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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