The New Temp Economy

September 2, 2013

When we think of temp workers, the image that comes to mind for many Americans is “Kelly Girls” — post WWII-era women, mostly young housewives, doing light office work like filing and bookkeeping for a little extra cash around the holidays.

But low-wage, temporary work is becoming a new normal in post-recession America, and today’s temp workers are no longer in it temporarily. Big corporations like Walmart, Nike and Frito-Lay have recognized that the temp system saves them money on things like health care, workers’ compensation claims and unemployment taxes, and they’ve started using temp agencies to fill traditional factory jobs. These blue-collar temp workers are mostly immigrants and minorities driven into the temp system due to a lack of options in an economy that increasingly favors corporations over workers. They rise early each morning to sit in a temp agency waiting room and hope that their name is called. The United States now has more temporary workers than ever before. And, while temporary work often increases during recessions, it usually goes down as the economy improves. But this time, economists predict that temp work will remain high.

In this report, producer Karla Murthy visits a temp agency in Chicago, where she speaks to both workers who have suffered abuses on the job and members of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, an organization that advocates for workers’ rights. She also speaks with Michael Grabell, a ProPublica reporter whose reporting for the recent series, “Temp Land: Working in the New Economy” is featured in this piece.

Camera/Editor/Producer: Karla Murthy. Camera/Associate Producer: Alexandra Nikolchev.

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  • DavidW

    What about forming a worker’s cooperative or collaborative to compete and take market share away from the bad actors? Imagine if the Chicago Workers Collaborative did the work to incorporate and spin off an entity to get workers to temp jobs and educated them on governance and operations to run a temp agency. Eventually, there wouldn’t be the profit pressure on this company to please some robber baron as the current temp agencies do. Imagine how they could compete on price and service and pay a better wage, why fight the economic totalitarianists? Compete against them. Take their market share, capture their attention and imagination.

  • janeinak

    Its not just low income, minority, factory workers. i hear anecdotally, never in MSM, that Amazon and Google in Seattle hire college grads and tech workers only on contract being careful to lay them off for a month or six week every year so they are not counted as permanent workers, and thus they do not have to provide health insurance or pension benefits. At least Oregon and Washington are in the forefront of promoting new health care law through robust exchanges so that these workers can buy health insurance on their own.

  • Anonymous

    We need laws to protect temporary workers, agricultural workers, everyone who simply wants to make a decent living. If someone wants to have a business, taking responsibility for their workers is a must. If someone can not see it, they need to be closed down.
    Staffing a factory with temporary workers is a cheap scheme beyond imagination. We should know the name brands they sell so we can boycott their products.

  • Anonymous

    I have 24 years in IT and 17 years doing high end oracle dba computer work in Silicon Valley. I am the only non H1B in the meetings out of a group of 50. Largest corporations in america, 90% H1B indian in a 4 story building, 5% white 4% oriental, 1% black and hispanic. One never gets health care, the non h1B’s are always the first to be let go. Minimal opportunities to keep current with technology, even when you self study on the side. Some one needs to boycott these huge corporations that pay minimal taxes. One is a serf or slave even when you get college degrees, tons of years of practical experience and take care of their most sensitive data.

  • Anonymous

    @JSC1227:disqus you should start a blog….or some type of platform to elevate the profile of your argument to a broader audience. I’ve long suspected what you say but never seen any hard evidence to support it. It would be very interesting to read.

  • Anonymous

    Stacey this same argument is on all the computer forums, everyone feels paralysed to change anything. We are trying to retrain ourselves in Big data which makes our value go up or get some stock as a early employee in a startup which is no guarantee. Im pretty much stuck with a lower middle class incoem no matter how many computer books I digest or how much technology I master. Its all smoke and mirrors, they cry they dont have enough H1B’s, yet 90% of all the consulting groups are south indian, and the younger kids get the latest training, because they are smart enough to do the work, too stupid to know what the actual bill rate is, which is what they like in the industry. I’m just trying to secure enough money to leave this country for good. The monopolies with all their lobbyists already control everything, there is very little hope of any change.

