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A New “Ecosystem” of Temporary Workers

Temporary work has become an essential, permanent part of America’s economy. In June 2013, the Labor Department reported that the nation had 2.7 million temporary workers, the highest figure on record. According to the American Staffing Agency, every year a tenth of Americans find work through a temporary staffing agency.

As Michael Grabell reports, “Across America, temporary work has become a mainstay of the economy, leading to the proliferation of what researchers have begun to call ‘temp towns’… In many temp towns, agencies have flocked to neighborhoods full of undocumented immigrants, finding labor that is kept cheap in part by these workers’ legal vulnerability: They cannot complain without risking deportation.”

Despite temporary workers’ contributions to the US economy, the “growing temporary sector does little to sustain workers’ standard of living,” Grabell writes.  Only four percent of temps have pensions or retirement plans, and just eight percent receive health insurance from their employers (compared with 56 percent for permanent workers).  Workplace safety is also a problem for temp workers.  For instance, a study of workers compensation data in Washington state found that temp workers in construction and manufacturing were twice as likely to be injured as regular staff doing the same work. Nevertheless, the government does not keep statistics on injuries among temp workers.

Over the past two decades, Congress has considered legislation to protect temp workers, but none of the bills introduced have made it out of committee. State level efforts have been equally unsuccessful—with the exception of the Massachusetts Temporary Workers Right-to-Know Law, which took effect in January 2013. Among its provisions, the law requires temp agencies to give workers written notice of basics terms of their employment, including whom they will work for, their pay and what safety equipment they’ll need. Similar state bills have passed in New Jersey and Illinois in the past few years, despite resistance from some temporary staffing agencies, who oppose them on the grounds that existing labor laws adequately protect temporary workers.

Source: Michael Grabell, “The Expendables: How the Temps who Power Corporate Giants are Getting Crushed,” Pro Publica, June 27, 2013, http://www.propublica.org/article/the-expendables-how-the-temps-who-power-corporate-giants-are-getting-crushe.

Student Researcher: Baylee Yates (Sonoma State University)

Community Evaluator: Mike Davey (Saratoga High School)

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