A Close-Up Look At Contract Workers An NPR/Marist poll sheds light on a fast-growing workforce sector: contract workers. One out of every five jobs is held by a contract worker. While many enjoy the flexibility, the jobs are unsteady.

A Close-Up Look At Contract Workers

A Close-Up Look At Contract Workers

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An NPR/Marist poll sheds light on a fast-growing workforce sector: contract workers. One out of every five jobs is held by a contract worker. While many enjoy the flexibility, the jobs are unsteady.


Government employees aren't the only ones facing uncertainty today because of the shutdown. So are tens of thousands of government contractors. And this week, NPR is taking a closer look at contract workers, a fast-growing part of the American labor force.

ERIC ISAACKSON: My name is Eric Isaackson. I'm from Leonardo, N.J., and I'm a merchant marine deck officer.

REBECCA MILLER: My name's Rebecca Miller. I'm an emergency medicine physician. I'm 42 years old, and I live in Martinez, Calif.

MIKE TENNANBAUM: My name is Mike Tennanbaum. I'm 31, and I'm an independent business consultant and strategist.

MARTIN: So it sounds like each of those people are involved in a different industry, but they are actually all part of this fast-growing workforce. They are all contract workers, who work on a project for a limited period of time. And according to this new NPR-Marist poll, this kind of impermanent workforce makes up 1 in 5 jobs in this country. Again, 1 in 5 jobs is a contracting job in America. NPR's chief business editor Pallavi Gogoi and Barbara Carvalho, who's the director of the Marist Poll at Marist College, are here to help us dig into the findings of this survey.

Good morning to you both.


BARBARA CARVALHO: Hi there. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: All right, Pallavi, start off by just explaining your starting point for this poll.

GOGOI: So we basically wanted to look at the U.S. economy, which we know is pretty solid right now.

MARTIN: Right.

GOGOI: It's been growing for 8.5 long years. And a lot of people, 96 percent of Americans who can and want to work have jobs. But yet there is a sense of anxiety. And we wanted to see what was behind that anxiety. So we basically, I think, have the answer to that through the results of this poll that one of the reasons is that Americans are working in these impermanent, under-contract jobs.

MARTIN: So contracting, you think some people might like it because it gives them flexibility in their life. They can be their own boss. But you're saying your survey results reveal that it's this instability that actually causes people a lot of angst?

GOGOI: Absolutely. I mean, not only are jobs impermanent, the pay is unstable. We found that almost half of the workers, their pay varies from month to month and that's a problem. The other thing that we found is that over 50 percent of them don't receive any benefits from their jobs. That's neither health care nor retirement.

MARTIN: Because they don't work for just one company...

GOGOI: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...It's on them to get it. Barbara, you're a pollster. Is this something that you have seen in your other polls, this rise of contracting work?

CARVALHO: Well, I think what's very interesting is what we do see is that employment is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution. We often talk about full time or part time, but I think a better characterization is new time because people are really having to put together their own way of figuring out how to make ends meet and how to earn an income. We found quite a large proportion of even full-time workers, 30 percent, say they do something else besides their full-time job for pay.

MARTIN: What about wages because we've heard a lot in the last couple of years about how wages have been stagnant. Is there any sign that that is changing?

CARVALHO: Well, in this survey, what we found was that 44 percent of workers did not actually receive a raise in the past year. Now, that means a majority did. And we characterized it and defined it a little differently than the Bureau of Labor Statistics might. So we found that on average, there was a pay increase of about 4.5 percent. But the difference was that we also included people who changed jobs and got a higher salary. Thirty-two percent of Americans who had a full-time job actually changed jobs in the last two years and about half of them did earn more in their new job.

GOGOI: Can I jump in here for a quick second? I love the point that Barbara made about people moonlighting within this sort of contract jobs. So you basically have people who have full-time jobs but they're doing something else for pay. And you just have parents who are constantly working. After a full day's work, they might be getting into their cars, into an Uber or Lyft a couple of hours, maybe turning on their computers for a side gig because even if they make enough, like, they've gotten raises, there is just so much anxiety out there that they're worried whether it will last and they're working overtime to prepare for the worst.

MARTIN: So, Barbara, another thing you all looked at in this survey is how Americans writ large, not just contractors, how everybody feels about their own job stability. What did you find?

CARVALHO: Well, I think we have a little bit of a difference here in terms of how people assess employment in the broader scheme of things, in other words, the future of work, and how they assess their own jobs. Although people don't feel that they are going to lose their job or that losing their job is an imminent thing in their lives, I think what they do worry about is the day to day and the month to month about having an income that provides a certain level and a standard of living that they can appreciate.

MARTIN: And of course we're going to be exploring all of these questions all week, right? Stories about this poll will air on MORNING EDITION, on All Things Considered. And you can read these pieces on npr.org. We also want to hear your own stories, so you can go to our website, engage with us on Facebook and Twitter. And we've been speaking with NPR business editor Pallavi Gogoi and Marist College's Barbara Carvalho about this new survey. Thanks to you both.

GOGOI: Thank you, Rachel.

CARVALHO: Thank you.

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