Is the notable rise in temporary workers a sign of an improving economy or the continuation of a trend toward less security and safety on the job?
A good jobs report for March had the business world buzzing. Thegain of 192,000 jobs was seen as a sign of strength amid indicators that the economy is picking up steam. But28,500 of these new jobs, or 15 percent, were temporary jobs, marking a net gain of 9.6 percent in temporary workers over the same month last year and indicating that temp work is growing.
Exactly what that means — such as whether it’s an indicator of permanent, full-time jobs to come or a sign of a new status quo — is still being debated.
“Growth in temporary employment is typically an indicator that more permanent jobs are coming down the road,” said Eric Gilpin, president of the Staffing & Recruiting Group atCareerBuilder, an online job search site. “Growth in temporary employment has accelerated post-recession, but we see this coupled with growth in permanent jobs too.”
Sherry Dixon, senior vice president of Adecco Staffing, agrees. “We’re seeing more jobs transition from true temporary positions into more full-time roles. Companies are really starting to invest in their own full-time workforce. They’re starting to test the waters again, and the best way to do that is through a temporary workforce.”
Hiring temps is certain to continue. “Forty-two percent of private sector employers, according to a recent CareerBuilder and Harris Poll survey, plan to hire contract or temporary workers in 2014; that’s up from 34 percent in 2011,”said Gilpin.
But there is also a longer term trend toward more temporary employment. According to a poll commissioned by CareerBuilder, 2.9 million workers held at least one temporary gig in 2013, up 28 percent since 2010.
“We do not see this as an indicator that we are at a ‘peak’ economy,” saidJeffrey A. Joerres, chief executive of ManpowerGroup, a large temporary staffing company. “We rather see it as more of a structural or secular change, that our industry will be absorbing more of the workforce than it did in the past.”
In an Associated Presssurvey conducted among 37 economists last May, three-quarters of the economists believe the trend toward more temporary employees is permanent.
Permanent temporary employment
There is no doubt that temporary work, along with contractors and part-time workers, now comprise a larger share of our economy than before. That means less security and, for many workers, more opportunities to be exploited.
The last time the Government Accounting Office studied the issue was in 2006. The report issued showed that at that time, 29.4 percent of the workforce were what they called “contingent workers,” or those lacking in job security. The main categories included temporary workers (2.2 percent), contractors (10.3 percent) and part-time workers (16.9 percent). With no subsequent study, it’s difficult to gauge how these workers have fared in the years since.
The temporary workforce now stands at over2.8 million workers, or 2.5 percent of the workforce. That’s up significantly from a low of 1.7 million in August 2009, when the recession was biting its hardest, but only a small increase over the percentage found by the GAO in 2006. Up to 14 million workers are freelance contractors, representing 10.4 percent of the workforce.
Part-time workers comprise 19.6 percent of the workforce, according to a study by theSan Francisco Federal Reserve published last year. Of those, only 5.3 percent work part-time for economic reasons — meaning, they’d like to have a full-time job — and the rest are happy with shorter hours that give them time to raise a family, go to school, or pursue other interests.
All together, 32.5 percent of the workforce is now “contingent,” using the GAO’s terminology, meaning that worker security has certainly been on the decline since the last time it was studied in 2006.
That may be bad enough news for marginal workers, but many see bleak days ahead for everyone.
“What we call contingent workers is really hard to define, because to some extent we’re all contingent now,” said Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.” “Work has become much more insecure, much more precarious, so everybody is a temporary in one sense, because their levels of job security have really decreased in recent years.”
Jobs through staffing industry companies that are classified as “temporary work” are lacking in more than just security, however. The average weekly pay of temp jobs is $554, one-third less than the average pay for all jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to $13.80 an hour at 40 hours per week.
Low pay isn’t the only concern for today’s marginal workers, though. “Current law is simply insufficient to protect workers’ rights in the shadows of the subcontracted economy,” Caitlin Vega of the California Labor Federation wrote in a letter supporting a bill now pending in California that would hold companies liable for worker pay and safety violations that occur in all of their subcontracting companies. Similar legislation is also pending in 10 other states.
“This simple rule will incentivize the use of responsible contractors, rather than a race to the bottom,” she added in the letter.
Safety is also a concern for workers who lack a long-term commitment both to and from their employers. “Temp workers fall through the cracks,” saidLinda Delp of the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program.
“From a public health perspective, we need to know where they’re working, who’s injured on the job and how, so we can improve working conditions,” she said. “But there are not clear lines of reporting and responsibility for worker safety.”
The Department of Labor is also turning its attention the issue. “While (temporary work) is certainly not a new phenomenon, it’s rapidly escalating,” saidMay Beth Maxwell of the Wage and Hour Division.
The long-time worker advocated also noted, “In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s just a big shift to this for a lot more workers – which makes them a lot more vulnerable.”
A large rise in temporary workers is definitely a short-term trend, even if many of these workers do eventually achieve a full-time position. Like self-employed consultants and part-time workers, temps have to contend with jobs that offer no job security, lower pay and questionable workplace safety. While this has caught the attention of many, the job market is exploiting many more marginal workers today than it was before the last recession.