Temp Workers

Flexible or Disposable


We don't count; we're like guinea pigs," says a young man in Greenville who depends on temporary work.

Another temp worker in South Carolina says, "They can throw you away like Kleenex!"

Temp work is often praised for the flexibility it offers employers and workers, but it also leaves many people in a bind, with low wages, no benefits and dangerous working conditions.

On average, temp workers get paid 40 percent less per hour than do permanent workers for the same work. Six times as many temp workers live in poverty as do permanent workers. Temp workers almost never get health, pension, sick leave or other benefits, and their jobs offer little chance for training or advancement.

The Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE), a state-wide membership organization, is conducting a research project to learn about the conditions temp workers face in South Carolina.

"We found that many temp workers cannot make a living as temps because the jobs are very low-paying and seldom last more than two weeks," says Jean McAllister, a researcher from Columbia University hired for the project.

"Our research indicates that many temp jobs are so short and so distant that they cover little more than the cost of gas," she says. "Even when the workers get a decent assignment, they lose it the minute the car breaks down or a child gets sick and needs to be picked up at school".

Temporary agencies began providing temps for companies after World War II as a way for employers to fill in for workers on leave or to supplement their work force during high-volume seasons. But over the last decade, employers are relying more and more on temps to replace permanent workers as a way to reduce labor costs. Today, temp jobs are growing nine times faster than any other kind of work.

"When we hear about all the new jobs created in the last few years, we don't think about what kind of jobs they are, and most of them are temp jobs," says Kirby Farmer, a trained social worker who is a temp in Greenville because she can't get any other work.

"Companies like to hire temps so they don't have to pay for benefits, but the cost is just passed on to society when we get sick or old," Kirby says.

Temp workers say that although some temp agencies offer health care plans, it's impossible to get assigned enough hours to qualify for their plans. Besides, temps say that on temp workers' wages you can't afford to pay for your share of the plans.

The Department of Labor says that about a quarter of the total work force is "contingent" which includes temporary, part-time and contract jobs. Temp workers who work through temp agencies make up about two percent of the work force, but the number of temps is much higher because it doesn't include temps hired directly by a company or informal day labor arrangements.

A 1994 survey conducted by the National Association of Temporary Services revealed that only eight percent of temps working through temp agencies have ever received health coverage, only three percent have gotten sick pay, and over two-thirds make less than $9 an hour.

Even jobs traditionally seen as good, secure positions are going temp. In May, the Postal Service announced that it's creating 450 new jobs on the Charleston Naval Base for a "remote encoding" center, providing badly needed jobs for workers displaced by the impending base closure.

Unfortunately, 70 percent of these new jobs are temp jobs that will pay 20 percent less than the permanent postal jobs and provide no benefits. In South Carolina, the government is the largest employer of temps in the state, with a quarter of its employees working as temps.

Temporary employment agencies are leading this trend to a more flexible - some would say disposable - work force. Temp agencies nationwide have quadrupled their payroll in the last 10 years. Manpower, Inc. is now the largest employer in America with 640,000 workers.

In South Carolina, low-wage temp jobs are growing exponentially; a look at the classified ads in the daily papers reveals that most new jobs are only available through temporary employment agencies. In Greenville alone, the number of temp agencies has grown 500 percent in 10 years.

From what temps say, low wages and no benefits aren't the only problems with temp jobs. Twenty temp workers in Greenville told CAFE that temporary employment agencies often mislead workers about the kind of work they are assigned and the wages they will earn.

One woman was hired for a job that was described as "light office/light industrial," but when she started the job, her boss told her to clean out his pet bird's cage, scrub the office toilets and to come to his house and do his housekeeping. "Once, my boss's wife got really mad at him and ripped up all his money. He gave me scotch tape and told me to tape all the money back together," she reports.

Temp agencies, like all employers, are required to provide employees with written notification of hours and wages at the beginning of a job. But, according to the results of the survey, this legal requirement is almost never met by the agencies. Wages and hours are given and agreed to verbally, and abuses are common.

One worker, after being quoted an hourly wage, was paid at a lower rate after a week of work was finished. Another was told she would be paid on a piece rate, then was paid on an hourly rate after the week was over.

Another was not paid for all the hours she worked because, she was told, she was not supposed to work as many hours as she did. In all of these cases, the temp agency said that the hours and wages were up to the client employer and the agency could not help the worker - despite the fact that the agency is the worker's legal employer.

Temp workers also say they have to pay for things that employers usually provide, such as safety equipment and drug tests. One temp worker had to pay $70 for safety glasses for a job that lasted only a few days; another paid $60 for work boots to do a job that lasted four hours. Yet another person worked for two days as a telemarketer, and was paid $50 less than she anticipated. When she asked why, the company told her a $50 "bond" was deducted from her pay, leaving her with $12 for two days' work.

Many temp workers surveyed believe they are given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs but often aren't trained properly for them. CAFE recently got a call from a young man who lost his finger in a machine while working as a temp at a textile plant in Greenville. He said he wasn't trained to use the machinery and didn't really know how it operated, but they made him work on it anyway.

One woman said her temp job involved stirring a vat of solvents that burned her nose and throat, but was not given any protective equipment.

All the horror stories may make you wonder why people put up with these conditions. The answer temps give is that they have no choice. Most of the temp workers CAFE heard from said they go to temp agencies only as a last resort.

And if they speak up, they say, they risk being fired or being placed on an "ineligible list" because they are seen as troublemakers, and are refused any future assignments. (Most of the temp workers interviewed asked that their names be kept confidential for fear that their temp agencies will make them "ineligible" as punishment for speaking out.)

Although temp workers feel stuck with bad jobs, low wages and unfair treatment, they have ambitious ideas about how to make life better for temp workers.

One idea being explored is forming a national association of temp workers that could set standards for temp agencies, help temps with workplace grievances and provide affordable health care for temp workers.

Another idea to prevent abuses is to require temporary employment agencies to sign individual contracts with temp workers that spell out wages, hours to be worked and the kind of work to be done.

Still another idea, being tested in Baltimore, Md., is to form temp agencies owned by temp workers themselves so that the profit of running a temp service goes back into the pockets of those doing the work.

CAFE has started a campaign in Greenville to improve conditions for temp workers in the Upstate. The goal is to build a network of temp workers to share information and to make local temp agencies accountable to the workers on whom their businesses depend.

As part of this effort, CAFE has begun distributing a monthly newsletter, The Temp Worker News, with stories by temp workers, legal information and call-in surveys.

CAFE is sponsoring two public workshops on how temps and other workers can protect themselves: June 12 in Aiken at the County Council Chambers and June 19 in Greenville at the Colonial Inn on Wade Hampton Blvd. Both sessions are from 7-8:30 p.m.

For information about these workshops and CAFE's Temp Worker Project, write CAFE, 1 Chick Springs Road, #110-B, Greenville, SC 29609 or call (803) 235-2926; Fax 235-9691.

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© Copyright by POINT, 1995

Last modified 6/9/95