caesar.jpgContract, freelance and temp workers are the second-class citizens of the workforce.

That’s just how it is folks. You’re not a full-time employee with health benefits, sick time and vacations days. And adding insult to injury, an employer can kick you out the door when ever the heck he or she wants.

Michael D., a long-time contract engineer for a major computer company on the West Coast, recently went through this indignity. But his kick-out-the-door was worse than most. He was ousted because he ate a manager’s salad by mistake, a Caesar salad to be exact.

I’m not kidding. I called the contracting firm that got him the job in the first place, and they say the guy had a great record with the company until the salad incident.

I suspect these kind of bizarre stories will become a workplace mainstay because the number of temp and contract workers is exploding thanks to employers who want to do anything they can to cut the biggest expense on their balance sheet — workers. I recently wrote about this growing trend for MSNBC.

But Michael’s story is particularly disturbing.

He worked in an office that often put left-over food from parties, or meetings in conference rooms. On this fateful day, he went in and got some of a huge salad he thought was destined for the trash. But it actually belonged to the senior vice president of finance in his department.

“How this happened is that food is often left in conference rooms throughout the day and we also get served dinner in the evenings. I passed by this conference room and it had all the markings of left food. This salad was not in a small bowl but in a large bowl suited for many people. I served myself, left the room and returned to my desk.

Moments later, I was verbally accosted by two women, whom I assume was his assistants, and they told me how I should be ashamed that I took this food. Of course, I apologized profusely and sent an email to my department manager letting him know of the incident. He did not return my emai). Later that day, I went the the department admin letting her know of the incident and also to find out who the vice president was and the two assistants who humiliated me in front of my coworkers.

The next day, as I returned from lunch, I was met by HR, and two other individuals in the lobby of my building and they asked for my badge and was immediately escorted out of the building.”

The day before the salad tragedy, he had just gotten kudos for his work.

“I had a meeting with my manager and he stated that I was doing a great job and I was an asset to the organization.”

Well, not as much of an asset as the salad it turns out. (I’m going to be referring to the episode as SaladGate from now on thanks to @cspod that coined the phrase on Twitter this morning after reading this post.)

So, Michael wants to know what his rights are. I contacted a labor lawyer I respect, Hanan Kolko, and he told me Michael doesn’t have much of a case.

“Legally, it sounds like they guy is out of luck,” Kolko said, adding that if he had a contract that bound him to the company for a certain period of time, or he feels his employer discriminated against him for some reason, things would be different.

But for contract workers like Michael, they have few rights in the work place. There are some groups trying to change that.

Such transient workers have no protections and benefits of being full-time employees, including unemployment insurance and some labor laws. Contingent workers typically don’t get sick or vacation days, retirement accounts or health coverage. “Companies want a more flexible work force, but we have to think about what’s the next way we’re going to protect people,” said Sara Horowitz, founder of Freelancers Unions.

Her group wants laws on the books protecting you temps, freelancers and contractors. But such protections may be a long time coming.

For now, people like Michael have little recourse when they face such injustices.

But Kolko suggested he go back and try to explain himself again to the company. “Under the facts you describe, the guy should make a pitch to HR that his firing was not fair. While HR is normally toothless, these are pretty strong facts. He has nothing to lose by trying that route.”

Maybe someone at the company has some sense. Even Julius Caesar would have shown this poor guy some mercy.

If you have an advice for Michael, pass it along. He’s weighing his options as we speak.

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