U.S. temp workforce highest on record

The Department of Labor reports that there are 2.7 million workers with short-term jobs in the U.S.

DAYTON DAILY NEWSAugust 21, 2013 

DAYTON, Ohio - Seven years ago, Larry Mayham earned $13 an hour, often working 60 to 70 hours a week as a driver taking handicapped clients to their jobs.

Today, he holds a similar job - but as a temporary worker. He earns $10 an hour and works less than 30 hours a week. He's in constant pain from a tooth extraction gone bad, but he can't afford to see a specialist. He goes to the food pantry once a month, just to get by.

Mayham is part of a growing trend in the American work force. In an uncertain economy, more and more companies are relying on temporary workers.

Some people, like Connie Adam of Middletown, Ohio, love the flexibility of temp work because it allows her to go on more vacations and manage her own schedule. In the past, she had worked her way into a full-time job through a temp-to-hire arrangement.

"My experiences have been mostly positive," she said. "I love it now, because I can take time off to spend with my grandkids. I'm not bound by the company's vacation schedule."

But others experience a significant reduction in salary, self-esteem and quality of life. Single mother Michelle Back of Bellefontaine, Ohio, can't afford to buy a home or provide basic medical care for her young daughter.

"It is a bad time for the worker," said Glenn Couch, 64, of Middletown. "You can't find work nowhere unless it's at one of these temp agencies that are popping up everywhere."

Tom Maher, president and CEO of Manpower of Dayton Inc., an employment agency, believes the uptick is due to the scarcity of skilled labor and the uncertainty about governmental programs, particularly the Affordable Care Act.

"There's still uncertainty about the rules and regulations under the ACA, so there's uncertainty about the pending costs," he said.

Shawn Cassiman, associate professor of social work at the University of Dayton, said that the health care law isn't to blame - that the resurgence of the temporary worker is "part of a whole cycle, a long-term trend that includes a withdrawal of support from workers and an attack on labor unions. Workers today are less likely to be represented fairly in the work force."

She said economists have described the trend as the rise of a new precarious class.

"There are more and more workers living precarious lives, not knowing when they're going to be fired," she explained. "McDonald's even talks about the second job that employees might need to make ends meet."

For Mayham, temp work represents a painful change in his lifestyle. "I enjoy the work, but I wish it paid more," he said. "I use 70 percent of my income just to pay the rent."

But for others, like 26-year-old Mallory Pohlman of Oakwood, Ohio, temp work has proven to be a stepping stone to a good job. She served with the Peace Corps for nearly three years after graduating from the University of Dayton in 2009. Readjusting to life in the United States meant coming into a leaner, meaner job market - and one in which her life skills weren't always easy to translate.

"It was shocking to me to come back from Africa and try to get my footing again," Pohlman said. "What's on paper doesn't reflect my abilities or potential."

But her luck changed when she contacted the Manpower employment agency.

"I was contacted almost immediately upon signing up, and asked to come in for an interview," she said. That eventually led to a job as a project manager at a communications company that looks like it will turn into full-time employment. "Being a temp worker has been good for me to feel more confident in my abilities and help me to realize my potential," Pohlman said.

For Debra Heckler, 44, of Springfield, Ohio, however, being a temp worker has been a drain on her pocketbook and a drag on her self-esteem.

"I'm in debt up to my ears with student loans, with no way to pay them," said Heckler. "As a temp worker, you're always living in fear of when it's going to end. I always used to be good at everything I did, but when you're let go for no reason, it makes you feel like you're not good enough - like no one is going to hire you."

It's short-sighted, she believes, for companies to short-shrift their workers.

"I may be old school, but I was taught that people are your No. 1 asset," Heckler said. "It seems that employers aren't willing to invest in people any more. With temp work there's so little camaraderie, so little sense of loyalty between employer and employee."

Glenn Couch, a retired trucker, worked for a while as a temporary factory worker, but decided it wasn't worth it. He quit because he can afford to.

"I worry about young people with kids," he said. "I don't know how they're making it."

Back believes there's a downside for companies that rely too heavily on temp workers: "It's always a revolving door. People don't want to stay when they're not getting anything worth their while."

Cassiman concurs that companies, too, can be damaged by overreliance on temp workers.

"It's not good for companies to undergo constant job training and turnover," she said. "It's indicative of a refusal by American companies to think in the long-term. In the past, people worked at one company forever, and they had a decent lifestyle. It was a reciprocal relationship. Now companies are more inclined to throw workers away when they're no longer useful."

Maher, however, believes that temporary work can be mutually beneficial for both employer and employee: "In this day and age, a long-term investment in an individual involves considerable risk, and we help to mitigate that risk. It's a trial period, and that works both ways. The worker can decide whether this is a place they want to be and whether it is an enjoyable work environment."

Richard Stock, director of University of Dayton's Business Research Group, said the rise in temporary workers isn't as dramatic as it seems, despite the Labor Department's record numbers.

"It has been bouncing in that range for some time," he said. "You can't say it's the 'new economy' when 2.7 million workers is such a small part of the American economy which has 136 million workers," Stock said.

The real shift, he said, has been in the number of part-time workers who are trying unsuccessfully to get full-time jobs - a figure that now stands at 8.2 million workers nationally after reaching a peak of 9.05 million in 2009.

"That number has remained stubbornly high," Stock said.

Tina Boyd, 51, of Dayton, re-entered the temp industry after being laid off from a permanent job. Boyd has master's and bachelor's degrees, but her work consists of data entry and human resources - all on a temporary basis.

"Nothing is guaranteed," she said. "You can be in a job for years and then one day, they say, 'We don't need you any more.'"

Regardless, Boyd said she treats each assignment as if she is fully employed.

"Some might show up and do the bare minimum," she said. "When I come in for a temp assignment, I ask what I can bring to the role and what I can do to set myself apart."

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