It was a strange homecoming.
After a yearlong absence from work, Craig LeHoullier reappeared at his old office in Research Triangle Park. The 54-year-old chemist wasn't out on medical leave or a sabbatical. He had been knocked out by the epidemic affliction of our time: layoffs.
But his former employer, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, needed his services again, and LeHoullier jumped at the opportunity to rejoin his business unit and pick up where he had left off.
"I've been back there for a year, and it still feels odd," LeHoullier said. "I've had numerous double-takes. I still get messages on my computer screen saying, 'What are you doing here?' "
American companies gutted by layoffs during the recession are cautiously beginning to hire again. And some are turning to a tried-and-true reservoir of talent: their former employees.
A number of them, jobless for months and eager for a paycheck, are setting aside their pride, stifling any resentment and reporting for work. Some come back to the same cubicle, same phone number, same e-mail address - and even the same boss who pink-slipped them.
Those who return typically come back as contractors, a category of job growth that's an early sign of economic recovery. Bringing experience, training and deep knowledge of the company's culture and operations, many hope to earn permanent employee status again.
"We're living in strange times right now," said UNC-Chapel Hill business professor Ben Rosen. "And the old adage that beggars can't be choosers seems to sum up the situation here."
No one tracks how many people are returning to their former employers, but the numbers could be significant. The Raleigh office of Manpower, the global staffing company, reports that about 25 percent of its clients in North Carolina are re-hiring former employees. Jeff Stocks, the CEO of Manpower's Raleigh office, says that translates to between 750 and 1,000 companies.
"We're seeing hundreds of companies doing this," Stocks said. "Most of the employees go back and report directly to the same manager. Everything is the same, except they're on our payroll."
In some ways, it's not the same at all. The benefits are almost always worse, and sometimes non-existent. Unless companies agree to pay extra to the staffing firm, the contractors don't get health care benefits, paid vacations or sick days off. When the economy firms up, some contractors may be converted to full-time employees with full benefits. Others, however, complete their projects, turn in their badges and get back in the job queue.
For the company, it's a hassle-free way to manage the work force . The employer pays the staffing company a fee for supplying the labor but avoids the administrative hassle of setting up payroll taxes, retirement accounts, unemployment insurance, health benefits and worker's compensation coverage. All that is handled by Manpower or another staffing firm.
"In most cases, it [the benefits] would be slightly less, but sometimes they pay them slightly more in lieu of benefits," Stocks said. "The benefits can be from very minimum to very comprehensive, almost comparable to what they had before."
Art Padilla, head of the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at N.C. State University, said even temporary work beats unemployment, but that the contract relationship is trying, especially on senior-level workers approaching retirement.
"As the economy improves, these companies realize they have cut off a couple of fingers and they need them back," Padilla said. "It's tough on those workers and on their families. The sociology of it is amazingly poignant."
Anything related to layoffs is still a touchy subject at most companies, hushed up like a messy divorce.
At NetApp, the data storage firm with RTP operations, rehiring old colleagues is presented as a positive experience. The California company has a global staff of 8,300, including 975 employees and 100 contractors at its RTP office. NetApp laid off nearly 600 people in February 2009 and is now looking to fill 800 openings worldwide.
Respect for employees
"If you're considering a reduction in force, it is imperative that you treat your employees with dignity and respect," said Grace Soriano-Abad, senior director of global staffing at NetApp. "Where I've worked in previousplaces, we had security stationed as people were walking out. They were treated as criminals."
Soriano-Abad also manages the company's "alternative work force," the term NetApp uses for its contractor ranks. The company has brought back about two dozen people from among those it laid off last year, she said.
"Most of these people were good workers," Soriano-Abad said. "We'd rather give work to a person who understandsNetApp rather than an unknown person."
In flux at GSK
GlaxoSmithKline is bringing back former employees even as the company continues its reorganization and is still laying off full-time employees.
Spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne said the company's policy on contractors requires the worker to have been laid off for at least six months and the contract to be limited to 18 months.
Businesses are curtailing the duration of contractors and other temporary workers because federal courts have ruled in favor of long-term contractors who claimed they were entitled to full benefits.
Hired after seven years
Jim Smith worked at Glaxo SmithKline as a contractor for seven years before he was hired permanently as a business data analyst. In April 2008, after four years as a regular employee, he was laid off. Seeing the accumulated talent and vast years of experience leaving the company, Smith suspected the layoff was not the end of the story and didn't discount making a comeback.
He did a seven-month contract stint at SAS Institute and spent 11 months unemployed before the call came from GSK.
"Don't stop doing your job well in that time you know you're leaving," Smith, 52, advised. "That's what will leave the lasting impression."
LeHoullier began at the company in 1984 and was laid off the first time in 1992. He was rehired and then laid off again in 2007, a veteran of 24 years, two layoffs and two rehires. His seniority qualified him as a retiree with full health benefits, and he said contracting 20 days a month at GSK is preferable to trying to get back on the corporate career track.
LeHoullier is a self-employed contractor, not with a staffing firm. He said his presence at GSK is a positive reminder to colleagues that there is life after layoffs.
"What you learn is, you don't take these things personally," he said. "You can say you work for a big company, but in truth decisions have to be made. We all work for ourselves and our families."
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