This is (gasp) almost four weeks old, but it's important and it kept getting pushed back.

Around Labor Day the New York Times ran a terrific piece comparing the difference across time in the same basic, stereotypically Lowly job – being a janitor – for a large company in 1980 and today. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the salaries are almost identical; I tend to assume, obviously wrongly, that jobs characterized as menial tend to pay less now than in the past. Marta cleans Apple headquarters for $16.60/hr (before you flip out, remember that salaries are inflated in Cupertino) and Gail earned only slightly less inflation-adjusted to clean Eastman Kodak's offices 35 years ago. But the difference, which I'm sure you know from painful experience, is…

Ms. Evans was a full-time employee of Kodak. She received more than four weeks of paid vacation per year, reimbursement of some tuition costs to go to college part time, and a bonus payment every March. When the facility she cleaned was shut down, the company found another job for her: cutting film.

Ms. Ramos is an employee of a contractor that Apple uses to keep its facilities clean. She hasn’t taken a vacation in years, because she can’t afford the lost wages.
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Going back to school is similarly out of reach. There are certainly no bonuses, nor even a remote possibility of being transferred to some other role at Apple.

Yet the biggest difference between their two experiences is in the opportunities they created. A manager learned that Ms. Evans was taking computer classes while she was working as a janitor and asked her to teach some other employees how to use spreadsheet software to track inventory. When she eventually finished her college degree in 1987, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology.

Less than a decade later, Ms. Evans was chief technology officer of the whole company, and she has had a long career since as a senior executive at other top companies. Ms. Ramos sees the only advancement possibility as becoming a team leader keeping tabs on a few other janitors, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.

They both spent a lot of time cleaning floors. The difference is, for Ms. Ramos, that work is also a ceiling.

This sort of "domestic outsourcing" receives far less attention than the kind involving the more conveniently targetable foreigners, and it is completely out of control. I see ads daily on public transit for "local outsourcing" of IT, which is a slick marketing term for firing all your IT employees and paying piecemeal, an hour here or there, for IT help. The hourly rate is probably crap, but that's not the point. The point is that the hourly rate your company pays Local Outsource Bro Startup (LOBS) is your soup-to-nuts cost; that's it. No payroll tax – that's LOBS's problem. And no benefits, sick time, paid vacation, and so on. Not because LOBS is responsible. Because there are none.

Academics recognize this as the trend toward hiring adjuncts, who work on one semester contracts without benefits, to replace tenured faculty who are owed annoying things like health insurance and can only be forced to teach the number of classes for which they are contracted. Professionals like accountants recognize this in the myriad apps and online services that centralize, piece out, and otherwise package their services in tiny bits for consumers. Even doctors are now being harnessed into "seeing" patients via webcam or replacing specializations like radiology with off-site services that require only an internet connection.

But let's not kid ourselves. It affects us all, but it is hitting hardest among people with the least economic power and with the most replaceable skills. Your massive companies of today are no longer hiring their own security guards, drivers, janitors, warehouse grunts, and the like. Add in tasks that have been effectively eliminated by technology (the typing pool springs to mind) and you have a workforce in which the Gig Economy reigns.
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There is a tendency in the professions where this is not the case to shrug and wonder why one should care. The answer is simple: because this economic model will come for you too, someday. Yesterday the janitors, today the payroll department, tomorrow the "Creative Talent" or whoever near the top happens to think of themselves as somehow unique or irreplaceable. If you're lucky, your specific field can hold out until you reach retirement age or the sweet release of death. In time, though, it's inevitable. I've spent almost two decades repeating the same thing on here and any of us who live long enough will eventually discover that it is true: the forces unleashed in the 1980s will not, and probably cannot, rest until every last one of us is paid hourly with no benefits. If you think a postgraduate degree or a Management Position immunizes you, just wait.

58 thoughts on “TIME JUMP”

  • Some countries dealt with the issues caused by technological change in past centuries by coming up with some real and effective labor laws protecting workers.

    Germany now, for instance, limits use of work messaging to business hours.

    So the question, if there is a question, isn't whether this is the future, but whether people in the US will ever decide to work together for their common good.

    Hysterical laughter heard off.

