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"Temporary Workers: Flexible or Disposable?"

November/December 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

by Florence Gardner and Jean McAllister

In November 1994, the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) brought temporary workers together for a five-day workshop to discuss their experiences of working temporary jobs and to explore the significance to working people of the boom in temporary employment. The "Temp School" was designed and run by a team of five, including three members of the CAFE staff, an organizer from the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Workshop (TIRN), and a researcher from Columbia University's Department of Anthropology. The workshop was designed with three goals in mind: learning about the experiences and concerns of temp workers; building a community of temp workers; and identifying opportunities for organizing on issues of importance to temp workers. The project was supported by a grant from PRRAC.

Through surveys, interviews and participatory activities that included drama, drawing and storytelling, we sought to learn what specific problems workers face in temporary employment relationships. These explorations helped us to identify the most pressing concerns of temp workers in the Greenville, South Carolina, area, and to set priorities for our current community organizing activities.

CAFE is a community organization that promotes economic justice and workers' rights in South Carolina. Formed in Greenville in 1980, CAFE is now a statewide group with 2,500 individual members in 23 counties, and has been an advocate on temporary worker issues since the early 1980s.

CAFE paid Temp School participants $7 per hour for the 40-hour workshop (higher than prevailing wages for most temp workers). Participants were recruited through the classified advertisements in the Greenville daily
paper and interviewed to make sure they had current experience as temp workers. The group of 19 temp workers was about half African American and half White (nine to ten), with 14 women and five men, and included people of all ages from 20 to 60 years of age. They had done clerical, warehouse, light industrial, engineering, accounting and social work.

In the week-long discussions, Temp School participants expressed particular frustration at the difficulty of making a living on temp work, their vulnerability to abuse by the temporary services agencies and employers, and the effect that insecure employment has on their lives outside of work.

Making a Poor Living

The majority of the participants are primary breadwinners in their households, and their annual incomes are insufficient to bring their families above the official poverty line. While some of their temporary assignments have been two or three months long, most have been between two days and three weeks. As one of the Temp School participants put it, "These jobs don't pay enough to keep your car up." Workshop participants earned between $4.50 and $7 an hour for all but one or two out of hundreds of assignments, with the vast majority of jobs paying about $6. All the workshop participants said they want full-time work, but not one of them has been able to get enough assignments to come even close to a full-time work schedule.

These temps do not get health care or other benefits through their employers. Most would be hard-pressed to pay the premiums even if they qualified for the health plans some agencies offer. Except for the four people covered by their spouses' employer-provided health insurance, most of these temps don't have health insurance at all. Since they began working temp, not one of them has had a paid sick day or a paid vacation day. They don't know any temps who have. (The National Association of Temporary Services, in its own survey, indicates that only 8% of all temp workers registered through their member agencies have health coverage through their employment and only 3% get sick pay.)

Many of their temp jobs come with hidden costs that further reduce their pay. One person paid $60 for work boots for an assignment that he was told would be "two weeks to permanent" but which lasted only two days. Another person paid $70 for safety glasses for a job that lasted three days. After two days as a telemarketer, another woman cleared $72 by her own estimate, but was told there was no . more work for her and sent home with a check for $12. Apparently, a $50 "bond" had been a prerequisite for the job.

Despite a state law that requires all employers to give workers written notification of their wages and hours at the beginning of an assignment, none of the temporary agencies the participants used abided by this practice. Wages and hours are agreed to verbally, and abuses are common. One woman was told she would be paid by the piece when she took a job and was pleased because she works fast. After four days of work, she was given a check that was half of what she had calculated her pay to be. She went to complain, and was told that the pay was by the hour, not by the piece after all. Another worker, after telling her employer that she would have to leave the job, found her paycheck substantially lower than she had expected. The employer told her that the hourly wage she had been quoted was only valid if she had stayed on for a week; since she had to leave before the week was up, she would get less for the hours she had worked.

Out of Control and Vulnerable

Most Temp School participants said the temp agencies mislead them about ob, assignments. One woman took a late shift job at a large discount retail store. Only after she had accepted the job and begun work was she told that she would stay at the store and clean until it was clean--during the Christmas shopping season, this meant until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. Another woman took a factory job that she believed was production work and, once there, found out she would be cleaning up a warehouse that was filthy with ancient machines, boxes, garbage and soot.

On-the-job injuries leave these workers more vulnerable than others and may be more likely to occur. One Temp School participant fell from a high scaffold and only discovered when she was lying on the factory floor with a broken ankle that she had been tied off with a rope that was longer than the height of the scaffold. She neither complained nor filed workers' compensation because that particular employer, who will not hire her full-time, is her most consistent source of temp jobs. She was afraid that filing a claim would mean that she wouldn't be called back. Another temp worker developed severe reactions to a machine lubricant, but didn't file a workers' compensation claim because as a temp she didn't think she was entitled to it.

