The Tempification of the American Workforce

Lindsay Beyerstein

June Beckman, a part-time worker with the cleaning contractor Scrub, cleans a window at O'Hare International Airport's Terminal 3 in Chicago, Ill.

The tempification of the American workforce continues apace. While job losses make headlines, we don’t hear as much about an equally insidious trend: real jobs with benefits are being replaced by contracting opportunities” and temporary placements.

In October, the U.S. economy created 34,000 new temp jobs, while posting a net loss of 190,000 jobs. Some media reports have hailed local upticks in temporary employment as portents of an improving job market. The idea is that employers are using temporary workers until they feel secure enough in the recovery to hire full-time workes back.

That’s one hypothesis. The other possibility is that employers are ditching permanent employees and replacing them with long-term temps.

The great Perm to Temp shift didn’t start yesterday. From 1969 to 1993, the number of part-time workers in the American workforce nearly doubled. This surge in part-time employment accounted for a quarter of all growth in the labor market. From 1982 to 1990, the payrolls of temp agencies grew ten times faster than the workforce as a whole. By 2005, contingent workers accounted for nearly a third of the U.S. workforce.

Bosses like temps because they are flexible,” i.e., because they can be hired and fired at will. Temp workers tend to earn less and enjoy fewer benefits than their permanent counterparts. The tempification of the economy helps keep permanent workers’ expectations low. Mixing temps with full-time staffers on the same jobsite is a time honored way to keep a workforce internally divided.

From a union perspective, temporary workers are even harder to organize than the rest of the private sector because they are dispersed and highly mobile.

They could use advocates: Temporary workers are more likely to be hurt on the job, according to a paper published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They are also less likely to have health insurance. Only 13% of temporary workers have health insurance, compared to 77% of workers with permanent jobs.

In her recent book, Wage Theft In America, Kim Bobo argues that a culture of temporary employment errodes employers’ sense of responsiblity for the well-being of their workers.

Daphne Dolan summed up that mindset in an interview with the Chicago Tribune last week, “[Employers] want a receptionist who’s also an administrator and answering the phone and making the coffee. They want hybrid people.”

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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