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Elegy for a Temp Job

AOL CityGuides finally decided to make its editors employees rather than contractors. Which sucks for New York's cadre of scribbling freelancers.

By Adam Bonislawski - May 5, 2004

Need to know who serves the best burrito in Cleveland? What's the top nightclub in Denver? The finest pork roll in New Jersey? If you've ever turned to AOL's CityGuides—the Virginia-based behemoth's answer to the popular CitySearch sites—for such advice, you've likely relied on the suggestions of an editorial temp working out of Manhattan. The temp team at CityGuide's headquarters in Chelsea worked hard (some of us, occasionally, not so hard) to update the listings and information for CityGuide sites nationwide. With 37 cities covered and contracts that lasted a maximum of 12 months, CityGuide temp gigs offered a steady stream of opportunities for the city's impoverished young scribblers to earn a regular paycheck. With so many people moving in and out of the jobs, they became quite well-known among the more lowly denizens of New York's media universe. They were the perfect fallback position, something with a good hourly wage and sufficient flexibility to allow for your freelance pursuits, a way to keep the income flowing after your dot-com or startup mag or whatever else folded.

But, sadly, this idyll is no more. It all ended a few days ago, when CityGuides moved to an all-permanent staff. While the company is, of course, to be lauded for hiring on much of its workforce as full-fledged employees, finally providing benefits and job security and all those other things our grandparents took for granted when they got a job, it's also worth noting that a certain something has been lost. (One thing lost is my job, but that's not the point.) The unhappy truth is that one of the best editorial temp gigs in the city has suddenly disappeared.

A CityGuide temp position was, admittedly, one of the easier editorial jobs in Manhattan to come upon. But they nonetheless involved a fair amount of real work—managing freelancers, editing copy, developing site schedules, building features. Some of the company's less glamorous sites (Columbus, Ohio, jumps to mind) were run almost entirely by contractors, which meant a considerable amount of responsibility. They were temp positions, yes, but this was far more engaging work than a week doing data-entry, stuffing envelopes, or answering phones.

The birth of the CityGuides temp labor gravy train is largely attributable to two factors—a shortsighted desire for financial gain and an intense fear of legal repercussions. Like so many companies, AOL considered temps a cheap source of workers. No health benefits, no 401(k)s, no severance to worry about—all good things for the company's famously ailing bottom line. But, at the same time, they couldn't just keep people on as temps indefinitely. Other companies (most famously Microsoft) had been sued for that sort of thing. And so word came down from on high that CityGuides contractors could work uninterrupted for one year, after which they would have to leave. After a three-month break, old temps could apply for another yearlong run, but no one could work for more than 12 months straight.

The company went through any number of other amusing contortions to maintain plausible deniability about our status. Bagels at morning meetings, for example, were frowned upon. It was feared that a bit of bread and cream cheese might somehow imply that we were more than just temps. Give them breakfast, and a pension plan is sure to follow, went the reasoning, I suppose. One winter, email invitations to the company Christmas party went out to the D.C. office. The sender included the office's temporary staff on the list. Within minutes a second email came around, this one stating explicitly that contract employees were not invited to the party. Needless to say, this made everyone feel quite loved.

Such rules inevitably inspired much derisive eyebrow raising from us peons. Yet our direct supervisors always negotiated them with generosity and grace. If anything, the rules were more of a hassle for them than for us. After all, it left them managing an ever-shifting gang of potentially-mutinous contractors, all of whom knew they were out the door at the end of their year, no matter how good or bad their performance. It was not, I'd imagine, an ideal situation in which to be the boss.

Given this state of affairs, there was something of a tacit agreement between management and the contractor underlings. We were expected to care about the product, but not quite as much as the people with health benefits. In lieu of a dental plan, we were given a certain license for apathy. For the person seeking security and something more akin to a legitimate career, it was not, perhaps, so good a trade. For those less certain about their goals, however, the arrangement had its advantages.

A person could get away with doing freelance work from his cubicle. You could go to sleep, head down on the conference table, in protest of an all-hands phone meeting gone on too long. A temp could make relentless fun of the executive programming director's hair (a bizarre jheri-curled mullet of the sort more commonly found on prog-rock bassists than corporate higher-ups). One contractor, taking this license perhaps a bit too far, spent a solid 90 percent of his workday either in the bathroom or on the phone with friends. (How can I know this with precision? Another coworker and I charted his behavior over a period of weeks. We have graphs.) Basically, being a temp allowed a person to maintain a publicly skeptical stance on the whole enterprise—a small consolation, yes, but still it was something.

Because isn't that, after all, the temporary position's primary appeal? Certainly in a tight job market it might be for many people their only shot at making the rent. But beyond the arrangement's straight utilitarian charms, there is a certain spiritual allure. To sign with a company fulltime is to surrender a small slice of your autonomy. It means that your goals are, to a certain extent, now officially aligned with your company's goals. An exchange is made. A wall, of sorts, comes down. For most any mature, reasonable adult, this exchange is simply a fact of life, a trade one naturally agrees to in the course of making their way in the world. But there are a number of us who are neither reasonable nor mature, and who are adults by virtue of our chronological age only. For these undecided, indecisive souls, the temp job offers a certain independence, illusory though it may be. It permits us the delusion that we are lone gunslingers, roaming from job to job, working our deeds, but too independent in spirit to submit to any corporate entanglements. As vanities go, it's a pretty absurd one, but it makes up, if just a little bit, for not having health insurance.

For half a decade, CityGuides offered one of the finer of these temp jobs, giving many a struggling media type a port in which to weather their personal financial storms. We might even—who knows?—have picked up a little editorial experience along the way. Those days are over now, AOL having at last realized that a handful of dedicated fulltimers is more efficient than an office stacked with rotating bands of temps. But before the memory fades completely, I'd like to pause and reflect with gratitude on what once was. RIP, the AOL CityGuides contract editor position—a comforting, steadying outpost for those of us who never quite had our shit together.

Adam Bonislawski writes regularly for the New York Post and The L Magazine. He currently finds himself with a fair amount of free time and would encourage editors everywhere to contact him with offers of high-paying assignments and/or lavish expense accounts.

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