These temps are also particularly vulnerable to the personal biases of temporary service agency personnel and their client employers. Title VII anti-discrimination protection is, practically speaking, inaccessible to temps, who lack the opportunity to collect evidence of established patterns in a workplace in order to prove discrimination. Three-fourths of the Temp School participants believed that jobs had been assigned by the temp agencies differently because of the race, sex or age. of the workers. Only two of the Temp School participants had ever seen a Black person working in the office of a temp agency in all of the time these workers had been in and out of temp agencies-in a region with a 20% Black population. Similarly, these workers had seen employers keep temps on longer or hire them on permanently, depending on the race, sex or age of the worker. But, while these workers often have the impression of bias, they have no recourse. (Recent employment testing done in Chicago and Washington D.C. shows that race discrimination in hiring is twice as frequent among employment agencies, which includes temp agencies, compared with regular employers.)

Besides anti-discrimination law, the' National Labor Relations Act empowers private-sector workers to take group action to redress grievances they have against their shared employer. But temp workers usually do not know their co-workers at the places they work. The circumstances of temporary work make it almost impossible to form the kinds of relationships necessary_ to discover common interests, formulate a proposal and present it in a unified front to management. Even if temps could form relationships at the workplace, they and many of their coworkers have different legal employers.

Living with Temporary Ties

For those workers in households where the only wage earners are temps, there is no stable point from which to order the other aspects of their lives. They do not have savings, because their incomes just pay their expenses. If they stop work for a day, for whatever reason, the job disappears. They don't know how many jobs they'll get or how many hours each job will offer. They cannot plan ahead, because they do not know what their. income will be, even for the month ahead. They cannot get credit from friends, family members or banks, because they cannot demonstrate that they can expect an income to pay off the loan. Under these circumstances, it is often impossible to invest in the future, to maintain a car properly, to pay for a place at a child care facility or to have a preventative medical procedure done.

Anyone difficulty leads to the next. A month without enough jobs means you lose phone service (5 of the 19 temp school participants have had their phones disconnected since the Temp School). Days without phone service mean no jobs. Car trouble means a lost job. Being out of work may necessitate taking a baby out of day care. Taking a baby out of day care means losing the place at the day care facility and not having a place to leave the child when the agency calls. Lots of overtime for parents leaves children physically and emotionally at risk. Trouble with the children's health or with their school performance can mean time off and lost jobs. Every stone in the path and every misstep can mean a serious fall.

Relying on temporary jobs made these workers heavily dependent on spouses, siblings and parents for a multitude of services, severely restricting their ability to, in some cases, form stable households and, in others, escape dangerous ones. One worker was separated from his wife and child by hundreds of miles until he could find a secure job and safely bring them to live with them. Another woman was applying for AFDC, even though it meant citing her baby's father for desertion, because she could not earn a living wage. At least three women at the temp schools were living with men they wanted desperately to leave but could not because they were unable to find work that would pay enough to support themselves and their children. At work, these temp workers also lacked the many benefits of a stable community, including useful information about job expectations, the work process and supervisors, as well as simple friendship.

Early in the Temp School, we asked for four words from each person to describe how they feel about their work lives. Some people included a positive word, such as "qualified," "hopeful," "capable" or "competent." But the rest of the words were "discouraged" (five times), "unimportant (twice), "unsatisfying" (twice), "sad," "bad," "unpredictable," "abused," "rough," "angry," "disappointed," "disgusted," "tired of looking," "expendable," "on the outside," "insecure," "used," "underpaid," "aggravated," "no future," "pressured," "threatened," "unhappy," "out of place," "depressed," "could be better," "sucks," "demanding," "hate," "stinks," "poor," "unfair," "tired," "overworked."

Action Priorities

Temps are described by the National Association of Temporary and Staffing Services and by the popular press as being made up of married people, supported by well-paid spouses; retired people, supported by pensions or social security; students, supported by parents or grants; or artists who almost make it on their own creations. Temp jobs, they say, provide freedom, flexibility, choice and control. But for the Temp School participants, temporary employment severely restrains freedom and flexibility and leaves them powerless over their future. Among these temp workers, temp jobs are the only way to stave off rent collectors, child welfare services and hunger. They are not the ideal solution to new, contemporary lifestyle expectations, but are inadequate replacements for a dependable job.

At the end of the week, CAFE staff and participants discussed national-level legislative and policy options that have been proposed to protect workers classified as temps. Participants identified three top proposals in terms of the difference these changes would make to their own lives: requiring equal pay for equal work; having access to national health insurance; requiring agencies to pay a minimum percentage to the worker of what the client pays them. Other priorities were: getting written notification of hours and wages; increasing the national minimum wage; creating a temporary workers' association that could provide benefits; requiring temp agencies to provide safety and skills training; prohibiting charging the temp for safety equipment or drug tests; and requiring companies to hire temps on a permanent basis after a limited period.