  • Imagine how some type of "Medicare-for-all" would impact this trend. The yoke of keeping a job or contract position would be gone, and the proles would start to regain some leverage.

  • Can I just say fuck you, Milton Friedman? Free to choose, my ass.

    Also, "paid hourly with no benefits"? Try paid per task; tasks which "mgmt" determines can and should be done in less time than humanly possible.

  • I've never had any skills that were worth anything–in terms of making money for myself. I've worked at a lot of different jobs and when I left nobody outside of a small circle even knew I had been there.

    No apprenticeships–outside of labor/skilled trades unions–no guilds, no genuine mentoring for the vast majority of employees; iow, no programs for helping employees become better employees or people.

    Most employers I talk to or have worked for don't really give a genuine fuck about their "help". If you ain't family or family of a friend you're as important as the asswipe in the men's room. There needs to be asswipe–the brand is much less important. Their attitiude, btw, is hardly new. It's basically the model that obtained UNTIL labor unions and U.S. labor law made it difficult for people to simply pick up and leave a locality where they were experiencing, "labor unrest". They still do it, the shutting plants down thing–hellooooooo, Caterpillar–but it tends to be a lot more expensive. I know the RefucKKKliKKKlansmen Congrifterz are doing their best to dismantle OSHA, EPA and other agencies that allow employees, consumers and the environment to cheat the job creators out of their just desserts but there's only just so much they can do without stirring up the torches and pitchforks cohort.

    I just googled the article and the author. I was a bit surprised to find that he is actually a staffer at the NYT. Ya gotta wonder how many actual humans are in the journalism business these days. The local paper in my town is not a local paper. It's one of group owned by somebody who doesn't live here. That somebody is obviously committed to fairness and accuracy in reporting at about the same level as FuckTheNew'sCorpse. I know the editor and one or two of the reporters. They got rid of their photographer a long time ago. The reporters do what they can but I know for an absolute fact that any story they might want to run that casts local businessmen or pols who are not demoncrats in a bad light won't be running unless it's already been picked up by the Syracuse or other news outlets.

    Shitty jobs or no jobs, by the hour or by the word. The work will get done because when the only choice is shit jobs or no jobs, a shit job looks like a career.


    "ROCHESTER — Gail Evans and Marta Ramos have one thing in common: They have each cleaned offices for one of the most innovative, profitable and all-around successful companies in the United States."

    They have two other things in common.



  • Universal Coverage with Single Payer.

    To return labor to a position of some power would require far fewer workers. I'm not advocating genocide but a few billion less people would mitigate or solve a whole host of problems. It'd take more cooperation than humans can muster to limit our breeding habits so I see nothing but horror on a timescale of two more generations.

  • Not quite a replay of the gilded age, much less upward mobility this time. An example, Walter P. Chrysler used to be a locomotive mechanic.

  • Future creative job loss? In 2015 my graphic design job of 15 years was sent to Bangladesh where no less than 5 people now did what one me used to do, and they did it very poorly and made zero attempts at producing quality work. I went from $16 an hour with about 5 weeks paid vacation to $9 an hour and all the unpaid time off I want at the best job I could find (temporarily I hope).

    Bring my pitchfork!

    (Ps. I grew up in Rochester. So glad I left. Kodak is a textbook example of complete and total corporate mismanagement.)

  • I suppose it does depend on the size of your company. Outsourcing payroll and IT makes a lot of sense where I work – less than 20 employees total.

  • @ Major Kong

    You win the comments today.

    Another trend I've noticed is that the owners of said contracting outfits tend to be old school buddies/ family/ whatever of someone in top management/ general/ admiral/ whatever. I see it more as a convenient vehicle for nepotism, with the side benefit of ducking labor laws.

    @ Ed

    Release of sweet, sweet death.

  • It's obviously not limited to health insurance, but the need for a centralised benefits clearinghouse, funded by an income tax that impacts everyone the same way, is a major challenge for the 21st century social contract. The freelancer loophole is not something that can simply be banned – we need a new system that everyone has equal access to, self-employed or company-employed. Hell, you might simply do away with the status of "employee" altogether, make all employment relationships 1099, and then strengthen the benefits and protections such employees are entitled to, so the outsourced janitor and the CEO are playing by the same set of rules again.

