Sixty percent of us have done it at some point in our lives, some for want of extra cash, others out of sheer desperation. Some of us love it and find it an ideal alternative to the norm, others desperately want out.
Temporary work might best be described as the purgatory of the working world-at least for the estimated two-thirds of temp workers who'd prefer to be permanently employed. For the other one-third-those classified as “voluntary” temps-they'd argue that non-standard work arrangements allow for flexibility and independence.
It's no coincidence, then, that studies have found that the majority of those satisfied with temporary work possess the skills that allow them to be in control of their employment situations. Voluntary temps tend to be highly skilled-software engineers and bio-tech workers, for example-with the ability to command a sizable salary and say when and where they want to work. Their less-skilled temp counterparts tend to fill out the lower branches of the employment tree and, as economic analysts have noted recently, temps have become large companies' answer to saving face with stockholders. When it comes time for job cuts, get rid of the layer of temps and keep the core workers, and investors won't know the difference.
The Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), a San Diego think tank specializing in social- and economic-justice research has been keeping an eye on the local temp workforce. Since June 2001, it has released a series of reports on the trends of temporary employment on a local, state and national level. This week, CPI released the third in the series, “Just Getting By: The Experiences of Temporary Workers in San Diego's Economy.” Release of the report coincides with the American Staffing Association's “National Staffing Employee Week,” celebrating, as the ASA puts it, the “stars of America's workforce”-America's temporary and contract workers.
Sundari Baru, CPI research director, holds a Ph.D. in economics and has worked on all three CPI temp reports. The significance of the most recent study, Baru said, is the qualitative approach that she and her research partners took. This time around, they sought to put a face on the workers rather than rely only on mass surveys and statistics. The study recruited 71 workers-screened in order to get a balanced mix of skill, occupation, gender, ethnicity, age and income-who were then placed into nine focus groups. The final report is interspersed with quotes from workers like John (the study uses first names only), who retired seven years ago and now fills up his time by taking any temp job that looks interesting.
Then there's Michael, a temporary construction worker trying to get by on $7 an hour. “You're bringing home $280, $290 a week,” says Michael. “OK, that's before Uncle Sam hits you. Here we go... $250 a week, $5 a day for lunch, $225. Transportation, there's another $25, [that leaves] $200. OK, you're talking $200 bucks a week, that's $800 a month. What's the rent now? What the hell are you supposed to do about your gas and light, your phone bill? You know, your clothing, your food.”
Baru said that experiences like Michael's are what stood out for her. “The extreme insecurity that [focus group participants] felt; the tenuous relationship with the job market that they had and how insecure their income was,” was, to her, the most significant finding.
Something that came through in all nine focus groups was the underemployment of temp workers, regardless of industry or skill level. “They all said that they were given jobs that were beneath them,” Baru noted. “Nobody said, ‘That was hard work,' or ‘It was harder than I was able to do.' That, I think, is fairly significant.”
Other important findings in the CPI study include:
Redemption and rehabilitation: Temp agencies specializing in low-skilled work tend to be the fallback choice for those with criminal records. Regular employment, these workers have found, doesn't embrace a criminal history, no matter how minor. And even temp agencies that take on these workers hold them suspect. The study takes note of a sign posted at the entrance to one temp agency that essentially criminalizes its workers. “No guns, knives, or any other weapons are allowed on premises,” the sign reads. “It is a crime to alter any work ticket. Injured workers will be tested for drugs.”
The high cost of labor: The study found that more than half of the 38 temporary agencies surveyed charged employers a fee of 50 to 74 percent of the worker's salary. Nine percent of the agencies charged a fee of 75 percent or more and a third had fees between 24 and 49 percent. The numbers are more striking when put in context with what focus group participants thought the agencies were making off their labor-the majority guessed between 10 and 40 percent and very few believed an agency would charge more than 50 percent. Furthermore, many agencies charge high conversion fees-some as much as $10,000-for an employee to go from temp to permanent.
The benefits game: Seventy-five percent of the agencies CPI surveyed offered benefits, though two-thirds of that 75 percent charged premiums upwards of $150 per month for the employee only. Costs to cover families was, of course, much higher. In order to qualify for benefits, workers have to put in a certain number of consecutive hours or full-time days. So, workers who consistently take on short-term assignments often found themselves out of luck. Lack of health benefits was the number one concern for focus group participants.
A vicious cycle: The main argument against temp workers is that if they really wanted to, they could find full-time, stable employment. Not so, said Baru of many of the study's participants. “While they were struggling to put food on the table, there was really no time for them to look for permanent jobs,” she pointed out. “They were trying to make ends meet desperately and it wasn't easy for them to take a few weeks off and look for permanent work; it wasn't feasible.”
In this issue, we look not only at temp work, but at another area of “non-standard” employment that's been getting a lot of national attention-college and university part-time instructors.
Catherine Tapia tackles the issue of the growing number of part-timers in higher education.
Amy Johnson Conner takes a skeptical view of the local hospitality industry-does it really rely on temp work as much as some say it does?
John Lamb looks at local government's past use of temp labor. Whether it's still going on is anyone's guess since the county failed to provide the numbers.
And finally, Sarah Gordon writes about one segment of society that finds temp work an ideal way to pay the bills-artists who say that eight hours of mindless tasks leaves them with plenty of energy to pursue their craft.