NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Roughly 2.8 million temporary jobs are propping up the U.S. economy and constituting 2% of total employment, according to a report.
The National Employment Law Project found that temporary help agencies, staffing agencies, professional employer organizations and employment placement agencies fill 2.5% of all jobs, up from 1.4% in 1990. More than 12 million workers moved in and out of staffing agencies in 2013 alone.
While the Department of Labor notes that the unemployment rate dropped from 7.2% in August 2013 to 6.1% last month, the percentage of temporary labor currently in the workforce underscores some of the reasons Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, among others, view that percentage with caution. About 92.3 million U.S. citizens were out of the workforce in August, up from 90.5 a year ago. Meanwhile, the 6.3 million Americans looking for a job is actually up from 6.2 million a year ago.
Increasingly, those temp jobs aren't just clerical positions or seasonal and holiday help. In 2013, material-moving workers made up nearly 20% of all temporary workers. Assemblers and fabricators constituted another 9%, while construction trades workers were 3%. Altogether, workers in the industrial and manufacturing sector accounted for 42% of all temp work in 2013. Administrative assistants, clerks, computer workers and other office workers accounted for just 21%.
Roughly 77% of all Fortune 500 companies use temporary workers of some kind. Waste Management employs them for waste removal, recycling and other tasks. Philips Norelco uses them to package razors. Doubletree Hotels rely on them to clean rooms. Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Hut use them to fill orders and Costco and Wal-Mart employ them to make frozen pizzas. They're an efficient way to fill positions and complete tasks, but they're also employed at a discount.
The median temp worker takes home $12.40 an hour, compared with an hourly wage of $15.84 earned by all private-sector workers, regardless of industry. That's a 22% disparity that varies broadly by position. Temporary administrative assistants average $16.13 an hour compared with the $16.97 earned by their more permanent private-sector counterparts, while the difference in pay for clerks and office support staff can be less than $1 per hour for temp workers. For construction trades workers, however, taking a temp job earns them only $14 an hour compared with more permanent workers taking in nearly $19 an hour for the same tasks.
“The shift towards temp work is creating an economy in which working people who move and produce products for some of our nation’s largest and most profitable corporations are treated like any other input, to be acquired at the cheapest cost,” says Rebecca Smith, who co-wrote the NELP report. “Staffing agencies not only fail to provide livable wages, benefits or job security for their workers, but their influence in an industry can lower standards for all workers in that industry.”
It's not only less pay: It's often less safe. A ProPublica analysis of worker's compensation claims in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon found that the incidence of temporary worker workplace injuries was between 36% to 72% higher than for non-temporary workers. Those concerns and reports of worker deaths, especially on the first day of work, has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ramping up efforts to crack down on enforcement within the temporary staffing industry through its Temporary Worker Initiative. OSHA is concerned employers may use temporary workers to avoid compliance obligations and skirt worker protections.
The economy, meanwhile, is seeing a lot more of those “temporary jobs” become a permanent reality for workers. The number of U.S. workers employed part-time because their hours had been cut back or because they couldn't find full-time work sat at 7.3 million in August. Another 2.1 million considered “marginally attached” to the labor force have been looking for work for roughly a year.
David Fields, a 45-year-old father of four who worked for Linc Logistics in a Wal-Mart consolidation center in Hammond, Ind., is among the temp workers who have become reliant on a series of temporary jobs. Fields has worked at various warehouses in Chicago and Northwest Indiana for several years and notes that working through injury is just part of maintaining job security.
“You haven’t felt cold until you’ve worked an overtime shift in sub-zero temperatures on a warehouse loading dock during the Christmas rush,” Fields told NELP. “It’s dangerous to move heavy equipment when you can’t feel your hands and you’re walking on ice. Frostbite was a common. But as temp workers, we were expendable, so we just kept on working.”
— Written by Jason Notte for MainStreet
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