  • Speaking as a Ph.D. With several years as a contracted research employee, at an institute that had approximately 90% contracted employees, I'm not sure I can add anything to the depressing final points of this essay besides agreement. There was one point where we had a couple meetings with the administration becausesome of us were "wrongly" going around saying we were employed at the institute. Apparently the best the admins could figure out was that we were " educational interns". Those meetings, along with several years of no actual employment opportunities opening up, gave me the needed push to just look elsewhere, despite everywhere still seeming the same.

  • I'm not saying I look forward to it, but this, or something like it is the only solution:

    "Social effects of the plague were felt immediately after the worst outbreaks petered out. Those who survived benefited from an extreme labor shortage, so serfs once tied to the land now had a choice of whom to work for. Lords had to make conditions better and more attractive or risk leaving their land untended, leading to wage increases across the board."

  • Dave, with seven flirting with ten billion people on a planet that can barely sustain one I would venture we are pretty much well on the way to an elimination of surplus population, good bad or indifferent. The planet itself my have provided a relief valve, Mike, in the form of the release from the thawing tundra of viri, microbes and bacterium frozen since before humans were human.

  • Nothing new about outsourcing, every businessman seeking to maximize profit seeks to get more for less. The antebellum south had simply taken paying less for labor to its logical end:slavery. From a slightly different perspective it is noted that the trend, tendency, is to 'privatize profits and socialize liabilities'. Many corporations depend on the welfare state to keep the workers they refuse to pay a living wage to alive and healthy enough to work.

    For me the bitter irony is that outsourcing seldom returns the profits the promised. There are costs that are seldom accounted for fully. On its face outsourcing, and getting good performance for half the money, is a no-brainer. But it is never easy. Outsourcing reduces control. It makes you dependent upon well written and detailed contracts and your willingness to monitor and enforce their provisions. None of that is simple, easy, inexpensive or convenient.

    In-house janitors with benefit packages are going to show more loyalty and dedication. They can be persuaded to come in earlier, and stay later as long as the privilege is not abused.

    Yes, you can strong-arm outsourced labor to cover gaps but doing that tends to cause performance to fray around the edges as demoralization and burn-out sets in. Replacing workers is not cheap or easy. Replacing a subcontractor can be arduous, expensive, and can rattle the entire corporation. All the money saved, and some, can be lost in a surprisingly short amount of time. A lot of businesses that tried outsourcing have been burned and have brought janitorial services back in-house. In the end, what they pay in direct costs they gain in reliability and control.

    The bitter truth is that outsourcing, celebrated as a lead-pipe cinch way to increase profits, is more a style and fashion, indicating the seriousness and adaptability, than a practical alternative. Sometimes it makes sense but in the majority of situations it amounts to little more than management becoming a fashion victim and needlessly victimizing labor.

  • Major Kong –

    Comment WIN. Reminded me of a local Facebook post from a few days ago where someone angrily demanded that rich people get off their asses and create jobs for us.

    I. can't. even.

  • My main concern is that there are fewer and fewer people who still remember what it was like to be employed before companies went full free market ninja around 2000.

    The "just in time" model that has dominated every industry since then. Now companies are obsessed with engagement levels of their employees, which is tantamount to visiting a hooker and complaining that you just didn't feel loved.

  • Even the legal field is affected. Used to be that extensive document review was the exclusive province of large law firms (and the bane of a big-firm associate's existence). Now it can be outsourced to India, where the net cost of having a licensed attorney who is fluent in English perform the same work is ~$15 per hour.

  • I was adjunct for a couple years. Just another part time instructor but with one (sometimes two) more class the tenured didn't want to teach.

    My first experience with outsourcing: I came home from the Army in 1975 and, like my farher and grand-father, went to work in the woods as a Union Logger. Pretty cool, play in the woods all day with all kinds of really cool equipment in the summer, actually put in a little work in the mill in the winter. Lasted about two and two-thirds years

  • At the end of my third summer the mill decided it was no longer cost effective to run a crew of in-house loggers to get the logs out of the woods and down to the mill to make lumber for houses in New York City. Outsourced the job to private contractors. Which was cool, still got to play in the woods all day with really cool equipment (helicopters!) with none of that tedious millwork in the winter (unemployment insurance? what the hell is that?). Paid about the same, just none of the union benefits. Health insurance, retirement, all the stuff that made the Oregon middle-class dream.

