|BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JUNE 21, 1999 ISSUE|
A Leg Up for the Lowly Temp
Advocates are lobbying for better benefits and an employers' code of conduct
You'll get an earful if you ask Thomas Sullivan what it's like to be a temp. Two people working side by side at exactly the same job may get different paychecks if they were hired by separate temp agencies, says the Quincy (Mass.) resident, who usually temps in telephone-call centers. One agency made it clear, he says, that a client company didn't want him because he's too old (Sullivan is in his mid-40s). When another agency tried to prevent him from collecting unemployment benefits by saying he had quit a job when, in fact, he had been laid off, Sullivan got legal help from the Campaign on Contingent Work, a Boston advocacy group. ''As a temp, you have no security or rights,'' says Sullivan. ''They can dump you for anything, and they don't even need a reason.''
In recent years, more than a dozen advocacy groups have sprung up around the country to help people such as Sullivan. They point out that the 8 million-plus employees who move in and out of temp work every year get paid less than full-timers, lack health care and other benefits, and often fall through the cracks in labor and employment law.
GOOD TIMING. The groups are experimenting with various approaches. Some offer legal aid and job counseling. Others are lobbying cities and states to pass laws that would help temps with everything from benefits coverage to unemployment insurance, which in many states excludes temps. A San Jose (Calif.) group even started a nonprofit temp agency that plans to forgo profits to subsidize job training and health care for members.
Now, these groups aim to tackle the issue nationwide. In March, several dozen leaders formed a loose coalition that plans to push for federal and state laws to help such ''nonstandard'' workers, who do everything from clerical work to light manufacturing. Their effort may be well-timed, with today's tight labor markets giving contingent workers more leverage.
The group also is planning a campaign later this year for a code of conduct for the temp industry. It will follow a code adopted in 1997 by the Temp Workers Alliance in northern New Jersey (table). The idea is similar to codes drawn up in the apparel industry to deal with sweatshops. Essentially, advocacy groups hope to pressure the industry to police itself by agreeing to a common set of principles. ''We're trying to create new models for the next generation of employee organizations to represent temps and other contingent workers,'' says Amy Dean, head of the San Jose arm of the AFL-CIO, which started the nonprofit temp agency.
The move isn't likely to sit well with the temp industry, which has resisted the New Jersey effort. ''We don't feel that as an industry we need to have a government or any other entity acting as a watchdog,'' says Edward A. Lenz, general counsel of the National Association of Temporary & Staffing Services (NATSS), an industry trade group.
The groups have been moved to action by phenomenal growth. Nearly 3 million workers hold temp jobs on a given day, double the number in the early 1990s, according to the NATSS. But turnover is more than 400% a year, largely because three-quarters of temps find permanent posts. As a result, some 8.5 million workers, more than 6% of the workforce, spent at least part of 1998 temping, the NATSS estimates.
While many temps like the flexibility temping offers, they earn only $329 a week on average, 35% less than regular workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 7% of temps get health-care insurance from their employer, and just 4% get a pension.
Temp groups claim that abusive and even illegal working conditions are widespread. No hard data exist, but NATSS officials concede that abuses occur. They argue that most are committed by small agencies, not such giants as Manpower Inc. or Olsten Staffing Services.
One of the few surveys found big complaints from temps. In 1994, a South Carolina community group called the Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) paid some two dozen temps for a week to detail problems they had encountered. They said that agencies tell temps to take jobs they're not trained for and don't provide that training. Agencies also don't give written notice of what the wage will be, put temps in unsafe working conditions, and often place them based on race, age, or sex. The group tried to implement a code of conduct based on the findings but gave up after agencies refused to comply, says Charles Taylor, CAFE's head.
The New Jersey Temp Workers Alliance picked up CAFE's code idea and gave it a consumer-oriented approach. It drew up 24 ''Principles of Fair Conduct'' and invited all 500 temp agencies in the state to sign in 1997. The NATSS mounted vigorous opposition. ''Their credibility is suspect to us because they operate under the auspices of the AFL-CIO,'' says the NATSS' Lenz. Barrie A. Peterson, an Alliance founder, says the local AFL-CIO, the United Way, and Republican-dominated Bergen County all contribute to his group's budget.
Still, 32 New Jersey agencies have endorsed the Alliance's principles so far. The group publishes a Consumer Reports-style review that lists agencies using ''best practices.'' ''I agreed because it sounded like they're trying to keep the industry legitimate,'' says Alan Baker, owner of Horizon Personnel Inc., a small agency in Parsippany, N.J.
The San Jose group decided to go even further and create a model agency. It's part of an ambitious three-year project by the San Jose AFL-CIO to help temps and other contingent workers. The AFL-CIO's Dean, director of the project, has raised $1 million from private foundations. She formed a temp group called Together@Work, which began accepting dues-paying members in January.
Dean also started the nonprofit agency called Solutions@Work to help temps find good jobs. Focusing on low-wage clerical jobs in Silicon Valley, the agency has placed a dozen temps since it opened early this year. It formed a link with a local community college, where it offers members free classes in computer skills and word processing. One temp, Mireya Soltero, spent seven months getting training and finishing a high school equivalency diploma. That helped her qualify for a data-entry job at M&M Home Medical Co., a private company in Sunnyvale, Calif. ''I asked my boss for a permanent job, and [now] he's looking for something for me,'' says Soltero, who started in late April.
PREMIUM PRICE. M&M was willing to pay Soltero $10 an hour, more than what other local agencies charge, because of her prior training. ''We've hired two temps from them, and they'll be our first choice, because other agencies don't bring us the caliber of people we need,'' says Bob Burnett, M&M's operations director.
Solutions@Work also is negotiating with health-care providers for a group rate, says Dean. Eventually, if the agency grows fast enough, it hopes to tap the markup other agencies take as profit and return it to members so they can buy coverage.
Of all the ranks of temps, says the NATSS, about one-third choose temp jobs for the flexibility. The rest, however, say they want a permanent job. Advocacy groups may not achieve that goal. But today's booming economy is giving temps and their defenders a window of opportunity for making their concerns something more than just a temporary concern.
By Aaron Bernstein in Washington
To read a letter to the editor about this story, click here.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
BACK TO TOP
A Leg Up for the Lowly Temp
TABLE: Temp Groups Are Sprouting Up All Over
TABLE: Permanent Rights For Temps?
E-Mail to Business Week Online