Temporary Coding

A tale of toil from legal temp Mickey D.

I always worked as a temp, usually doing light industrial work, but it wasn't until I moved to San Francisco that I got a job in a law firm. I had no relevant experience or interest in law; my last job before moving here was cleaning up rat feces in a Lipton warehouse. I got my first job interview through a ""clerical'' help wanted ad. When I showed up for my interview, I was an hour late, I had holes in my shoes, and I flunked the office competency test. Much to my surprise, I was working right away at one of the biggest law firms in California. Later I realized that the only worthwhile advice I'd been given about job interviews--lie through your teeth--had paid off: I told them I was ""thinking about'' law school. Truth was, I was thinking about the least painful way to make a buck, and working in a posh office seemed better than crawling around with a Dust Buster in a damp gloomy warehouse looking for piles of rat shit.

Having stood for hours at photocopiers, my eyes nuked by the rolling strobe light, I've had plenty of time to contemplate my naivete. I always get stuck where no one else will work, so I either fry in direct sunlight behind a plate glass window or freeze in a room with out-of-control air-conditioning. I once worked in an office that every day at 11:30 filled with a mysterious noxious-smelling gas from a vent; despite my numerous complaints, nobody ever responded. So instead of screwing caps on deodorant cans one after another, I'm turning pages of paper. At least I have some energy left at the end of the day to pursue other things. A short stint as a furniture mover cured me of any fond illusions about manual labor (something I often hear among male office workers). As a temp, there's always the hope that you might land an easy job where you can get away with a lot of fucking off; I've had a few.

For the last four years, off and on, I've temped in about twenty big law firms in the San Francisco financial district. Assignments have varied in length of time from nine months to nine minutes, but the introduction is always the same: you are under suspicion, a likely pick-pocket or information thief.

You forfeit your rights when you start work as a temp in a law firm. You're asked to sign a statement that looks like a confession, swearing you will divulge absolutely nothing about the case you're working on to any person for any reason. According to the warning, if you so much as mention the case to anybody, the full weight of the law will descend on you. ""You might be able to plead spousal immunity,'' flecked one supervisor after threating us with merciless fines and jail time.

Law firms "hire'' temps, when need arises, to do what they haven't got machines to do yet, or what they can't get their other employees to do: the most monotonous, labor-intensive tasks involved in labeling, indexing, storing and retrieving vast quantities of documents.Whole weeks of my life have been consumed by "bates stamping,'' a task in which a small numbered sticker is transferred by hand from a computer-generated sheet onto another piece of paper, thus making it a "document.'' Repeated thousands of times eight hours a day, five days a week, this would give anybody repetitive stress injury as well as brain damage. I recently did this seven days a week, twelve hours a day, while a beserk legal assistant badgered me to ""Go faster! Go faster!'' so that I wouldn't "cost the client (Cetus Corporation, a biotech giant) so much money.''

A common task I perform is called "coding.'' That means reading each document (usually something like an invoice) for information (date, names, subject) and entering it onto a form. Its then sent to a word processor, who puts it into a tidy data base which the lawyers can access with the stroke of a finger.

The emphasis on secrecy is absurd. I'm kept in the dark beyond what's necessary for the job; I have no idea to what ultimate purpose my labor contributes except the meaningless perpetuation of bureaucracy.

Occasionally while coding I'll see an internal memo which reveals the prepubescent character of your typical lawyer or executive, giving me a bitter laugh. I remember one top honcho drawing analogies between the services his company provides and the superhuman qualities of his favorite toy, Action Man, which he proceeded to describe in admiring detail, as advertised on one of his favorite Saturday morning cartoons.

My experience at one law firm (appropriately named ""Cooley''), coding on a Genentech case, was not an easy job. We were segregated from the main office in a gloomy warehouse down the block, over a hundred of us, working at crowded tables in two six-hour shifts, six days a week. It was explained to us that six hours was the maximum amount of time in a day that a human being could reasonably be expected to perform this mind-mulching work, though later we were put on eight-hour shifts with the expectation that we would do overtime. To read the documents we had to peer into the dim greenish light of a microfilm machine that caused viscious eyestrain. In an office behind us, the supervisor, an insolent, condescending shmuck with an unconscious twitch in his hands as if he was suppressing the urge to strangle somebody, scrutinized us from his window, making sure that no deviation from the work took place. Data entry was done "off- shore'' (i.e., the Philippines).