  • Fifteen years later it alll went to shit and went college, knocked out a couple of degrees, debt I'll never repay and more industry certifications than I'd care leave laying around the bathroom for a career in IT.

    That turned out well.

  • @Nunya; I've also noticed companies requiring complete dedication from their employees. I'm in the middle of filling out my yearly self-assessment, and one of the areas I'll be reviewed on is my dedication to the company: i.e., how many non-paid activities I've performed on to enrich the owners of my company, including proposal work, mentoring, teaching classes, and unpaid management duties. At the company picnic, the owners hired a massage company to give seated chair massages; the massage company's website had a blurb on each employee stated how they were 'in love with' their career or otherwise 'passionate about massage'.

  • @Art; the tv show Superior Donuts appears to be trying to illustrate the new gig economy by having a character who used to work fulltime for the factory and now lurches from one gig to another.

    In real life, my daughter's college roommate has two parents, both janitors at the US Naval Academy. One is a fulltime employee with benefits; the other was hired 5 years later and works for a subcontractor. The Academy got out of hiring the support staff directly (with benefits including health insurance and sick leave and 5 vacation days a year) to hiring a subcontractor to provide them with workers: those employees are paid hourly with no benefits, and paid less than their counterparts who are staff.

    In case you're curious, two full-time employees (one staff, one subcontractor) don't make enough collectively to lift a family of 3 (2 adults, 1 child) out of poverty. The roommate is only in college through a collection of academic scholarships and a full-time job of her own at the school bookstore.

  • Don't forget that cheap immigrant labor helps drive this phenomenon. I wonder how many professional class liberals will still favor keeping the borders wide open when then can no longer earn a comfortable living. Not many, I'll bet.

  • Are we really still pretending that the problem with cheap immigrant labor is "open borders" and not "employers breaking labor laws with impunity"?

  • My company considers our truck drivers to be "independent contractors" and not company employees even though:

    They have to wear the company uniform, follow the company rules and most importantly, can only carry the company's freight in their trucks.

    Amazingly (to me) the company won the court case over this since this seems to fail every common-sense definition of "employee" and "contractor".

    But yeah, sure, building a wall across the border will fix that right up.

  • @ Karlkinz:

    Are you actually as stupid as you seem to be or did you just get a room in a "Holiday Inn Depressed" last night?

    "I wonder how many professional class liberals will still favor keeping the borders wide open when then can no longer earn a comfortable living. Not many, I'll bet.".

    Since the vast majority of those people are brought in on H1b visas by THE EMPLOYERS, the "professional class liberals" have fuck-all to say about it, moron.

  • Level the hierarchy. No bosses. We rotate through jobs. If some dickbrain–Jaime Dimon, Donald Trump, Melissa Mayer, whoever–doesn't want to do it, that's cool. Let 'em stick to drying dishes. Only anarchism and communism will settle matters.

    But who teaches? Everybody? Anybody? Probably not. Teaching requires charisma. Good luck quantifying that. Frankly, I'm glad we can't do that.

  • Henry Ford, despite his unfortunate fascist tendencies, understood that paying people a good living wage helped make for happy and productive workers who were willing and able to buy the product being produced. He payed people more than what their negotiating power might suggest, got roundly criticized for doing it by other auto executives and saw both increased productivity and profits from it.

    A rough estimate of the US economy is that two-thirds is retail sales and that over half of all retail sales are made by poor and near-poor people.

    One aspect that gets overlooked is that poverty is not free. Keeping people poor costs the business, and the surrounding society, money. Keeping people poor is only profitable to the business if the costs can be smoothly and effectively transfered to the society. The cost of keeping people poor always, always, exceeds the profit made by paying lower wages. It just doesn't make good economic or social sense.

    Which means that the justification comes down to some combination of 'everyone else is doing it' group-think and sadism.

