Some love the flexibility of contract work, but for others it’s an uncertain life, with many economic and social problems.
RENNIE SAWADE REMEMBERS being entranced by his first computer — a gray and boxy Radio Shack TRS-80 his high-school chemistry teacher brought into class.
“I started messing around with it and found I loved it,” says Sawade, who grew up in Flint, Mich., the son of an autoworker father and a seamstress and bus driver mother. “I loved that you could write some code and it would do things on screen.”
He also remembers seeing ads for a technical school, while he was in college in the 1980s, touting a stable and rewarding career in computer programming.
But even in the booming tech field — or maybe especially in the fast-moving, fast-changing tech world — Sawade has found stability elusive.
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For about 10 years, Sawade, 53, who lives in the Clearview community of Snohomish County, found work as a software engineer, mostly on a contract basis. He worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Microsoft and Amazon, but usually for only a few months to a year at a time.
It wasn’t by choice. He just wasn’t able to land a job as a full-time permanent employee. And some months, even the contract gigs were hard to come by — a particularly heavy toll for Sawade as the breadwinner for a family of four. It was a burden that only got heavier when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, the medical bills mounted and the couple filed for bankruptcy.
“Where’s the job security?” asks Sawade, thinking back on those ads from his college days. “I didn’t have job security.”
Contract workers. Contingent workers. Gig economy workers. Call them what you will; there’s talk of a fundamental shift in the American workplace — one in which businesses increasingly turn away from hiring full-time, long-term employees who earn benefits.
The economic and social implications of such a shift are a concern to a number of academic and civic leaders who warn of the insecurity of such jobs, their role in widening income inequality and the subsequent effects that could have on families and communities.
But some prefer contract work, saying it allows them to be in charge of their careers and offers more flexibility and variety. Being a contract worker might even give them an edge in today’s labor market, they say, as they gain up-to-the-minute skills going from one project to another.
Take Brenden West of North Seattle, who does software development consulting on a contract basis — by choice.
West, who declined to give his age but put it at older than 40, worked as a full-time employee for several companies, including Microsoft and Symphony Teleca, a software services business. He was laid off at each of those.
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“Having been through it twice, I’m not interested in putting myself back in that position,” he says.
So now he’s working as a contractor, experiencing far less stress and little trouble lining up work. And the pay compared to when he was a full-time employee?
“Substantially more,” he says.
DESPITE WHAT SEEMS to be mounting evidence and concern about the shifting workforce, there’s actually a lack of definitive data showing that contract workers now make up more of the American workforce.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which conducted broad surveys of the contingent and alternative workforce (including contract workers) starting in 1995, stopped doing so in 2005 due to lack of funding.
Researchers have looked at smaller pieces and come to varying conclusions.
The Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., found the percentage of self-employed individuals with no employees dropped slightly from 7.9 percent of the workforce in 1995 to 7.7 percent in 2014.
Meanwhile, a think tank at George Mason University looked at IRS tax filings from 2000 to 2014 and concluded, “the shift toward more contract work is a real and dramatic change in the labor market.”
Arne Kalleberg, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, says starting in the 1970s, when employers needed greater flexibility to compete in the global market, the number of contingent workers has grown.
Now, we live in “the age of precarity,” he says. “And this precarity is very polarized,” benefiting those who are highly skilled and in high demand while leaving others in increasingly insecure straits.
That insecurity makes it hard to plan ahead for buying a house, getting married, having children, or supporting church or community groups.
“This sense of embeddedness in a community has become much more ephemeral at this point,” Kalleberg says. “Precarious work leads to precarious life.”
SAWADE KNOWS ALL about precarious work and life.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics, he landed jobs around the country.
He and his family moved here when Microsoft hired him in 1998. It wasn’t a good fit. The corporate culture valued spending a lot of time working on campus, and Sawade had a family and “didn’t want to live at Microsoft,” he says.
After working at a startup that went under and at a few contracting jobs, he landed a full-time position at Oracle. But then Oracle sent the project he was working on to India, he says. He was laid off — right as he and his wife signed the paperwork for their house in Clearview.
Their troubles multiplied. His wife was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2007 and with cervical cancer in 2011. Medical complications left her with parathyroid problems that landed her in the hospital several times. In 2012, she was rear-ended in a car accident, leading to more medical bills.
All told, they ended up paying nearly $90,000 out of pocket the past decade for deductibles and coinsurance, and almost $116,000 in premiums (paid directly by the family or deducted from Sawade’s paycheck), he says. And they owed more.
Sawade applied for many full-time jobs, getting interviews but no offers.
So he worked contract jobs, which, over time, seemed to get shorter while his pay rate fluctuated. In the meantime, the Sawades’ house needed fixing up, and they ran up credit-card debts and fell behind on bills. Sawade stopped paying his taxes, “because I thought I could always make it up when I got that next full-time job.”
They eventually filed for bankruptcy. They owe thousands on medical bills and tens of thousands on credit cards, back taxes and a student loan. They’ve also lost their house, though the bank hasn’t taken possession yet.
“Being a tech worker, people think we live in a big house — upper-middle class,” says Sawade. “The reality is I had to go to a food bank.”
But his fortunes might be turning.
After working for a few months as a contractor at Clean Power Research, the company hired him full-time last summer.
That job “is a godsend,” Sawade says. “Maybe now I can catch up, catch my breath.”
WEST, WHO HAD worked as a senior program manager at Microsoft and as senior interactive producer at MSNBC.com, faced a few rough months after the 2014 end of his full-time job as director of enterprise mobility and analytics at Symphony Teleca.
