Phillip Hicks had loaded his rusting pickup and was heading to work one afternoon last year when his tearful daughter called from a pay phone. She had been pulled over for speeding, she told her father, and worse, she was driving with a suspended license. The police had impounded her car and left her by the side of a dusty highway.
To most workers at the sprawling Toyota plant where Hicks works, the detour to pick up his daughter would be a headache, no doubt. To Hicks, 40, it was considerably more. He called his employer to say he would be late for the swing shift. But since Hicks is a temporary worker, his daughter's brush with the law became a permanent blemish on an already shaky employment record. Temps are allowed only three days off a year, and Hicks was coming up against that.
Roy Biddle has worked nearly four years at the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky., but is still classified as a temporary worker. He stands with his son, Dalton.
(Mary Annette Pember For The Washington Post)
Help Wanted -- Temporarily One portion of the contingent labor force that is growing rapidly is temporary workers. In 1982, there were 417,000 workers classified as temporary help. Today there are 2.5 million. Temps accounted for about one third of the 96,000 jobs added to the economy in September.
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"They told me I had an attendance problem," he sighed wearily, his soft mountain accent revealing his roots in coal country to the east.
Hicks is among the ranks of what economists call the "contingent" workforce, the vast and growing pool of workers tenuously employed in jobs that once were stable enough to support a family. In a single generation, "contingent employment arrangements" have begun to transform the world of work, not only for temp workers, but also for those in traditional jobs who are competing with a tier of employees receiving lower pay and few, if any, benefits.
The rise of that workforce has become another factor undermining the type of middle-wage jobs, paying about the national average of $17 per hour and carrying health and retirement benefits, that have kept the nation's middle-class standard of living so widely available.
Hicks has spent four years as a temp worker building cars for Toyota Motor Corp., making manifolds and dashboards for Camrys, Avalons and Solaras sold all over the United States. He works alongside full-fledged Toyota employees who earn twice his salary, plus health and retirement benefits.
When Toyota announced it would be coming to Georgetown, Ky., in 1985, it promised to invest $800 million in the community and employ thousands, with thousands more jobs coming through its suppliers. By 1997, the plant exceeded all expectations, with 7,689 full-time workers, a payroll over $470 million, and a ripple effect creating more than 34,000 other jobs in the Bluegrass state.
But by 2000, Toyota was carefully controlling any additions to the workforce. When Hicks left his family in Knott County, Ky., to seek work at the plant 140 miles away, the only door left open was through a temporary agency, Manpower Inc. At $12.60 an hour, the job would not even let him afford the $199-a-week health insurance premium for his family of five. But Hicks said Manpower assured him that after a year -- two at the outside -- he would be on Toyota's payroll, earning $24.20 an hour, with health insurance, a dental plan, retirement benefits, incentive pay, the works.
"I could stand on my head for a year or two for a $20-an-hour job with benefits," he shrugged.