by Elizabeth Grossman
The news of increased hiring in the January jobs report has been greeted as a sign that the US might finally be emerging from the Great Recession. But a look at the kind of hiring that’s been on the rise over the past few years raises important questions about the changing nature of the relationship between workers and employers – questions that have serious implications for occupational health and safety as well as workers’ financial security.
Reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that temporary employment is on the rise: In 2010 more than 27% of the 1.12 million jobs created were temporary staffing positions, and employment at temporary jobs agencies accounted for 91% of the non-farm job growth between 2009 and 2011. More than 2.5 million people in the United States go to work each day as temps, and about 90% of all US businesses now use temporary labor. The fastest growing business sectors for all this temporary labor are the “blue-collar” and low-wage sectors of the service and manufacturing industries, write the authors of a report published by the University of Massachusetts Labor Relations and Research Center. They calculate that more than 35% of the temporary workforce labors in these sectors, working in fields that include construction, janitorial and cleaning services, manufacturing, landscaping, shipping, and warehousing.
Some temporary agencies post jobs listings, but a great many do not, and instead require job- seekers to show up at their offices on a daily basis. A quick survey of job-openings currently posted on-line by temp agencies include those for a skilled laborer able to lift up to 100 pounds consistently, assembly-line work, fork-lift operator, truck driver, warehouse loading, general labor, mine work, aircraft mechanics, building custodians, grounds maintenance, recycling, and night-shift security. Spartan Staffing, a temp agency that specializes in blue-collar jobs, says that in 2010 it placed 300,000 people in jobs. Labor Ready, which also focuses on blue-collar positions, says it fills 400,000 jobs a year. True Blue Inc, — which owns Labor Ready and Spartan Staffing, as well as four other more specialized temp agencies, CLP Resources, Centerline, PlaneTechs and TransTechs — reported 90% operating income growth in the fourth-quarter of 2011.
Problems and solutions in Massachusetts
Like many other states, Massachusetts has seen its employment picture shift away from permanent jobs, with consequences for workers. “Temporary employment has been growing dramatically, particularly in the lower wage blue-collar sector,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Health and Safety (MassCOSH). “We’ve been getting more and more calls from workers who have little information about the jobs where they’re being sent, who are not getting training, and who are having trouble being paid properly,” she said. Much of this work, she said, is “dirty and dangerous work.”
In most states, there is no legal requirement for temp agencies to tell workers where they are going to work, exactly what they will be asked to do, how much they will be paid, or how long they will be required to work. There are some exceptions and special rules for multi-employer worksites, but workers hired through a temp agency are supposed to be provided safety equipment at no cost by the company whose job-site they’re working on. A survey done by MassCOSH found temp agencies that regularly required workers to pay for safety equipment and clothing needed to perform the job they were hired to do, and that deducted fees for transportation and insurance even when the worker had not used the service. (At least one agency advertises that it will rent or sell or rent temporary employees required safety equipment if they don’t already own it.) Inadequate hazard communication and safety training was also a common problem, as were problems with timely, accurate, and overtime pay.
While temp work is often described as a stepping-stone to full-time employment, this is often not the case, even when an employer has an ongoing, consistent job to fill. “Temp is often a misnomer,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “In a number of cases people work for years for the same employer by way of a third-party temp agency, for low wages and no benefits.”
Testifying before the Massachusetts House Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development in June 2011, Epifanio Cos of New Bedford described his typical day:
I leave at 5 am from my house and walk to the pharmacy where I wait there to be picked up at 6 am and then get into a van with other workers and are then driven to Brockton where we work for the Stone recycling company. My supervisor is someone I only know as Hector. He sends us to do this work without any kind of training or protective equipment. There’s no place to eat or even a kitchen and much less a place where we can drink water. We are paid $ 8.00 an hour on a personal check and we are charged $30.00 for transportation costs for the full week even if we only work three days of that week.
His story is typical of those collected by the University of Massachusetts report on temporary labor in the state.
When problems do arise, temporary workers in Massachusetts, many of whom are recent immigrants, often have problems with language, transporatation and access to attorneys and doctors, said Tom Smith, executive director, of Justice at Work, a non-profit that’s been providing legal services to low-wage workers and community-based labor organizations. Wage violations are a chronic problem, said Smith, both in overtime payment and minimum wage compliance. Legislation that would address these issues, the Reform Employment Agency Law (REAL) has been introduced in the Massachusetts legislature but not yet passed.
But Massachusetts temp workers and advocates have had an important victory: an agreement signed in January between the Employment on Demand Agency, Inc. (EDA) and the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores of New Bedford (CCT). Temp agencies supply most of the workers to New Bedford’s fish and recycling industries and the community has a history of problems with temp agencies. In the memorandum of agreement, EDA pledges to inform workers about job locations (including name of the employer and address and phone or work supervisor), work duties, details of the relationship between the agency and employer, and all employees costs and fees. They also agree to provide copies of all employee contracts, and to supply any needed safety equipment to workers. According to MassCOSH, only four states – Illinois, New York, Utah, Washington and Texas — currently require such detailed job orders.
The agreement also specifies that worker transportation must be safe and legal, that transportation fees cannot be deducted from workers’ pay without their written consent (in a language the worker understands) and that those fees cannot exceed actual costs of transportation, be more than 3% of daily wages, or result in reducing pay below minimum wage. EDA has also agreed not to retaliate against workers who’ve sought advice from lawyers or community organizations, “or in any other way have taken steps to determine or assert their employment rights under state or federal laws.”
This agreement represents an important step in securing temp workers’ rights but the fact that it was necessary in the first place is a reminder that temp jobs aren’t always fair or safe. The American Staffing Association that represents what’s known as the staffing industry (employment agencies), reports that temporary and contract employment is up 16.1 % since the beginning of the year and is 3.6% higher than the same time last year. Temporary staffing is considered an indicator of overall employment. While there is reason for cautious optimism that hiring is increasing, the trend toward reliance on temporary employment raises questions, among them: How do US companies benefit financially from relying on temporary workers, including the hiring of temporary workers located outside the US? How do temporary employment arrangements affect household and community economic well-being over the long-term? If all temp workers could be assured that they’d be paid fairly, accurately informed, and provided with the safe working conditions to which they’re entitled, then the growth in temporary employment could indeed be an encouraging sign.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.