When you visit the Oregon Zoo, many of the people you interact with, from the woman who takes your ticket to the man who sprinkles the sugar on your elephant ear, are temporary workers.
Robert Olmsted, tall and clean-shaven, is one of them.
Olmsted has been a temporary worker at the zoo for the last 15 years. If you’ve been to the zoo, you’ve probably met him. He takes tickets, works at concerts, and helps people board the zoo train.
“If I was to have my pick I’d always be down at the train station as the station master,” he says.
The zoo is is publicly funded and managed by the regional government agency Metro. Olmsted has been a part of the zoo longer than some of the animals visitors go to see— the California condors, black howler monkeys, and piranhas.
He is effectively a permanent temp. He works about three quarters of the year, but his hours change every week, and every year, Metro, the regional government agency that runs the zoo, lets him go and then hires him again.
“It does seem strange to be called a temporary worker when you’re there year, after year, after year. And working there nearly year-round,” he says.
Olmstead is not alone; the zoo employs several hundred temporary workers, and many have returned to work there year after year. The future of the zoo’s temps is a major sticking point in mediation talks this week between Metro and the Laborers International Union of North America, the union that represents many of the zoo’s regular and temporary workers.
Because the Zoo classifies Olmsted as a temporary employee, in the 15 years that he’s worked there, he’s never had a day of paid vacation or paid sick leave. That was particularly difficult in 2008, when he was being treated for Hodgkins lymphoma.
“It was brutal. I would have my chemo on one day, and then have three days off, just to help bounce back from it. And then I’d work,” he says.
Olmsted says his bosses were kind, and helped him schedule his shifts so he had time to recover. And he was lucky. The zoo doesn’t provide him with health insurance because he’s a temp, although in some years he’s received a stipend to help defray healthcare costs, but he has been insured through his wife’s health plan.
But Olmsted says it’s depressing to work somewhere for so long, and not get regular benefits.
One-point-six million people visit the Zoo each year, according to its website. Metro Spokesman Jim Middaugh says the agency needs temps to deal with the seasonal nature of the work at the zoo, which sees big crowds in the summer and empties out on grey days in the fall.
In the past, Middaugh says, the jobs attracted college students and other people who weren’t looking for something permanent.
“These positions before were really aimed at a different kind of worker. Because of the weakness of the economy, people are coming to rely on these positions for sole sources of income,” Middaugh said.
“Metro is heavily relying on what they call temporary workers right now,” according to Erika Askin, with the Laborers International Union of North America Local 483.
Askin is representing many of the zoo’s workers in a contract negotiation with Metro. She’s concerned that over the years, the zoo has relied more and more on temp workers.
She says the zoo employs about 300 temps. That includes most of the people in the admissions department, but also animal keepers, maintenance workers, and gardeners.
In some cases, she says, temps really are working on short-term assignments.
“But that’s not the majority of workers who Metro is calling temporary. More than half are coming back year to year, looking at this as a potential career.”
Zoo personnel records show that last year, about a quarter of the zoo’s temp workers had start dates from 2009 or earlier. More than twenty had, like Olmsted, worked at the zoo in some capacity for more than a decade.
Middaugh says temporary workers do receive fewer benefits than regular status employees, and acknowledges that there are legitimate questions about who has been called a temp in the past.
“Metro recognizes that our obligations as an employer and our community’s values are changing, and that’s why we’re at the table trying to reach agreement on the appropriate level of benefits,” Middaugh says.
And Askin, the union rep, says the two sides are close to a deal on several issues, including some sick leave for temps, and a better definition of temporary work.
But one issue in particular is contentious. Metro’s old contract specified that temp worker assignments were not supposed to last more than 1040 hours in a year.
But according to staffing records, last year more than 30 temps, including admissions worker Robert Olmsted, actually worked longer hours without earning regular benefits. Olmsted, for example, clocked about 1500 hours in 2012 and again in 2013.
Here’s how employees say it worked. In some cases, a temp like Olmsted was given multiple job titles, and told that some of the hours they worked didn’t count toward the 1040 limit on temp work.
For example, when employees worked in the aviary, handing out nectar to visitors to feed lorikeets, their job classification changed. Their work here did not count toward the 1040 cap.
Askin says the union is investigating the problem and may file a complaint with the state Labor Relations Board.
“Metro is skirting the contract. This is not a legitimate practice in our eyes,” Askin says.
Metro Spokesman Jim Middaugh confirmed that in some cases, the zoo gave temp workers multiple job titles.
“Certainly some temporary employees have worked more than 1040 hours, and we discovered that, and we discovered that and have been working with the union to try to make sure we adhere to the existing contract,” Middaugh says.
Middaugh says Metro has improved the way it tracks employees’ hours, to comply with both its union contract and with the Affordable Care Act.
Middaugh says the zoo plans to offer some employees regular jobs with benefits, but he won’t say how many.
And Middaugh is clear that the zoo isn’t planning to do that for all the temps who were misclassified last year. Others will see their hours cut to comply with the 1040 limit.
Olmsted doesn’t know what will happen to him. If he remains a temp under the newly-enforced rules, that would mean losing almost 400 hours of work.
“Four hundred hours lost is a lot of lost pay. I will have to go find another job, there’s no way around that,” Olmsted says.
Olmsted loves the zoo, and doesn’t plan on leaving even if his hours are cut, but he’s already started looking for a second job at a grocery store.