Temps regularly endure periodic purges, the random process by which you or your co-workers are suddenly "let go.'' You don't get sentimental about getting laid off from a lousy job, but suddenly being unemployed in the middle of the month and not knowing where you're going to get the rent sucks.

The first layoffs at Cooley took place the day before Christmas Eve (holidays being a good time to cut temp costs). About a third of the temps went home from work to find messages on their answering machines giving them the axe. This is the preferred method of termination, I was informed by a temp who had been there for five years (known as a "permanent temporary''). The theory, probably correct, being that if told ahead of time or on location, vengeful temps would trash the place in a desperate effort to get even with all the abuses they had endured.

Those of us who remained were selected because our handwriting was considered legible enough for a Tagalog-speaking word processor to decipher. Over the next couple of months, they weeded out more and more of us, until the last five masochists were called into Psycho Boss's office and informed that we were now on Cooley's payroll. ""We can finally start to make some money off you now,'' he said. There was no change in our status- -we still were denied paid holidays, sick days and vacations; still without benefits of any kind. The only difference was that we no longer had temporary status and were now Cooley property. Outraged, I called the job placement lady at the agency, Gratified Flex-staff.

"They just told us we're working for them now,'' I gasped. "I don't want to work for them! I want another assignment.''

The old crow officiated. "Ohhhh, what kind of assignment?'' I was never informed of it, but Cooley had paid a substantial amount of money to Gratified to buy my services off them, and she was probably amused at my stupidity.

"One where I don't have to work too hard,'' I told her, in all honesty, figuring that since now I was on Cooley's payroll I had a bit of clout with them. She feigned shock. I never saw a penny of that money I was auctioned for.

The relation of temp to agency is one of indentured servitude. The temp agency puts the most positive spin possible on it: they offer ""flexibility'' to workers who are ""in between'' jobs. They get you a job in exchange for a hefty cut of your wages. Usually, the temp agencies have a monopoly on the job market in the form of contracts with employers; job-seekers who go to law firms looking for benefits (usually older people for whom such things are a necesity) are told that the quickest way to permanent status is through a temp job--which could last for years. Or a few days. Temp agencies start you out with the worst assignments, jerk you from place to place--each of which writes a review of your performance for the agency--until they figure out how much you're worth. Because the work is erratic, temps are assumed to be eager to do as much overtime as humanly possible. You're usually called in right before a deadline and worked around the clock. Most times you're desperate for the money since its usually several weeks between jobs.

The only real function that the agency plays is to screen potential temps to make sure they aren't sending drooling zombies out on assignments. Its now common for employers to request an additional interview, even for a week-long assignment.

If you misbehave, talk back to your boss, cheat on your hours, or even turn down an assignment, you get blacklisted by the agency. I had a friend who was working in an office that was destroyed by an out-of-control crane from a nearby construction site; if he had been sitting just yards from where he was, he would have been killed instantly. When he told the agency he didn't want to return to that job, they were pissed that they lost a valuable contract. He never got another job, even though he worked for Gratified for years.

Receiving unemployment insurance is next to impossible if you're a full-time temp. The agencies balk at nothing to make a case against you. They once called my roommates to ask questions about my whereabouts in order to (successfully) contest a claim I made with the EDD for $120. I've never seen more than $11,000 a year. Sweetheart contracts enrich both the temp agencies and the law firms. At my last job, I was getting paid $10 an hour. The temp agency was billing the law firm $20 an hour. The law firm, in turn, was billing their client $40 an hour. Other than what I earned hourly, I got zilch. Once I got a plastic coffee cup with the Gratified logo emblazoned on it in order to "increase [my] environmental awareness for Earth Day,'' as I was told in all seriousness by my ""assignment cooordinator.''

Another benefit to the two employers' partnership is that whenever a problem comes up, they can pass the buck endlessly. If there's ever a pay discrepancy or a raise due, the ball is always in the other court. They wear you out going back and forth.

Fortunately I don't have to deal with attorneys, although riding in the elevators with these jackoffs, listening to them boast about the macho magnitude of their settlements, give me fantasies of ultra-violence.

