Journalism in the Public Interest

Podcast: Rise of the Blue-Collar “Permatemp”


Rosa Ramirez, a 49-year-old Mexican immigrant, waits to find out if she will be assigned a job for the day. (Sally Ryan for ProPublica)

A recent ProPublica analysis found that at least 840,000 temp workers across the U.S. work blue-collar jobs earning them less than $25,000 a year. These aren’t day laborers, ProPublica’s Michael Grabell reports, but regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chains of some of America’s largest companies, such as Walmart and Nike.

“The rise of the blue-collar permatemp helps explain one of the most troubling aspects of the phlegmatic recovery,” Grabell writes. “Despite a soaring stock market and steady economic growth, many workers are returning to temporary or part-time jobs. This trend is intensifying America’s decades-long rise in income inequality, in which low- and middle-income workers have seen their real wages stagnate or decline. On average, temps earn 25 percent less than permanent workers.”

Grabell joined editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg in our Storage Closet Studio to discuss how the temp sector has ballooned, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total job growth since 2009; how the temp system insulates companies from many employer responsibilities while pushing workers’ pay below minimum wage; and how some of the country’s biggest retailers have come to rely on (and profit from) this growing work force.

You can read Grabell’s latest report, The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed, and more on temp agencies on our series page. You can also listen to all of ProPublica’s podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher.

Charley James

July 2, 2013, 3:29 p.m.

I suspect that the 840,000 temp worker figure is low. While it’s always folly to generalize from personal experience, the children of two couples I know are all working temp blue collar jobs because, despite being university grads, they cannot find work in anything close to their field. One earns $12.10 an hour (with no benefits) working for a company that provides workers to Black & Decker, another earns $13.55 an hour working in a candy factory but not for the candymaker but rather a temp agency.

But it is not just blue collar workers who are forced into taking temp jobs. When an acquaintance was let go from her $103,000 job as a marketing director, the only “full-time” job she found after months of looking was with a company that provides “interim executives” to businesses that laid off people just like my acquaintance. She gets paid an annual rate of $51,000 - again, with no benefits - if she works 52 weeks a year. This isn’t consulting, a typical gig of a laid off exec, but a contract job where she has replaced someone who’d been working full-time. I was told that the agency that placed her has more than 25 former executives doing similar kind of work.

At least she’s working, and in a job close to what she had been doing.

Charley, I hold a bachelor’s degree, have almost 10 years of experience in my field (almost all before getting the degree) and was lucky to find a job. I make $10.10 per hour plus eight hours of overtime but am a salary employee, so when I work more than 48 (regularly), my hourly pay goes down quickly. Granted I do have medical benefits and vacation time. I pay about $100 a month for the medical benefits but I can’t afford to actually seek medical care. I could probably swing a co-pay but not the final bill. I also have some measure of job stability compared to those who work for temp agencies, so I am guaranteed to be able to continue living paycheck to paycheck, as long as nothing unforeseen happens. We’re all in the same boat here, except a few at the top and the corporations that control everything, including our souls.

James F Traynor

July 2, 2013, 5:56 p.m.

This has been going on for years. When I lived near Albany, NY I remember the director of a local public station, Alan Shartok was the name as I recall, whining because the woman he wanted to hire wouldn’t accept a part time job with no benefits. His complaint: she was on unemployment and could afford to do so.

James F Traynor

July 2, 2013, 6:34 p.m.


The name in my post should read Alan S. Chartok, the public radio station was WAMC and the last I heard his salary was in excess of 170K.

This just proves that slavery never ended…only, it transformed.

I suspect if corporations thought robots were a profitable investment in all instances they would replace us all. The fallacies shown in the past of overpopulation and scarce resources have not deterred the top 1% from taking the lion’s share and leaving the leftovers for the rest to divide. The vultures then prey on the weak, the disconnected, and the unprepared to feed on because they know those isolated people cannot fend the group of them off. And we call that a civilized society.

.....Indentured servitude,  maybe.  ....Slavery,  not an appropriate term.  By the way,  why don’t we all keep buying all the products at Wal-mart and similar retailers,  and keep voting the unions out, while we sit on our collective fat arses and whine?  WE are the problem,  as we allow our fear to give the 1%-ers the power to continue with their bad behavior.  Buy American,  and stop bitching about the expense!  Write and phone your “representative”.  Stuff like that.  We can affect change,  but don’t cry about the cost!  STEP UP AMERICA! !

William, you’re closer than you think.  The numbers are mostly in favor of automation, but a lot of companies are (understandably) terrified of the backlash, from what I’ve been hearing.  They exploit every economic crisis to lay anybody off they can, but it’s an excuse.  The fact is that they don’t want employees and don’t think they need more than temporary help.

The amazing thing is that their minds boggle over why sales are slipping.  Couldn’t be because nobody has jobs.  That’d be silly.

It also amazes me how much knowledge has been lost.  Ford overpaid his workers by something like a factor of four.  It wasn’t generosity and it wasn’t to encourage loyalty.  It was to make sure blue-collar workers could afford his product.

Today, suggesting that in a board room would get you thrown down an elevator shaft.  Nobody believes there’s a correlation between employment and purchasing power.

Interesting. Worked “contract” for 25 years. Loved it. Made my 6 figures as an “engineer on commission.” That is, if I did what was required. I continued to work (usually).

What non-contract don’t realize is that the only time someone, any one, is paid is when performing a true function. That is approximately 1850 hours per year. Not 2080 hours.

Now, the benefits are that either my employer or myself could tell the other where the door was (nicely of course). And there was never a**kissing, personnel problems and all the rest. Just tell what you want me to do. And OT comes if you are a “white collar.”

I saw 375 direct let go one morning. Not contract. I saw plants closed but contract continued.

There are two. or more, sides to this all. A “contract” still has to make themselves desirable. No different that applying for a position. And one had to work (most difficult for many.)

I’d do it all over again if not retired and not looking for work.

So move to North Dakota or the other states that have super low unemployment and are starving for professional and skilled workers. No one promised you a great life… have to make like your grandparents and go where the jobs are.  Quit complaining about how things “used to be” and suck it up. 

Otherwise, just be miserable and victimized and hope the federal government in all its wisdom will level the playing field by taking from the producers and giving to the “underachieving but equally deserving”..................I guess that can be fun, too, for some of you, eh?  It is so much easier to complain and commiserate, isn’t it??  Is anyone going to care in 200 years about how badly life treated you?  Take it upon yourself to make your opportunities and try risking your sense of comfort and security that whining, bitching and moaning about your lost lifestyle gives you.


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