty that business copes with onto the work force,” he said in an interview over Skype. “Companies don’t know for sure these days whether demand will be up or down, or how long projects will last. It used to be that they carried workers in the life-time employment arrangements. When business went down, they kept them around. Now they don’t.”

Corinne Pulicay, half Harry Zupnik’s age, is in a similar bind. Last year she quit a full-time job because it had no promotion potential. Now she’s struggling to support herself while she studies textile design and marketing part-time.

“I’ve had trouble finding a steady job doing the same thing I used to do, doing production art, so I’ve had to resort to doing a variety of temp jobs,” she said. “I think people of my generation are very disillusioned. I don’t think there’s any expectation that we’ll get Social Security benefits in the future. I know a lot of my peers who, along with their day jobs, wait tables or tend bar, or are on more than one freelance gig.”

“We’re not really good as individuals at accommodating uncertainty,” said Capelli. “Most people don’t have the deep financial pockets that might make it reasonable to do. It’s not good for employees. The employers prefer it, and think it helps them remain competitive. So, it’s a winners and losers story here, and the employers have been winning and the employees have been losing.”

Zupnik points to the pressure businesses feel from Wall Street and their stockholders to increase profits by cutting labor costs.

“They’re justifying it by the bottom line, by the fact that they’re looking at short-term measurable financial results, and not at long-term value creation. There are intense pressures from Wall Street to perform and to perform now. And when you fail to perform, these companies are punished,” he said.

There is a world of difference in the lives of all those who work at irregular or “contingent,” jobs. Day laborers, many of them undocumented immigrants, wait on certain corners in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx every morning in hopes of picking up a day’s work on a building site, or cleaning houses. Others must arrive before dawn at blue-collar temp agencies, like Manpower, and are bused out to non-skilled jobs in warehouses or factories.

Meanwhile, some well-paid professionals choose a freelance life. Interior designer Clare Donahue, for example, has worked as an independent contractor for 30 years, shrugging off anxious family members who urged her to get a regular job. Paradoxically, her employment now seems more secure than her sister’s, who always had a regular job, said Donahue.

“She has struggled for security her whole life, and yet she’s ended up moving from job to job. She’ll start at a job, the company will be bought, they’ll start laying people off, and then everyone is fired. You go through this cycle again and again,” she said.

As for herself, Donahue isn’t as confident about the future as she once was.

“I’ve never felt really insecure until recently,” she said. “It’s a different situation for me now than it was when I started out 30 years ago. It may come to a point where there’s no safety net at the end where you need it. If I were injured, if I retired and needed help, there’s no guarantee now that anything will be there.”

For Harry Zupnik, who recently took a temporary job in Buffalo, one of the most distressing aspects of the new economic landscape is that even the projects he does land are limited in scope, and don’t give him an opportunity to use all his skills. His struggle for employment touches every part of his life, he said.

“It’s very tiring, it’s affected my family life, my friendships, my relationships, my self-confidence, the way I feel about myself when I walk down the street,” he said.

Corinne Pulicay is currently checking copyrights for a textbook  publisher, but that project will be done in a few months. She doesn’t know if she will be able to find a good full-time job with benefits, even after she graduates with an associate’s degree.

“It’s scary,” she said. “I think a new economic system is being born, where you have to sort of fend for yourself economically, you have to hustle and find new avenues of making an income. But you know some people are better at that than others, and what if you’re not one of those people, what happens to you?”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
October 24, 2013 9:27 PM
Yes, employers win and employees lose. Yes, financial results are first and value creation is second. All business seek efficiency, and at last work force could not be exceptional. These are the destiny of capitalism so that we seem should found the other type of economic system. What is that? I guess business activities should be more regurated for example by federal government to perspect whole nations.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs