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Labor's Edge: Views from the California Labor Movement

Report: Poverty and the Rise of Temporary and Contingent Work

by Miranda Dietz, UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education

The nature of employment is changing. Employees are increasingly seen as liabilities rather than assets, and so workers are kept at arm's length from the companies they ultimately serve. Middle-class long-term jobs are shifting to precarious, low-wage work. These contingent relationships include temporary and subcontracted workers, whose ranks have been growing over the past two decades.

In California, almost one-quarter of a million people worked in the temporary help services industry in 2010; another 37,000 people worked for employee leasing firms totaling 282,000 workers in these two industries. This accounted for approximately 2.0 percent of all non-farm employment in California in 2010, approximately the same ratio as for the U.S. as whole. Employment services workers span a wide range of occupations, from professional white collar occupations like nursing, accounting, and computer programming, to blue collar work in transportation and material moving, housekeeping and landscaping, and manufacturing.

Temporary workers face lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security. Temporary and contingent work by its very definition is less secure than full-time direct hire work. This lack of stability has implications for workers' wealth, health and well-being. Temporary workers are not compensated for their willingness to accept less reliable work; instead they tend to face lower wages than their non-temp counterparts. Median hourly wages were $13.72 for temps and $19.13 for non-temps in California in 2008-2010. Controlling for the type of occupation as well as personal characteristics of workers such as age, education, race, sex, and English proficiency, temps make about 18 percent less per hour than their non-temp counterparts. The wage differential is even larger for blue-collar workers.

Temporary and subcontracted work presents two basic public policy problems:

  1. Temporary and subcontracted arrangements erode wages. These lowered wages mean that contingent workers rely more on the state safety net. Temps in California were twice as likely as non-temps to live in poverty, receive food stamps, and be on Medicaid.
  2. Temporary and subcontracted arrangements undermine existing worker protections first by allowing employers to avoid certain worker provisions, and second by making enforcement of the remaining protections difficult. The ability of some employers to avoid paying into the system of employer-provided worker benefits disadvantages both high-road employers who hire directly, and contingent workers who receive only limited worker protections. Even these more limited worker protections can be elusive for contingent workers who are particularly susceptible to employer retaliation.

Solutions to the problems of temporary and subcontracted work range from efforts to increase low wages generally to mandates to pay temps and non-temps the same wage. In addition, policies to combat retaliation and hold other actors in the supply chain accountable are promising ways to uphold existing worker protections in the face of workplace changes.

Read the full report.


Posted on 08/28/2012Permalink

More posts by Miranda Dietz

Reader Discussion

I don’t see where academia is considered.  In most places contingent faculty in academia has an even higher differential than blue collar work.

at 6:03 pm on Thu, Aug 30, 2012Posted by Mel S

Good report, but too narrow. Contingent work includes many precarious workers not hired through temp agencies but directly through regular employers, who use this to build a multi-tier workforce (and greatly weaken unions as well). Also, the chart has no column for education or public employment generally. For instance, higher education, as to its faculty, is now 70 % staffed by contingents, most of whom are direct “temporary part-time” hires despite the fact that they have ben the majority of the faculty for decades now and do most of the teaching too. Contingents do a lot of the other work in higher ed now too (service, clerical, etc.) And the fastest growing sector of higher ed, the for-profit institutions, are now 100% non-union in CA. The only even partial answer is to organize.

Joe Berry,
Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor

at 10:29 am on Fri, Aug 31, 2012Posted by Joe Berry

Just a note concerning the reported median wage for temps in California between 2008 and 2010.  Laid off in 2008 and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I worked a number of temp jobs during that period.  I have two college degrees and many years of experience as an office manager and admin assistant, but the most I ever made as a temp was $12 an hour and oftentimes I made less.  I’d sure like to know what those people making $13, $14 and above were doing.  I was never offered that much, laughable as it is to consider trying to live on that pittance in Northern California.

at 5:20 pm on Fri, Aug 31, 2012Posted by William Miller

To William Miller: I made over $20/hr. as a temp. editor and writer working for Kelly Services at CTB/McGraw-Hill. No benefits, and no guarantee of future employment. But I was able to update some of my skills.

at 5:00 pm on Sun, Sep 2, 2012Posted by Jean

Get on with some organizing and some strong political realities here—some of us precarious workers in academia have been battling this precariate class distinction for years. I was part of a push in 1986 in Texas around the adjunct and contingent status of some of the backbone to education in four-year and two-year schools—communication, basic college writing, research skills, reading and ESOL. That was the Wyoming Resolution for Composition Teachers. We got it then, and now? People are barely waking up to back to the future.

Take a deep breath and see if our greatest society fought those battles in the big war, WWII, to see education gutted, K-12 and higher education, by privatizers. Not my uncles and old man. They fought in wars for a country to have smarter and educated people from all levels of society.

Back then, when I was a TA (1983-86) Bush and Company in Texas saw it just dandy that college teachers with masters and doctorates and years of experience each got, oh, around $2.00 an hour when all was said and done and graded and read and re-graded— if we did our jobs right. That meant teaching writing by assigning writing—everything from essays to reports to letters to the editor, to personal and business writing, along with ALL the drafts. No scan-trons or standardized tests. All the writing students had to read to be smart, deep, and full of the right context and content to be leaders in their communities, or at work. My students called me and others heroes, opening their eyes to information, literature, journalism, and community engagement. Instead of heroes, to Reagan & Company and others, from state honchos up and down the political pecking order, we were called lefties, blights, bad seeds. So, I’d have to say, 1.5 million higher ed contingent teachers in the USA—and there are more hidden all over the place in those private for-profit schools, as instructors of the arts, as internal teachers for big tax evaders like Boeing—WE are the precariate. A Brave New World of Work, as Beck writes in his book. Read it.

We are, in academia, working class. I am not talking about the Admin Class or the superstar tenured faculty. I am talking about two-year college heroes teaching and advising and working in libraries. You get what you pay for?

Nah, we are exceptional, but we are old—average faculty in USA is 49, in some categories, 53 (average age of US farmer? 57)—and we can’t grow the profession, build the campuses with new people, because they—youth— see the lack of value and lack of wages put on our profession by the elites, including famous Harvard drop-out Bill Gates, who, at his so-called non-profit, demands college degrees and post-graduate work from his team members. Yet, Gates wants MOOCs and wants the fluff cut out from two-year colleges. You know the fluff—history, classics, sociology, political science, literature, art, etc.

So, CA Labor Fed—smell the coffee: paying teachers nothing produces a society that has no value placed on educated people. It just trickles down from there—people fighting each other for low wage jobs while their communities become the sacrifice zones of Koch Brothers, Apple, Walmart.

at 12:47 pm on Tue, Sep 4, 2012Posted by Paul Haeder

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