The New Temp Economy

Moyers and Company

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.

One Response

  1. There is nothing “new” about employers exploiting temp work in order get around labor law. It has been actively used as a strategy by employers since the 1980’s. It really came into its own in the 1990’s and labor statistics during the Clinton years began to reveal that it was the fastest growing sector of the labor force. Temporary work is not only highly exploitive of temporary workers but it also threatens the full time “permanent” workforce which is rapidly being replaced by temporary workers throughout the economy. It is a threat to unionization efforts and collective bargaining as well. One answer to this trend is for labor to proactively organize temps. This is easier said than done of course but if temp workers are organized, it will not only greatly benefit them but it will benefit all workers and employers will not see it as an easy way around labor law.

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