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U.S. temporary workers face low pay, exploitation

Michael Grabell | 3/14/2014, 6 a.m.

Half a century ago, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow came to the pancake-flat town in central New Jersey of Cranbury to document the plight of migrant farmworkers for a television special called “Harvest of Shame.”

Today, many of Cranbury’s potato fields have been built up with giant warehouses that form a distribution hub off Exit 8A of the Jersey Turnpike.

But amid this 21st century system of commerce, an old way of labor persists. Temporary workers make a daily migration on buses to this area, just as farmworkers did for every harvest in the 1960s. Temp workers today face many similar conditions in how they get hired, how they live and what they can afford to eat. Adjusted for inflation, many of today’s temp workers earn roughly the same amount as those farmworkers did 50 years ago.

Across the country, farms full of migrant workers have been replaced with warehouses full of temp workers, as American consumers depend more on foreign products, online shopping and just-in-time delivery. It is a story that begins at the ports of Los Angeles and Newark, N.J., follows the railroads to Chicago and ends at your neighborhood box store, or your doorstep.

The temp industry now employs 2.8 million workers — the highest number and highest proportion of the American workforce in history. As the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, temp work has grown nine times faster than private-sector employment as a whole. Overall, nearly one-sixth of the total job growth since the recession ended has been in the temp sector.

Many temps work for months or years packing and assembling products for some of the world’s largest companies, including Walmart, Amazon and Nestlé. They make our frozen pizzas, cut our vegetables and sort the recycling from our trash. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves.

The temp system insulates companies from workers’ compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the duty to ensure that their workers are citizens or legal immigrants. In turn, temp workers suffer high injury rates, wait unpaid for work to begin and face fees that depress their pay below minimum wage.

Temp agencies consistently rank among the worst large industries for the rate of wage and hour violations, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal enforcement data.

It is one of our fastest-growing industries, yet one of the few in which the injury rates have been rising.

A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers’ comp claims found that in five states, representing more than a fifth of the U.S. population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees. In Florida, for example, temps were about twice as likely as regular employees to suffer crushing injuries, dislocations, lacerations, fractures and punctures. They were about three times as likely to suffer an amputation on the job in Florida and the three other states for which records were available.

The disparity was even worse when we looked just at dangerous occupations, such as manufacturing, construction and warehousing. In Florida, temps in blue-collar workplaces were about six times as likely to be injured as permanent employees doing similar jobs.