Temps Demand a New Deal | The Nation


Temps Demand a New Deal

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Millions of 'Second-Class Workers'

About the Author

Christopher D. Cook
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning investigative journalist who reports widely on labor, welfare and other issues...

With this issue, we resume our 'What Works' series, which explores effective projects and strategies for improving people's lives through progressive social change.
      --The Editors

The scope and role of contingent labor in today's economy is staggering. Nearly one-third of America's workers--about 30 million--toil in temporary, contracted, self-employed, leased, part-time and other "nonstandard" arrangements, according to a 1998-99 study by the Economic Policy Institute. Over the past decade, the temp industry has enjoyed phenomenal growth, outpacing most sectors of the economy. Since 1990 the number of workers employed daily by temp agencies has shot up from 1.2 million to 2.9 million, according to the American Staffing Association. Temp jobs constitute a startling 25 percent of all new jobs created since 1984.

In a fundamental restructuring of work, businesses now farm out not just special projects but everyday functions like office cleaning, payroll processing, human resources departments and entire clerical and assembly-line units. "It's all a function of companies trying to externalize any cost that is not core to what they do," explains Amy Dean, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council. Adds employment relations professor George Gonos of SUNY-Potsdam, who has studied temp labor for twenty years, "This is about a massive secondary labor market that has been created in every occupational group, producing a burgeoning group of second-class workers."

Contingent jobs are embedded in every sector of the economy, affecting workers of all collars. Their diverse ranks include high-tech software engineers and office workers; janitors, taxicab drivers and chicken catchers misclassified as independent contractors; adjunct college professors; and home healthcare workers. As Ellen Bravo, co-director of 9 to 5, the National Association for Working Women, puts it, "This is a labor problem that crosses class."

What potentially unites such disparate workers is the tenuous status they all share--and the fact that they take home nearly $100 less per week than their nominally permanent counterparts. Government and industry studies show 60-70 percent of contingents wish for something more stable. Just 20 percent of contingent workers (and under 4 percent of all temps) receive employer health insurance, compared with more than 50 percent of noncontingent workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, only one-fourth of contingent workers are eligible for employer pension plans, while nearly half of permanent workers qualify. Perhaps most significant, the vast majority of contingents fall through vast loopholes in worker-protection laws and have no union representation. They have been cast adrift to fend for themselves in an increasingly volatile labor market.

Now avenues for collective response are emerging. The National Alliance For Fair Employment has drafted codes of conduct that use the pressures of publicity--both good and bad--to convince temp agencies to treat temps in ways workers once took for granted: providing detailed job descriptions of wages, benefits and duration of assignments; insuring that temps get the same safety equipment as permanent workers; allowing temps to register with several agencies and to get permanent jobs with client companies; and allowing temps at unionized client companies to join collective bargaining agreements.

Yet such voluntary measures only go so far. And the sheer diversity and mobility of contingent jobs complicates direct organizing, making legislation critical to obtaining equal pay and benefits for temps. "Whatever power can be generated at the workplace must be directed to getting regulations across the labor market," says Costello. "We don't want to rely on workplace-by-workplace, association-by-association standards."

On the movement's legislative docket:

§ the Massachusetts Workplace Equity Bill, sponsored by dozens of state legislators, which would require equal pay and benefits for contingent workers who do the same work as permanent employees;

§ Congressional measures authored by Illinois Representative Lane Evans that would prohibit companies from cutting contingents out of pension plans, extend health and safety protections to temps and outlaw pay discrimination against temps; the bills, with six co-sponsors each, are still in committee;

§ Washington State's Employee Benefits Fairness Act of 2000, which would ban companies' "permatemp" strategies of misclassifying employees as temp or contract workers in order to deny them benefits such as paid leave and stock discounts;

§ temp worker "right to know" measures, passed in Rhode Island and South Carolina and proposed in Washington State, which would require agencies to provide temps with job descriptions, pay rates and work schedules.

Temp-industry officials insist that new laws and unions are unnecessary. Edward Lenz, senior vice president of the American Staffing Association (a trade group representing 1,400 temp companies), says the temp industry opposes equalizing benefits for temps because "employers ought to be free to say 'we're going to provide coverage to this group of workers and not to that group of workers.'" Lenz adds, "Although it may strike some people as arbitrary or unfair, the law currently allows them to do that, for reasons that don't have to be justified." So the industry and its clients continue to benefit from pension and labor laws that don't cover "that group"--namely, temps. The National Labor Relations Act, for instance, typically excludes temps from forming bargaining units with permanent workers, a serious hindrance to their unionization. Numerous proposals to reform this have made little headway.

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