Microsoft changes how it employs permatemps

Company says temporary employees must take a 100-day hiatus after working 365 days

Beginning July 1, Microsoft Corp.'s so-called "permatemps" will have to take a 100-day hiatus — up from 31 days — after one year of full-time work at the company. Permatemps are long-term temporary employees who may work at a company for years without the benefits given to permanent employees.

Microsoft spokesman Dan Leach said there are approximately 5,500 to 6,500 temporary contract employees who work at the company at any given time. He said the company employees 34,000 permanent workers.

Leach said the company's new policy came in response to several factors, including pending lawsuits and a reworking of the company's structure. The policy was announced last week.

"Our goal is to make sure we are turning to temporary staffing (in an appropriate manner)," said Leach. He added that Microsoft was sorry it had to take the step, knowing it would affect people who choose multiple assignments with the company.

Under the new policy, temporary workers will either have to look for temporary assignments elsewhere or seek permanent employment at Microsoft.

But some are questioning the motives behind the change.

"It's unclear to me to whom this policy applies. But if (Microsoft) is taking long-term employees and firing them for 100 days to avoid paying full benefits, then it violates state and federal law," argued Stephen Strong, an attorney at the Seattle-based law firm Bendich, Stobaugh and Strong PC. In 1992, Strong's law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft on behalf of long-term temporary contract workers seeking full-time employee benefits.

Microsoft lost one round of its battle with the permatemps last month, when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand last spring's decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The decision said the company had to open its discounted stock-purchase policy to as many as 10,000 temporary employees who had worked at least five months in any 12-month period. Microsoft had argued that the number of "permatemps" affected should be much smaller. The case was sent to U.S. District Court in Seattle for final decisions about how much discounted stock those workers should be able to buy.

Also still pending is a ruling in a separate lawsuit, filed by Bendich, Stobaugh and Strong in 1998, addressing temporary employees' eligibility for health and retirement benefits.

Mike Blain, a former Microsoft contract worker and co-founder of The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, is also skeptical of the company's permatemp policy change. The alliance is a labor group trying to unionize contract workers at Microsoft.

"This makes it look like they don't (employ) temporary people on a long-term basis," said Blain. "The way they do it will look different . . . but this only means they are changing people in the job, it doesn't mean they are getting rid of permatemps."

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