One time I worked as a filer for a fascist Cuban named Carlos Bea, a multi-millionaire "exile'' whose family owned a roof-tile manufacturing business. He considered being a lawyer a past-time befitting a man of his station, and specialized in giving his secretaries nervous breakdowns. A member of such illustrious organizations as Nixon's CREEP and the Bohemian Club, he spent his time soaping up powerful people who could do him political favors; I remember a personal letter he wrote to Ed Meese, who was staying at his castle in Spain, warning about Basque terrorism. Evidently, his cronyism paid off. His friend Governor Deukmejian appointed him to replace a retiring district judge in San Francisco. When his term was over, an expensive election campaign was run on his behalf, covering the streets with his smiling face, his name seemingly everywhere: buses, streetlights, billboards. It was torture.

An assignment coordinator from Gratified once informed my supervisor (in my presence) that she "tries to group people together who I don't think will have anything in common so they'll be less likely to talk.'' Not much opportunity for collective action when you're deliberately stuck with people you'll probably hate.

There seemed to be a different spirit among the temps I encountered four years ago. They were more likely to be struggling punk rock musicians, ne'er-do-wells or students. Now temping seems to be more of a way for careerist office drones to a gain a foothold into a big corporation. Temps tend to be older, people suddenly out of work or law students awaiting their bar scores.Temps can be cutthroat. Most would rat on you in a minute for the slightest crime if it meant enhancing their status with the boss. ""Permanent'' jobs are secured through these means. I was once fired from a job thanks to a goateed and granny glassed temp supervisor who I thought was my friend, sharing a common interest in Latin American fiction.

Law firms extract an amazing degree of ideological loyalty ("positive attitude") from their employees. Even temps who work on a case for no more than 10 minutes refer to ""us'' as in ""which side are we on?'' Most yearn to work on a pro-bono case which they imagine will be socially beneficial.

I've heard few inspiring ideas from temps about challenging our degrading situation. One (a law school grad) made a lot of noise about how he was going into politics so he could go to Washington D.C. and get a law passed prohibiting the grosser aspects of temp exploitation; another wanted temps to organize a union. Given that both the government and the unions are big contractors of temp labor, I considered these ideas unfeasible; large institutions don't slash their own throats. In any event, temps move around so much that conventional workplace organizing is futile.

Actually, what makes temping bearable for me is the tenuous nature of the employment. I don't participate in the ass-kissing, smiley face office etiquette. I've never worn a tie in all my years of "white collar'' employment. A necessary tool of the trade is a walkman, for 1) giving me some sort of sensual stimulation so that I know I'm not dead and 2) sending a symbolic ""fuck you'' to my surroundings.

The temp agency, the law firm, other temps, every financial district lifer expects me to have an alibi for temping. It's not enough that I'm trying to keep a roof over my head while I pursue my interests, I have to have some deeper reason to explain why I'm not pursuing a career. They're worried that there might be people who have no work ethic.

By the estimate of one big law firm I worked at (Heller, Ehrman) ninety percent of the labor on a big case is what's called ""discovery'' -- that's the paper-shuffling that temps do. The other ten percent -- meeting with clients, legal research, drafting pleadings -- is supposedly done by lawyers, though most of that is done by secretaries and legal assistants. Legal assistants boss around temps.

When I was at Heller there were over 50 temps working full-time. Heller specializes in suing insurance companies, so they keep their fees (which temps contribute to) as high as possible. They milk their client to give them the incentive to settle. They then sue the insurance company, thus generating a whole new round of litigation and legal costs.

Legal assistants are usually nephews and nieces of lawyers who participate in a carefully cultivated preppy culture (skiing in Tahoe on weekends, lunches at the Hard Rock Cafe) meant to instill the ethics of the law business. One legal assistant took the ethic too seriously. She did nothing for six months and billed enormous overtime, accruing a small fortune before her boss got wise. Heller was happy with the booty, but she made the error of indiscretion so they fired her. She threatened a wrongful termination suit in which she would drag Heller's dirty laundry into the courtroom. She settled out-of-court for $14,000 shut up money.

I managed my own form of revenge, by stealing my life back. The whole time I worked at Heller, I never took less than a two and a half hour lunch and always took several hour long breaks during the day. When the Gulf war began I got paid for two days of disruptive activity in the streets of SF. Still, given the rules of the game, my fictitious labor time contributes to enriching the parasites who suck me dry day after day. What would bother them is that I found the loopholes in the rules governing their office. Drinking a beer in the park, I toasted the loopholes.

--Mickey D.