Temps are not just employees who sort mail and answer the boss’ phone.
The work of temping has changed vastly — today 42 percent of temporary workers labor in light industry or warehouses. And there are more of them. The number of workers employed through temp agencies has climbed to a new high — 2.87 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and they represent a record share of the nation’s workforce, 2 percent.
Labor groups fret that the trend signals the decline of full-time and permanent jobs with good benefits. But what is happening with temp employment is no sharp break with the past.
Temp employment has traditionally followed the business cycle, though in an exaggerated way. Temps are disproportionately thrown out of work when there is a slowdown, but when the economy starts to pick up — with businesses still wary of committing to making permanent hires — they disproportionately hire temps.
More than five years into a recovery marked by halting growth, many businesses are still adding temp jobs rather than permanent ones.
“This is a reflection of business uncertainty, that businesses need to be more responsive, and part of that is keeping their workforce flexible,” said Steven Berchem, the chief operating officer of the American Staffing Association.
Berchem is reluctant to accept the government’s numbers.
“Certainly staffing employment has grown, and it has returned to prerecession levels,” he said. “Whether it’s a record is still an open question. Our own set of numbers show substantial growth, but not at the level the BLS has.”
Berchem plays down the growth and success of his industry partly because the more it grows the more heat it faces.
“We still account for only 2 percent of the workforce,” he said. “During the depths of the recession, we were much closer to 1 percent. We have never substantially exceeded 2 percent of the workforce.”
One source of that heat is a worker advocacy group, the National Employment Law Project, which voices dismay about the strong growth in temp jobs. The group released a report Sunday warning that temp work often means a pay cut and can be more dangerous than regular jobs.
The report says median pay for temps is about $3.40 an hour less than for the typical private-sector worker. The report also says that 42 percent of temp jobs are light industrial — about twice the percentage of office and administration temp jobs — and has climbed from 28 percent in 1990.
“There is certainly a lot of evidence that many of these jobs are not good on health and safety and other working conditions,” said Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project.
According to a study of workers in Washington state published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, temps had substantially higher rates of injuries, especially in construction and manufacturing, than other workers. Moreover, they usually missed work longer because of those injuries — 40 days compared with 27 days for regular workers.
Two other studies found that the injury rate for workers on the job for just one month — that is often the situation for temps — is more than twice that of workers employed for a year.
These statistics and some horrific accidents involving temp workers have drawn the attention of David Michaels, the director of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“We’ve seen over and over again temporary workers killed or seriously injured on their first day at work,” Michaels said. “When we investigate, we see that most employers don’t treat temporary workers the way they treat their permanent employees — they don’t provide them with the training that is necessary.”
Last week his agency released a guide to employers called “Recommended Practices: Protecting Temporary Workers.” Among other things, the guide urges temp agencies to evaluate the host employer’s work site and to train agency staff to recognize safety and health hazards.
OSHA’s new guide for employers singles out the case of a 28-year-old man hired as an equipment cleaner at Tribe Mediterranean Foods, a hummus manufacturer in Taunton, Massachusetts. While cleaning a food grinding machine, the temp worker, Daniel Collazo, came into contact with rotating parts and was pulled into the machine and crushed to death.
The agency links his death to the temporary nature of the job. In announcing a $702,300 fine, Michaels said, “The employer knew it needed to train these workers so they could protect themselves against just this type of hazard, but failed to do so.”
Temp workers do complain about lack of training. Yvonne Jones, a 32-year-old mother of two, who temped for six months at an auto parts factory in Lorain, Ohio, said she received just 10 minutes of training and nearly no safety training when she was first assigned to a spot welding machine.
“I could have used more training,” she said. “Things messed up on the machine all the time.” She noted that the floor near her work station was often wet, and she feared slipping while carrying heavy motors.
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