  • Ten Bears: I heard/read a story in the early 90's about the logging industry in the Pacific NW. Japanese companies had "sawmill ships" off the coast. Japanese companies would buy the logs, process them on these ships and sell the finished lumber back to the U.S. companies. No more/fewer mill jobs for American workers.

    Have you heard of such/experienced such a system? Was this just some made up BS?

  • Art, so many business folk want prosperous customers and government services, so few want prosperous employees taxes. They likely also want a perpetual motion machine.

  • "Sawmill ships" have existed for a long time but I can't confirm the story about the Japanese doing it in the US market.

    Jack Welsh (CEO of General Electric) once infamously quipped that if had his way the factory would be mounted on a barge and he would just sail it to whichever country had the cheapest labor.

  • "I just googled the article and the author. I was a bit surprised to find that he is actually a staffer at the NYT. Ya gotta wonder how many actual humans are in the journalism business these days."

    The NY Times is unionized. Unions matter.

  • Ed didn't mention what perhaps he took for granted: that the janitorial companies, or whatever, often hire their staffs only on a "part-time" (wink, wink) basis, as "free agents" or "independent contractors" to avoid payroll taxes, health coverage, liability coverage, etc. The godforsaken bicycle-riding delivery services here in NYC have operated the same way, with the young men as "independent contractors" a particularly cruel joke.

    Steps have been taken to eliminate this absurd ruse, but god knows how far they've gotten, or how short theyve fallen from addressing the total problem, even in liberal New York.

  • @Major Kong

    That's because Jack Welch never met a worker he couldn't try to cut off at the knees so he could blame said work for not being mobile enough to work faster.

    I'd call him a number of select names, but, I'm trying to be better about such things.

  • True story Dave. I spent most of '85, probably the last real heyday year for the industry, working a skycrane just miles inland from the coast, sending fifty truck loads a day to the boats. Oregon was pretty much running at full capacity, full employment, responding to both the market for raw logs as well as lumber. Didn't last much longer.

  • @ MDC:

    I know that the pressmen and other workers are unionized (or were); I'm not sure what the status of someone like the author of the piece is. I LIKE unions, although I've had some not pleasant experiences with the IBEW which I was in for about 8 years. Without unions,labor gets fucked worse.

    I was living in the Boston area when the NYT bought the Globe. There was consolidation and a number of Globe bureaus went buh-bye.

  • @Ten Bears:

    I was out in Washington in 1986 and had breakfast in a diner that was frequented by lumberjacks. I ordered ham & eggs with a pancake–I was on a very tight budget but figured I could make it last till evening.

    The waitress came out with dinner plate with a pancake that was about a half-inch smaller in diameter and prolly 3/4" thick. She put it down and said, I'll be right back. She brought a small plate with two eggs and 6 x 10 or thereabouts oval platter with a slab of bone-in-ham about 1/2" thick. I finished it all, drank a bunch of coffee and got my check. As I was leaving I noticed that they were selling the "I love Spotted Owls; they taste JUST LIKE CHICKEN!". I also noticed that my long hair, shorts, flip-flops and camera with a 300mm telephoto lens on it was drawing stares. I could almost hear the wheels lining up in their heads–"Goldurned pointy-head tree hugger!".

    Later in the day I was talking to someone and mentioned the breakfast. The reply from the person I was talking to was, "They feed you good, because lumber jacks who don't get fed get destructive.".

  • A few people have mentioned undocumented laborers, and I do think that they are an important part of our inevitable race to the bottom. What we basically have is a system where many millions of people are living among us without rights or legal protections, which undermines the legal protections for all workers. Especially when no one is accountable, because all of the workers are "independent consultants" for an independent contractor. So it's an extra helping of no legal protection on top of no legal protection.

    And before you all jump on my back, no, I don't mass deportation is the answer –the social and economic implications are too huge. Also (and I hate to admit this) I care about other human beings. But providing "sanctuary" by leaving things as they are is also not a humane solution. I've been hearing emotional stories on NPR about these poor businesses that wouldn't be able to survive without their undocumented workers… and we're all supposed to be ok with that? Yes, let them stay! And don't worry about protecting their rights, because that would be bad for business!

