In a New York Times Opinionator column, SUNY Buffalo sociology professor Erin Hatton traces the development of the US temporary-worker industry, which added more jobs than any other over the past three years. Temporary workers generally earn low wages and face job insecurity, and often lack benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance and paid sick leave. Hatton explains that temp agencies offering such disappointing wage and benefits packages emerged in the years following World War II — and did so despite the growing union power that characterized that era. They managed it, Hatton writes, by exploiting gender stereotypes:

To avoid union opposition, [temp agencies] developed a clever strategy, casting temp work as “women’s work,” and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs. The Kelly Girls, Manpower’s White Glove Girls, Western Girl’s Cowgirls, the American Girls of American Girl Services and numerous other such “girls” appeared in the pages of Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Fortune, The New York Times and The Chicago Daily Tribune.

…The temp agencies’ Kelly Girl strategy was clever (and successful) because it exploited the era’s cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace “breadwinning” union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money. As a Kelly executive told The New York Times in 1958, “The typical Kelly Girl… doesn’t want full-time work, but she’s bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat.”

Protected by the era’s gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labor unions. While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today “temp” jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights.

Whether or not most of the “Kelly Girls” and other female temp workers of that era were working for “pin money” rather than out of necessity, this tactic allowed temporary staffing agencies to flourish. Today, a wide array of businesses rely heavily on temporary and contract workers, who together make up a large and growing “contingent workforce.”

Earlier this month, the Center for Progressive Reform released a white paper on the disadvantages and job hazards facing the contingent workforce. In At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions, Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Matt Shudtz summarize the problems this way:

More and more workers are being employed through “contingent work” relationships. Day laborers hired on a street corner for construction or farming work, warehouse laborers hired through staffing agencies, and hotel housekeepers supplied by temp firms are common examples, because their employment is contingent upon short-term fluctuations in demand for workers. Their shared experience is one of little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions. When hazards lead to work-related injuries, the contingent nature of the employment relationship can exacerbate the negative consequences for the injured worker and society. The worker might quickly find herself out of a job and, depending on the severity of the injury, the prospects of new employment might be slim. Employer-based health insurance is a rarity for contingent workers, so the costs of treating injuries are typically shifted to the worker or the public at large. Because employers who hire workers on a contingent basis do not directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, they are likely to be insulated from premium adjustments based on the cost of workers’ injuries. As a result, employers of contingent labor may escape the financial incentives that are a main driver of business decisions to eliminate hazards for other workers.

The paper includes case studies on four industries that rely heavily on contingent workers: farming, construction, warehousing, and hotel work. It’s particularly interesting to consider the case of hotel housekeepers, who are overwhelmingly women in contrast to the industry-promoted image of a “Kelly Girl” who’s picking up a little office work so she can buy a fur coat. The CPR authors write:

Standard union contracts for room attendants often capped workloads for full-time employees at about 15 rooms per day. In one large hotel chain that has begun replacing full-time staff with more workers hired through temp agencies, the new hires have been given quotas of up to 30 rooms per day. With only 15 minutes to clean each room, many of these workers report having to work through lunch breaks required by state law or after clocking out in order to meet their quotas. Of course, working off the clock is also a violation of the employer’s policies, putting the workers at risk of disciplinary action.

Having to scrub bathroom floors on hand and knee, without being paid, is not the only ignominy imposed on contingent staff in the hotel industry. Women working in these jobs report being victims of sexual assault. Precarious employment relationships and unclear lines of authority can lead to underreporting of these incidents and inadequate responses from employers.

In a similar vein, as management increasingly focuses on short-term cost containment in relation to hotel housekeepers, there is an increased risk that health and safety hazards will receive short shrift from management. Scrubbing floors, vacuuming, changing sheets on heavy mattresses, and navigating unwieldy carts in carpeted hallways lead to musculoskeletal disorders. Workers’ advocates have identified simple technological solutions to some of these problems, including ergonomically designed carts, fitted bed sheets, and long-handled mops. But hotel management externalizes the costs of treating the chronic musculoskeletal injuries by hiring through temp firms. The temp employees are not covered by the hotel’s workers compensation program and are not eligible to enroll in the hotel’s health insurance program. As a result, hotels fight against the capital outlays for solutions that would prevent the injuries in the first place.

Steven Greenhouse, a New York Times reporter and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, has written about some of the hazards women in the hotel industry face. He reported on a study about hotel workers published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2010; researchers studied OSHA incident logs from 50 hotels over a three-year period, and found that women hotel workers (who were disproportionately employed as housekeepers) were 50% more likely to be injured than men. Greenhouse wrote:

According to the study, housekeepers have a 7.9 percent injury rate each year, 50 percent higher than for all hotel workers and twice the rate for all workers in the United States.

Other academic studies have concluded that housekeepers have a high injury rate because they do repetitive tasks, lift heavy mattresses and work rapidly to clean a dozen or more rooms.

The study found that Hispanic housekeepers had the highest injury rate — 10.6 percent a year — compared with 6.3 percent for white housekeepers, 5.5 for black housekeepers and 7.3 percent for Asian housekeepers.

Greenhouse also reported on sexual affronts by male guests against hotel housekeepers:

Zemina Cuturic, a refugee from Bosnia who works at the Tremont Chicago Hotel, said she remained frightened whenever she had to clean Room 410 because of what happened there a year ago. She was vacuuming, she said, and the guest, who had left the room minutes earlier, suddenly reappeared and “reached to try to kiss me behind my ear.”

“I dropped my vacuum, and then he grabbed my body at the waist, and he was holding me close,” Ms. Cuturic recalled. She persuaded the guest to let her go, and she fled. “It was very scary,” she said. Ms. Cuturic reported the incident to hotel management, but decided against going to the police. “I was kind of scared that he’d come back the next day if I did,” she said.

A Tremont official said the hotel, part of the Starwood chain, has a full-time security guard whose only job is to watch over the housekeeping staff. In the incident that Ms. Cuturic described, the official said that management confronted the man and insisted that he leave the hotel.

… Housekeepers, nearly all of whom are women, talk of guests who offer them $100 or $200 for sex, apparently thinking that the maids, often low-paid immigrants, are desperate to earn more money. Some women complain of episodes in which they were bending over to, say, clean a bathtub, and a guest sneaked up and stuck his hand up their skirt.

…Housekeepers and officials with the main hotel workers union, Unite Here, said that housekeepers were often too embarrassed or scared to report incidents to management or the police. Sometimes they fear that management, often embracing the motto “the customer is always right,” will believe the customer over the housekeeper and that the worker may end up getting fired.

Hotel housekeepers employed on a temporary basis by a staffing agency may be even more reluctant to report such incidents to hotel management, or to work with management on appropriate safeguards against sexual assaults.

Hotel guests can use UNITE HERE’s iPhone app or web search to find union hotels. The Hyatt Hurts coalition has launched a boycott of the Hyatt chain, stating that chain has abused housekeepers and other workers and “replacing longtime employees with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain.” The site includes several stories from Hyatt workers.

CPR’s white paper includes several recommendations to improve contingent workers’ health and safety, ranging from amending the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include a private right of action (to allow workers to sue law-breaking employers in federal court) to stronger OSHA enforcement and new research. One recommendation that might be particularly helpful to hotel housekeepers is a recommendation that the agency create industry-specific ergonomics standards; the hotel industry could be a good place to start. Because whether a woman’s working to pay the rent or to buy a fur coat, she ought to be safe on the job.