Participants also identified three priorities for local action: getting individual contracts between temp workers and the temporary services agencies for each assignment; targeting particular agencies for community action; and starting an informational newsletter for temporary workers in the area. Participants and CAFE staff decided to begin by pursuing the newsletter and targeting agencies' strategies.

Over the year since the Temp School, CAFE has produced and distributed its new Temp Worker News to hundreds of workers in the Greenville area. The newsletter includes first-person accounts by temp workers, information about workers' legal rights and stories about temp worker organizing in other parts of the country and world. As part of this effort to raise awareness about the problems of temporary employment, CAFE also conducted four public workshops around the state on temporary employment issues. Through these workshops, CAFE has developed a job rights curriculum tailored to the concerns of temp workers and has heard from dozens more temp workers, providing new stories for the newsletter.

The goal of targeting particular agencies is to stop the most egregious abuses temp workers identified and thereby to improve the conditions of temp workers in the area. This strategy has four parts. The first step was to draft Principles of Fair Conduct for temporary agencies, voluntary guidelines to which companies hold themselves for the sake of good public relations. The second step is to meet with prominent local temp agencies to ask them to sign on to the Principles of Fair Conduct. Assuming that many agencies may not sign on, or may say that they already abide by fair standards, the third step is to hire temps as "testers," to apply at agencies and document which ones treat employees poorly or fairly relative to the Principles of Fair Conduct. The fourth step will be to release the results of our testing and to pressure specific agencies to change their practices through media and grassroots campaigning.

Evaluating the Temp School

The Temp School proved to be a successful first step for meeting our goals: to learn about temp workers' experiences and concerns, build a community of temp workers and identify opportunities for organizing. The results of our research have been documented in a longer report, included in a new book on contingent work (edited by Kathleen Barker and Kathleen Christensen, to be published in 1996), reported in a variety of union and community publications and discussed at national labor conferences. Our research results are the basis for the agenda for our organizing campaign. What CAFE staff anticipated as the biggest problems with temp work were not the same as those identified by participants, so without the research conducted through the Temp School, our organizing efforts would not have highlighted the deepest felt concerns of temp workers themselves. We have also begun our testing process, and so far it is enabling us to gather information on specific temp agencies for use in the coming year.

However, the hope that some Temp School participants would provide leadership for the local organizing campaign has been thwarted in large part by the overwhelming obstacles of their daily lives. While five of the Temp School participants joined CAFE and have been involved in activities since the Temp School, their scheduling, child care and transportation problems have made regular meetings or ongoing volunteer commitments impossible. Several are working 12-hour or double shifts six or seven days a week, so have little time to sleep much less organize. Others have voiced frustration at not being able to anticipate their schedules more than a few days at a time, so they cannot commit to being able to come to meetings or other planned activities. Clearly, the conditions that make temp work difficult also make it doubly difficult for people to organize to improve these conditions.

Replicating the Temp School Model

The Temp School was very labor-and cost-intensive, totaling about $9,000 and 400 person-hours of staff time. It is not a project that CAFE or most other community organizations could afford to replicate on a wide scale. The project could have been done in shorter time for fewer resources if just one goal had been chosen: to collect information or to build a community of temp workers or to initiate an organizing campaign, but not all three.

If one's primary goal is to identify issues for action and motivate temps to get involved, we suggest this might be done in a one- to three-day workshop, conducted with a group of ten, rather than nearly twenty, participants. In this case, conducting more extensive screening interviews in advance would be especially important, to identify those individuals with the most temp work experience, leadership potential and inclination toward group action. In the last couple of years a number of groups have interviewed and collected testimony from temp workers about the problems they face: our energy now should be focused on innovating and testing strategies for change.

Regardless of the length of the Temp School, it is our clear impression that paying the participants for their time is a key part of making this project work. Low-wage temp workers simply do not have the luxury of attending day-long events that don't offer immediate benefits. One of the ideas that came out of the Temp School was opening a day care facility for temp workers to use that would provide an ongoing locus of support as well as education and organizing. It is likely that organizing temp workers is going to be more time- and cost-intensive than other forms of community or worker organizing, and that organizations and funders will need to devote more resources; for such projects during this experimentation and base-building phase.

We hope other groups will conduct modified Temp Schools in their areas and begin the hard work of organizing this growing segment of the work force. Traditional models of workplace organizing are inadequate when it comes to marginalized and mobile temp workers. That is why the experiences of community-based economic justice organizations in the largely non-unionized South have been fertile places for testing models of temp worker organizing.
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