    What we need is a system to get all of our undocumented workers some permanent legal status. And then they can join citizen laborers in the demand for more protection without fear of deportation. See, isn't that a nice tidy solution? I can't figure out why there's no political will for that…

    @Ten Bears: Nice to see a fellow Oregonian here on the interwebs. I remember when the logging well went dry, and it was pretty tough around where I grew up. Still is.

  • Mexican immigration is "fighting the last war".

    The birthrate in Mexico is way down and their economy is doing a lot better than before. Not nearly as many want to come here as in the 80s and 90s.

  • "he owners of said contracting outfits tend to be old school buddies/ family/ whatever of someone in top management/ general/ admiral/ whatever. I see it more as a convenient vehicle for nepotism, with the side benefit of ducking labor laws."

    Yup. My business sells new accounts for these outfits as one of our (outsourced!) service packages. It's the toughest gig we ever take, and we take 3 each year to haze new staff who think this job is easy because we don't impose mechanical quotas on them in addition to asking them to accept an hourly wage for 15 hour weeks with no benefits.

    Most of what we sell is software, and the companies we represent have no promotion paths for anyone, because only the founders are gonna get cashed out when they get acquired or bankrupted when they don't. So outsourcing makes sense for those founders, because they can use someone else's money for me to share the risk that no one wants to buy their gadget, and don't have to watch me clean out my desk if that's the case. Win/win.

    Soon the last former corporate employee will age out of this model of business development, and we will have to rewrite all of our contracts to reflect no shared standards as to what 'team members' who don't have an ESOP & dental can be asked to do. At least 4 times a year I have to explain to someone who pays my bills that their request for the personal time of *someone who's not a stakeholder* is…not gonna be met with compliance.

    Every time I say, 'Well, Mike, I understand that it would only take her 55 minutes a week, but she'd be donating that hour to your business, and I know she adopted a kid but his name isn't Mike, so I'll send you a pro forma contract addendum for your review" I don't hear about it again.

    And they all review me as a bad vendor because I won't let them take my staff's personal time to make them feel important!

  • BTW if you brought up immigration…you're a racist dumbshit who probably thinks cutting the estate tax will create jobs, so maybe sit the next few out, ok?

  • I can't find it, but I'm sure that back in the late 70s or early 80s I read an article, I want to say in BusinessWeek, about Kodak.

    The premise was that they had to cut back on all the nice things that they did for their employees so that they were more profitable, the stock price stayed up, and they could fight off hostile takeovers.

  • @geoff; don't forget the layer of plausible deniability this adds; if anyone were to show concern for the workers, the contractor company and the University could point fingers at the other and say, "It's THEIR fault, not OURS. It was THEIR job to look out for that!"

  • @katydid, yeah, it makes me mad. Pay EVERYBODY enough to live on! You hear a lot about "the dignity of work", but I don't see it.

  • The website Jezebel has an interesting article about the plight of adjunct professors. That's a whole post in itself. Interesting that universities that pay their sportzball coaches seven figures, pay their adjuncts around $20k.

  • @ Katydid:

    I know a few folks who've done adjunct teaching at the SUNY and Community colleges around here and they were getting about $3K/per course a few years back. One guy I know was teaching maybe 2 classes per semester. Fortunately his wife was a chair of one of the departments and his BA in fine arts had prepared him to make some pretty nice tie-dyed t-shirts and suchlike to sell at local music festivals.

  • Hey, Demo,

    There's a series of mystery books featuring a woman who teaches as an adjunct, that also does a good job of showing what the adjunct world is like. $3k/class at SUNY? I made more than that in the 1990s when I taught some classes at the local community college. As for degree type, I just read an article in the Wash Post about the fine arts degrees that actually transfer to a lot of fields (for some reason, Wall Street is one, but the first example they gave is a woman who majored in English who got a job writing copy for a website, then got promoted up the ladder into a variety of high-paying web jobs).

  • @ Katydid:

    I don't know what the current rate is but I will by this time tomorrow. I am going to see a chair of one of the departments tomorrow evening.

    Education is only valued in this country by about 10-15% of the population–unless you're a guy who can show them how to flip houses without using your own money or make a fortune in the stock market with NO training.

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