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Should you consider using (or being) a temporary tech?

This laboratorian on the go believes that working as a temp is the perfect life.

Is your laboratory experiencing a personnel shortage? Perhaps a combination of vacations, maternity leave, jury duty, and unexpected absences has left you temporarily understaffed. Or maybe you have hired a new permanent employee who needs some time for training. Your hospital may be located in one of the many areas of the country that experience seasonal census shifts, going from medical Grand Central Station to a ghost town within a few months. Your full-time staff is overworked, yet you can't hire extra people only to lay them off a few months later. What's a lab manager to do?

One answer to temporary staff shortages is temporary help. In the past decade, dozens of agencies have been created to meet the staffing needs of ancillary health professions. Many began as nursing agencies and went on to develop personnel pools for radiology, respiratory therapy, and medical technology as their client hospitals began to request these services.

Hiring temporary help has many advantages. You can send them away when your workload lessens. You can request a tech specifically for the harder-to-fill evening and night shifts. People who are away from home are often willing to work weekends and overtime-and during the hospital Christmas party.

If you're not sure exactly how long you'll need a temporary worker, you'll find they are often flexible about extending the agreement. Temporary coverage allows a manager to extend the interviewing process for a permanent position rather than being forced into making a quick decision to fill the slot. If you have second thoughts about a temporary worker, at the end of the contract period it's just "farewell" and no hard feelings.

I began working as a traveling technologist in November 1989 and have been a booster of the system ever since. In MLO's October 1991 issue I described my experiences as a first-time supervisor ("A Temporary Supervisor Reports from the Front Lines"). This article will explain how temping works.

* Concerns. Naturally, laboratory managers who have never used temporary help have concerns when considering the idea. The section that follows will answer some of the questions that are typically asked.

[paragraph] Credentials. "Will the agency simply send me someone? How do I know he or she is qualified?" Applicants are screened in a two-step process: first by the agency, then by the hospital. Many agencies require a minimum of two to five years' experience. Nearly all require certification by a national certifying agency. Hospital Staffing Services, Inc. (HSSI), of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., requires all applicants to fill out a six-page checklist of skills, which provides a more detailed picture of an applicant's experience. References are checked by the agency and usually sent to the hospital with a copy of the applicant's resume. A list of agencies that specialize in temporary laboratory workers, culled from my reading and experience, is provided in Figure I. There may well be others.

Be as specific as possible when looking for a temporary worker. If the person may be shared among shifts or departments, be honest about it. Even if you're not sure what will happen, say so. Temps realize they are coming to help; most are willing and able to do whatever you need of a general nature.

After the hospital has communicated its needs to the agency and the agency has matched these needs to an available technologist, the agency puts the lab and the temp in touch with each other. Someone at the lab interviews the temp, usually by phone. If both parties are satisfied, the agency prepares the contract and makes housing and transportation arrangements. The temporary worker arrives within a day or two.

[paragraph] Orientation. "How long does it take to orient a temporary worker?" Temporaries learn fast and learn to ask the right questions. The lab can help by having procedure manuals accessible and up to date. Place materials at the appropriate workstations for quick reference. Ask your temporary for suggestions about ways to make your lab more "new-person friendly."

[paragraph] Cost. "How much will it cost?" Starting salaries range from $12 to $20 per hour, possibly higher for blood bank supervisors and other specialized workers. Beyond salary, the hospital pays for housing and travel. In some cases, the tech will require a rental car. The agency charges a fee for placing the temp at your lab.

You will probably be able to choose between two methods of payment. The temporary may be put on the hospital payroll, with the hospital directly providing housing or travel, either arranged in advance or reimbursed later. If a hospital uses temporaries in other fields, the institution may rent or own an apartment or two specifically for that purpose. Travel can sometimes be arranged more inexpensively through a travel agency with which the hospital does business regularly.

The second option is for the temporary to be on the agency's payroll, with the agency paying the housing and travel expenses. These expenses, plus the agency's fee, are then billed to the hospital at an hourly rate. Most agencies pay the temporary's liability insurance and worker's compensation. Small amounts of life insurance benefits may be available as well.

[paragraph] Poor match. "What if the temp doesn't work out?" Human beings being human, situations do arise when someone doesn't work out, either on a technical level or because of personality conflicts. This can happen in any hiring situation. If the problem can't be resolved, the temp can be dismissed. Talk it over with the agency and be specific about the problem. An unsuitable tech is an agency's worst nightmare. The agency will be eager to send a replacement, often without charging any additional travel expense to your institution.

[paragraph] Permanent post. "What if we want to keep our temp permanently?" This happens more often than rejection. Some temporaries are not ready to settle into a permanent position, no matter how congenial the work environment may be. Nevertheless, if the attraction is mutual, the transition from temporary to permanent can be made.

Some agencies charge a fee comparable to that of a placement or employment agency. The advantage is that you have already had a chance to try out your new employee. Other agencies simply say goodbye and goodluck.

* Varied group. What motivates technologists to be temporary workers? Who are these medical migrant workers? A few years ago, most travelers were young single women, a few years out of training, who wanted job experience with a little adventure thrown in. Agencies now report that more men and more older workers, some in their 50s and 60s, are entering the traveling work force. Married couples, some with children, see a temporary assignment as a sort of working vacation. Although it is harder to place a worker with an entourage, and the worker will be expected to assume the additional cost of bringing family members along and housing them, a little creativity can work wonders. One woman who has been traveling for over a year with her husband and Labrador retriever reports, "No problems so far."

Working in a variety of laboratory settings offers opportunities to use different equipment and to experience at first hand the advantages and drawbacks of each. Each lab has its own approaches to solving the problems faced by all.

Temporary assignments offer a chance to compare modes of laboratory organization on site, a valuable experience for anyone considering a career move into management. If temping appeals to you as a job opportunity for this or any other reason, try taking the selfquiz in Figure II to assess whether you're suited to it.

On the personal side, becoming a temp provides an excellent way to travel and learn about other areas of the country. Coworkers love to show off their city and state attractions.

Temporary work is often financially rewarding. Some agencies offer automatic raises after a certain number of weeks. Employees accumulate vacation hours. Additional bonuses of $200 to $500 can be earned by taking an additional job through the same agency with no more than a month's break between assignments.

In an effort to recruit, many agencies offer perks beyond salary, housing, and travel. One agency has a bonus program similar to a frequent flier program in which air miles are earned for every hour worked. Accumulated miles can be traded for items such as microwaves, telephone answering machines, and television sets as well as air travel. Some travel tips are offered in Figure III.

* Perfect life. For a person who likes to see different places, the life of a temp is ideal. My own assignments have taken me to Arizona, Colorado, and Alaska. In one year I held three supervisory positions, gaining the equivalent of years of experience. My husband is a professional cook who finds jobs wherever we go. While I have found my other jobs through agencies, my current job jumped out at me from the classified advertising pages of MLO.

In these far-flung labs, I have met wonderful people and begun friendships that I suspect will last a lifetime. I have hiked the Grand Canyon, skied Vail, and flown by helicopter over the frozen Arctic Ocean.

I may never go home again.

The author is (temporarily) a general-duty medical technologist at Moritz Community Hospital, Sun Valley, Idaho, where she skis on her day off.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; laboratory technicians as temporary employees
Author:Kidder, Lyn
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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