After spending a whole career doing temporary writing jobs, Isabella Mindak is for the first time struggling to get contracts with the federal government. Not only has the work slowed down, but she finds the rates are falling.

Mindak said she used to get contract after contract for good pay, and not worry much. In recent years, however, the changes have her worried about how she can save for retirement. The few contracts that do come up expect a temporary worker to do the work cheaply, she said.

"Some of the requirements are pretty shocking to me... in terms of the salary," said Mindak. "I'm wondering if the market's flooded. Maybe it's an employer's world right now. They can ask for the moon and the stars and not pay very much, and they'll get someone to do it."

Temporary pay rates dropping

An umbrella group of staffing agencies said the lower rates began in 2009, when the federal government began a new method for buying contract help.

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From left, CBC Ottawa reporters Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco, Susan Burgess and Kate Porter. (Kristy Nease/CBC)


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"It's no longer a matter of finding the best fit and trying to achieve best value. It's 'Who's the lowest cost?' And, 'Do they meet the mandatory requirements?'" said Martin Chénier of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services, an umbrella group of staffing agencies. He sees a lot of federal contracts that ask for a lot, but pay the minimum, and so end up with candidates who are not the best suited for the work.

Chénier said that leaves highly-skilled people like Mindak having to consider doing work for $11 or $12 per hour — just above minimum wage, and well below their market rate. Recently retired public servants who might also like to find fulfilling part-time work as consultants are also finding few opportunities, he said.

Chénier said the government's standing offer system has also affected the profit margins of staffing agencies, as they compete to provide the cheapest employee to win a contract, in a "race to the bottom". Some members of his association have gotten out of the business of providing contract employees to the federal government entirely, he said.

In a statement, the federal department of Public Works said the "dynamic pricing" model it instituted in 2009 was developed with industry and clients, and puts the onus on industry to determine rates they charge. It said the system maintains fairness and transparency in an era of fiscal responsibility. Public Works plans to consult those in the temporary help services sector this summer, and it's possible that review could lead to industry suggesting a new or different model for contracting temporary help.

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Martin Chénier says some temporary workers in the federal government are making $11 an hour. (CBC)

Mindak, meanwhile, became so disheartened by the lack of well-paying contract work, and what it would mean for her ability to save for retirement, that she turned to searching for permanent positions.

She wakes early every day, methodically searches for jobs and applies by their deadlines. She also takes workshops at an employment centre about searching for jobs, networking and doing elevator pitches. 

As yet, she's had no luck, but she tries to remain optimistic.

"One of the slippery slopes that I have to be careful of right now is not thinking about the future," said Mindak.

"Because when I think about the future, that's when I get paralyzed, almost. I get so frightened that it can really affect my energy level and my motivation to continue."