The U.S. economy currently has a record number of "temporary help jobs," but many of them fall short in terms of safety and pay for workers, according to a new report on the growth of the staffing industry by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and the National Staffing Workers Alliance (NSWA).
“The shift towards temp work is creating an economy in which working people who move and produce products for some of our nation’s largest and most profitable corporations are treated like any other input, to be acquired at the cheapest cost,” said the report's co-author Rebecca Smith, NELP's deputy director. “Staffing agencies not only fail to provide livable wages, benefits or job security for their workers, but their influence in an industry can lower standards for all workers in that industry.”
About 2.5 percent of all U.S. jobs are in the employment services industry, which includes staffing agencies, professional employer organizations and employment placement agencies. That's up from 1.4 percent in 1990.
The number of staffing jobs, which represent most of the work in the employment services industry, has reached a record high of 2.8 million people, or 2 percent of the total workforce, the report states. More than 12 million people were employed by a staffing company at some point last year.
The rapid growth of the staffing industry has largely resulted in poor wages and dangerous working conditions for workers, the researchers said.
When it comes to pay, staffing workers have median hourly wages that are 22 percent less than what all other private-sector workers earn. Latinos and African-Americans are disproportionately represented in the industry. And staffing workers, who "often have no safety training and no right to organize," report higher incidences of workplace injury than their non-temp counterparts.
The jobs have also "shifted from largely clerical to largely industrial." The staffing industry has rapidly expanded to manufacturing and warehousing sectors, the report reads. Last year, jobs involving transportation, product moving and production made up 42 percent of the industry. On the other hand, office and administrative jobs represented 21 percent of the industry in 2013.
Currently, 77 percent of Fortune 500 firms use third-party logistics companies to manage their warehouses, according to the report. Walmart, Target and Macy's are some examples of large retailers that contract with staffing agencies, which then hire temporary workers to move, pack and load the firms' products.
Locally, the number of staffing agencies registered with the Illinois Department of Labor, now in the hundreds, has doubled from a decade ago, according to the report. And in the Chicago six-county region alone, there are more than 700 staffing agencies that hire workers for the area's industrial parks.
The fierce competition between staffing agencies vying for company contracts "produces intense pressure to cut costs by whatever means necessary, leading some to seek out the most vulnerable workers, cut corners, and cheat," the report noted.
The staffing industry's expansion has also created a "fractured employment structure" that "causes confusion over who is ultimately responsible for the workers, and increases the likelihood of labor law violations."
Temp workers, meanwhile, are "effectively excluded" from organizing and bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act. That's because the workers have to get permission from both the staffing agency and the contracting employer in order to organize a union, as a result of a 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision.
Nonetheless, many temp workers have found new ways to organize with the help of grassroots organizations.
There have been several recent examples of staffing workers who have successfully fought for higher wages and safer workings conditions.
In Illinois, for example, staffing workers at a giant Walmart supply warehouse in Will County won more than $4 million in pay increases and recouped more than $1 million in stolen wages with the help of the Chicago-based advocacy group Warehouse Workers For Justice.
As a result of the local warehouse workers' organizing efforts, which included a 21-day strike in 2012, "staffing work has been largely converted to direct-hire work" and "safety conditions have improved dramatically," according to the report. A "piece-rate system" that was used by many staffing agencies to pay the warehouse workers less than the minimum wage has also been eliminated.
The Chicago Workers' Collaborative, which co-founded the National Staffing Workers Alliance, is a key group working in Illinois to reform the temp labor sector. The organization supports workers in their fight to "have a voice at their workplaces or staffing agencies," said Leone José Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative.
"Better laws are important, as is improved government oversight and enforcement of laws," he said. "Of equal importance is that the staffing workers themselves — often called 'temps' but in reality work years at the same staffing agency — have a voice in the affairs that affect their work, their families, their lives. This will help reduce the amount of workplace injuries, the amount of unpaid wages, and raise the level of respect at the jobs and in the job application process."