  • Anonymous

    Why do the youth get the training?
    I’m no Oracle guru but have worked in database design/management for nearly 10 years in my field (GIS) and those jobs are really beginning to plateau, unfortunately.

  • Anonymous

    Because I already have 17 years in oracle, that has value for maintaining old systems. Because I have the knowledge they can bill me out quickly for what I know not what I want to know to be competitive. Meanwhile a younger IT person will accept the heavy travel and long hours, that I accepted when I was younger, at lower wages. They know they can run them hard for the first 10 plus years after ward they want some reward as well, especially when they learn what the actual bill rate is. Right now a Big Data person with two years experience is worth more than a Oracle professional with 20 years experience. You have to keep transforming your self in this field or you will die on the vine.

  • Anonymous

    This has been going on for years and not just in low skill jobs. As others have mentioned, many companies are using temp workers for the majority of their IT staff, and in most cases they are foreign nationals even while American citizens with the necessary skills continue to look for work. This is driven by a system where the only thing that matters is the bottom line. Companies used to be run to support their employees, shareholders and the communities in which they operate. Now all that matters are the shareholders, which includes the executives. All other stakeholders are irrelevant.
    The irony is that one of the reasons given by the lunatic fringe battling to shut down “Obamacare” (i.e. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, et. al.) is that it will cause companies to stop offering medical coverage. Guess what, they have been finding every possible way to do that for years. At least with Obamacare those workers might have a shot at buying coverage of some sort.
    We need laws to prevent companies from using technicalities in the law to abuse workers this way. Sure there is a role for temporary workers in business, but that role should be to help deal with major fluctuations in labor needs. Temp workers should not be considered the primary source of labor for any business.

  • Anonymous

    Basically the H1-B’s end up being virtual slaves to the corporation that holds their Visa. You get out of line….back to India with you. I see them brought in all the time when I know there are US citizens just as capable of doing the job but they don’t serve as slaves or come with tax breaks.

  • Edward Kirby

    Each economic recovery over the past 20 years has been a “jobless recovery”, with each resulting in increasingly longer periods of joblessness. At a certain point, joblessness will simply be permanent.

    Have we reached that point already?

  • Anonymous

    I am helping to fight for some one as a volunteer advocate against wal-mart and Sedgwick for not wanting to take of a worker whoes toe was ran over by a pallet cart. He is a diabetic so at first he thought noting of it but then it turned black so he wen to the Dr. but fear retaleation if he said it happened at. He even went to work on it for two days, before we had to sit him down and say say hey you cant just keep un tucking like that. And MY biggest beef is that the workers comp folks want to try and get out of paying for the amputation of the toe that had to be done because he was not treating his diabites, although he was trying to do it with nautral fruits and vegies. None the less, do they ask every employee that comes in to work and that they profit off the labor from if the are treating their diabeties today?before they make money off their backs working them? So why is it after they become hurt that it even becomes question. Would it had been better if the pellet cart had just amputated the toe right on the spot? What happen to our GRAND BARGAIN? Please see how workers are being denied care in workers comp across this country from all walks of life. It needs to be stopped. Peace Please take 6 mins to hear what a couple of Workers Comp LAwers are saying about our Workers Comps systems across this country are being denied care and treatments that they should be getting. I hope to work to change that some how, but I just seem like no one cares until it is their turn to get hurt on the job. Then it is to late and no one beleives you

  • Anonymous

    PLEASE SHARE WITH any one you know who has been injured on the job and is not being treated with the respect they should be. They most like are not, and the system is set up that way, but don’t worry people know now, and are trying to work to bring awarness to it and to hopefully change it ASAP thanks

  • Anonymous

    TEll me about it it is very frustrating, PLEASE CALL your local legislator and complain. Each one of has to call, our elected officials have to publicly admit the wc is broken, or now change that is good for the workers will ever come. So I urge any every one to please at lease make one call, so that they can know that other see what is going on, and there were not happy with it. Any way please google me and see the peaceful and very annoying civil fight I am waging only to try and stop this form happen to folks any more. If you know of some one who is injured or disable please have them check this site, it has a whole lot of useful info for injured workers and the SYSTEM Peace to all the the table in world someday