When it came time to look for contract work, he decided to turn away from management and focus on software development — particularly involving mobile, analytics and data science.
“I was unemployed for close to six months,” West says. “It was really hard to convince people that I could do actual software development.”
It took a while for someone to give him a shot, even on a contract basis, but after that, it became easier. Financially, it helped that most of his major expenses had been paid off and that his wife has a corporate job.
These days, West, who is signed with several contract agencies, will “sometimes get called by three or four agencies looking to fill the same Nordstrom or Alaska Airlines job,” he says. “I’ve laid low after a few contracts because I wasn’t ready to start that conversation.”
FOR KRISTIN HELPS, 36, contract work provided flexibility and a pathway to her future career.
Helps, who lives in Magnolia, was working a flexible schedule as a registered nurse so she could also attend the University of Washington to get a master’s degree in clinical informatics and patient-centered technologies.
In her nursing job at the UW Medical Center, she worked on a “per diem” basis, requesting how many days she wanted to work. That allowed her to take on a contract job at Wellpepper, a Seattle health-care technology startup.
She had been feeling the pull of the tech world, envying the fun culture at the gaming company where her boyfriend worked and liking the feeling of creating something that solved a problem.
Last fall, Wellpepper offered Helps a contract for up to 16 hours a week. Early this year, Wellpepper hired her into a full-time position as liaison between the firm and health-care clients.
“There aren’t a lot of nurses that make the shift into a health-care technology startup,” Helps says. “If they hadn’t offered me the contract position, I might have missed out on the full-time job.”
TAKELE GOBENA and Larry Green could be poster children for working in the gig/sharing economy.
Gobena drives for Uber; Lyft; and Amazon Flex, the program for drivers who deliver Amazon Prime Now packages.
Green drives for Uber and rents out a live-work space on Airbnb.
But their takes on the pros and cons of driving for Uber are very different.
Gobena, 26, who lives in SeaTac with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, has been vocal about his support of a Seattle City Council bill, since passed, that gives Uber, for-hire and taxi drivers the ability to unionize.
When Gobena started driving for Uber, there were few other drivers competing, and the pay was good — about $800 per week for 30 to 40 hours of work, he says.
Now, with Uber lowering rates to be more competitive, Gobena says working the same number of hours gets him $200 to $300 a week, so he now drives 55 hours some weeks.
“You get less money and a lot more drivers out there,” he says. “Uber’s enriching themselves at our costs.”
He feels insecure at Uber after, he says, being temporarily deactivated twice without being given clear reasons — though he suspects one time might have been because he spoke to media.
“You can wake up any day and find out you’re deactivated,” he says. He says drivers fear bad reviews from customers. A low rating could mean deactivation.
Uber says it provides feedback information to drivers weekly, and if a driver’s ratings consistently fall well below the average for a city, he risks deactivation. If that happens, the driver can take an instructional course and be reactivated.
An Uber spokesperson also said the company “does not take action in any way against any person who elects to participate in expressions of free speech.”
So why does Gobena keep driving for Uber? After all, he’s plenty busy as a University of Washington-Tacoma student with a double major in business and economics, and working up to 16 hours a week earning a guaranteed $18 per hour driving for Amazon Flex.
For one thing, Amazon doesn’t have more hours for him.
More importantly, “I think of my fellow drivers,” Gobena says. “The future of transportation is going to be Uber or similar apps. I see (staying in the business) as not only affecting just me and my family but also the community. I see it as this process of making Uber and other app places better.”
Green, who lives in Interbay, says he sees his Uber driving as a way of realizing his dream of owning his own real-estate brokerage.
“Let’s say two weeks down the road I need to buy five yard signs (for his real-estate work). From my experience on the Uber platform, I can scope out the times I need to drive to make the most money.”
For Green, rather than being a precarious pursuit, driving for Uber is “your backup plan, your security blanket.”
THE CONTRACTING LIFE is what Emily Pfeifer has known since graduating from Western Washington University in 2006 with a degree in graphic design.
Pfeifer, 33, interviewed for full-time jobs but signed up with a contract agency, Filter, because she wanted to dive into work without going through extensive interviews.
Filter CEO Kim Obbink says working as a contractor can be an advantage in today’s market, where “skills are much more specialized than they’ve ever been. So there’s an opportunity, moving from company to company.”
The role of Filter, she says, is akin to a talent management company representing actors. “It’s about finding top talent and moving them from project to project. The contractors are in charge of their own careers. They just need representation.”
Filter has placed Pfeifer, who is single and lives in Greenwood, in jobs ranging from web designer to production artist to web content manager. For eight years, she worked as a photo editor for MSN before leaving in fall 2014 because it was slowing down.
She’s been going from project to project since. She sometimes worries whether a project she’s working on will be cut, or whether one that’s slowed will pick up again. Last summer, “One week, I billed only one hour because that’s all that was there. … There is the ‘living on a wire’ sort of feeling.”
That uncertainty means she’s put off buying a house and last year told friends she couldn’t go to England with them. Still, she enjoys the variety and opportunity to develop skills and experience in different areas.
Her pay rate is good. And Filter offers medical and retirement benefits as well as paid time off that increases with the number of hours worked. And she’s been able to save enough to go to Norway next year for a 10-month course on wood carving — her passion.
Though Pfeifer would prefer to be a full-time employee, “I think contracting is a pretty good life,” she says. “With any type of job you have these days, you have uncertainties. Budgets can be cut; projects can be canceled. That’s true whether you’re a full-time employee or a contractor.”
The age of precarity, indeed.