Temp Worker Nation: If You Do Get Hired, It Might Not Be for Long
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“As the industry or technology tweaks, it often does so in a way that’s freelance or nonunion,” says Justin Molito, director of organizing with the Writers’ Guild of America East. For example, writers on HBO’s scripted shows are unionized, but those on basic cable and reality TV shows aren’t.
Greenwald distinguishes between workers who chose freelancing and those who were “shoved into it.” The most successful freelancers, he says, are information technology, management and finance consultants. They have a specific skill and steady clients, and “think of themselves as entrepreneurs.” Many white-collar freelancers make middle-class incomes, $45,000 to $50,000 a year, he says, but they have to pay for the office supplies, health insurance and taxes that would normally be covered by an employer, and they have no security.
This is not just a recession-induced thing, he says. It reflects a long-term change in the economy. Since the 1980s, management’s philosophy has evolved to “look at work as projects.” Instead of keeping workers on staff to perform all tasks needed, they outsource them or hire consultants.
“This gives companies tremendous flexibility without any risk,” Greenwald says. “Flexibility” means they don’t have to keep people on the payroll during slack periods, pay them when they’re sick, pay for their health insurance, or obey workplace regulations. This, he says, has “shifted all the risks that large institutions used to have onto the backs of individuals.”
“It’s a great business model, but as a social model, it doesn’t work,” he explains. Essentially, it means that the world of work is becoming more like the music business, in which a handful of superstars get rich and a minority of professionals have steady work with benefits, but most workers have to scuffle for intermittent, low-paying gigs, and hard work and talent are worthless without marketing skills, clout and charisma. “The bar to get in is low, but the ability to make a living is harder and harder,” he says.
The overall social change “might be as big as the shift from farm to factory,” Greenwald says. “I don’t think that many freelancers have thought of this as a permanent way of life. It seems to be a shift back to 19th-century artisanal culture.”
The Casual Working Class
Though the traditional image of a freelancer is a middle-class professional like a magazine writer or computer consultant, this shift affects a huge number of blue-collar workers too, especially in the fast-growing fields of warehousing, delivery and home healthcare. Many of these workers are now either temps or defined as “independent contractors.”
“Often relying on the use of temporary and staffing agencies, outsourcing in these industries has also resulted in comparatively lower wages for work similar to the jobs previously performed in-house,” the National Employment Law Project reported in “Chain of Greed,” a study of Walmart warehouses released in June.
At the Nissan auto factory in Canton, Mississippi, more than 20 percent of the 4,400 workers are temps, according to the Labor Notes monthly newsletter. The company says it plans to hire 1,000 new workers this year, but all will be temporary. The temps start at $12 an hour, below what permanent workers earn, and workers say no temp has ever been permanently hired at the plant. Even at Ford’s Detroit-area plants, the classic bastion of union industrial labor, local activist Dianne Feeley, a retired United Auto Workers member, says a significant percentage of workers are temps or contract workers.
“A huge problem,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, is employers illegally defining workers as independent contractors. “Some employers are asking workers to form LLCs [limited liability companies, a form of business that combines features of a corporation and a partnership] before a construction drywall job.”