The increasing use of temps "is part of the diminished and inferior wages and fringe benefits you see in all the new jobs that are becoming available," said William B. Gould IV, a labor law professor at Stanford University and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.
The government does not have up-to-date figures for the size of the entire contingent workforce, which includes temps, independent contractors, on-call workers and contract company workers. In 2001, the Labor Department classified 16.2 million people -- as much as 12.1 percent of the labor force -- as contingent workers.
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.
It does track one slice of that workforce: temporary workers. Since January 2002, the nation added 369,000 temp positions, about half of the private-sector jobs created during that stretch. Temporary jobs accounted for one-third of the 96,000 jobs added to the economy in September. In 1982, there were 417,000 workers classified as temporary help. Today, there are more than 2.5 million, according to Labor Department data.
That is about equal to the number of manufacturing jobs lost in the past decade. Barrie Peterson, associate director of Seton Hall University's Institute on Work in South Orange, N.J., said that as many as half of those lost manufacturing positions may have been converted to temporary employment.
The change can be abrupt. At A&E Service Co., a small auto-parts assembler in Chicago, employees were told on July 15 that the firm "will no longer hold general labor employees on its payroll. All general labor employees that choose to work at A&E Service Company, LLC must be employed by Elite Staffing effective immediately." On the announcement, workers were asked to check a box accepting or declining the new temporary employment, then sign and date the form.
Temps no longer fit the stereotype of the secretary filling in for a day or two. Jobs categorized as precision production, repair, craftsmanship, operations, fabrications and labor now account for 30.7 percent of all temp jobs, nudging out clerical and administrative support, which represent 29.5 percent of the temporary army.
Peterson calls it "the perma-temping shell game," part of a broader effort by employers to convert sectors of their workforce to temps.
Satisfaction with the arrangement varies. About 83 percent of independent contractors in the Labor Department survey said they were satisfied. By contrast, about 44 percent of temps and 52 percent of contingent workers said they were not satisfied.
The impact of the temp trend on the American middle class can hardly be overstated. As the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago noted in a paper last year, temporary workers "receive much lower wages than permanent workers, although they frequently perform the same tasks as permanent staff members." An analysis by Harvard University economist Lawrence F. Katz and Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger found that states with the highest concentration of temps experienced the lowest wage growth of the 1990s.
Toyota executives say they use temporary workers as a buffer, to insulate their full-time staff from the ups and downs of consumer demand. Since it opened in 1988, through two recessions, the Georgetown plant has never laid off an employee, said Daniel Sieger, manager of media relations for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in North America.