A 'Permatemp' Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee Nearly 13 million people head to work as temporary and contract employees each year, according to the American Staffing Association. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, sociologist Erin Hatton argues that it's time to get rid of the "anti-worker ideology that has come to accompany it."
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A 'Permatemp' Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee

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A 'Permatemp' Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee

A 'Permatemp' Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee

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And now for the Opinion Page. As lawmakers in Washington debate job creation, one sector of the U.S. workforce continues to grow: temporary labor. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Eric(ph) Hatton praises the history of temp work back to the creation of agencies like Kelly Girl and Manpower after the Second World War, agencies that later advocated what she calls the ideology of expendable labor. Her piece cites a Kelly Services ad from the 1970s for the never-never girl portrayed as a smiling young woman with a pencil between her teeth. In part, the copy reads: Never takes a vacation or a holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments.

Well, if you've worked through a temp agency, call and tell us how does that work out for you. 800-989-8255, email, talk@npr.org. You also join in conversation on our website. That's at NPR.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Erin Hatton is assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York Buffalo, the author of "The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps to Postwar America," or "In Postwar America," forgive me. She joins us from member station WBFO in Buffalo. Good to have you with us today.

ERIN HATTON: Hi, Neal. Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And a never-never girl, really.

HATTON: Yes, indeed. That is one of my favorite advertisements, one of thousands of advertisements from the temporary help industry starting back in the 1940s.

CONAN: It's interesting, there were little parentheses after each of those statements: Never takes a vacation or a holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never cause you a dime for slack time. When the workforce - workload drops, you drop her. Never has a cold, not on your time anyway. Never costs you unemployment, none of the paperwork either. Never costs you fringe benefits - they have it at 30 percent of every payroll dollar. Never fails to please. If our Kelly Girl employee doesn't work out for you, you don't pay. We're that sure of all of our girls. This is a model, you say, for what's come since.

HATTON: It absolutely is. But it wasn't common sense back then. This temporary help industry started in the years after World War II and really picking up in the 1970s with that advertisement and many others. They started selling this new model of employment, this permatemp model of employment. They started trying to convince employers to replace permanent employees with temporary employees. Now, that seems like common sense today, but it hasn't always been that way.

CONAN: It's interesting. You go back to, as you say, the creation of Kelly Girls as they were then known and Manpower after the Second World War. And in a sense, you say they got around union opposition by portraying this as pink-collar work, women's work.

HATTON: That's absolutely right. They developed, in fact, what was a really clever strategy. They faced some significant opposition in those early years, that unions were very powerful. And here, the temp industry was trying to establish a sector of low wage, temporary, no benefit work. And if - had they encroached on to union territory, they would've been quashed. Another potential source of opposition was social activists who had rallied against what was called the private employment industry. This was an industry that was really big in the first half of the 20th century. And they had become notorious for their abuses of workers.

They essentially connected workers to jobs, usually it was recent immigrants or perhaps African-Americans from the South to the North. But they became notorious for, say, taking the workers' money, sending them to a job that didn't really exist. So that industry had been shutdown. Now, when the temporary help industry surfaced in the years after World War II, many people thought that they were just another iteration of that old notorious industry, or that perhaps they might take union jobs. But they got around that opposition by saying, no, no, no. We're not taking advantage of immigrant workers. We're not encroaching in on male jobs in the factories. We're just connecting housewives who are bored, who have nothing better to do when their...

...advantage of immigrant workers. We're not encroaching in on male jobs in factories. We're just connecting housewives who are bored, who have nothing better to do. When their children go to school, they can come and work us. And when their children come home, they'll be ready and waiting.

CONAN: For - just for pin money for - or just working enough to earn enough to buy that fur coat or that davenport.

HATTON: That's exactly right.

CONAN: Davenport. Haven't heard that word for quite a while.

HATTON: There's actually on full title from one of these many - they not only did advertisements, but they also had seminars. They had coaching sessions for women. They had articles in all kinds of business journals and newspapers. And one of my favorite titles of one of these articles was extra money for extra work for extra women. And that really encapsulated their motto at that time.

CONAN: Well, as you say, this was secretarial work, stenographer's pool. We don't think of those. They don't much exist anymore. But these were largely unionized jobs to begin with.

HATTON: That's absolutely right. But what - an important thing note about this is that they saw temp work, as women's work in those early years, but it wasn't - women weren't the only ones who were being temps. In fact, Manpower was the leading temporary help agency at the time and fully 40 percent of Manpower's workers were men. And these men were doing odd factory jobs and so on. They weren't secretaries. But in the public's eye, the image that they sold of temporary work was this middle-class, white housewife who was only working until their child came home from school. And their construction - doing it in this way in order to avoid the opposition that I had mentioned earlier.

CONAN: And the advantages to the employer, well, there are a lot of them. But there are downsides too.

HATTON: That's absolutely true. You know, if employers are looking for loyalty, well, you're not going to get them from temps. If they're looking for, perhaps, creativity or high productivity, you may not get them from temps either. But on the flipside, today you might, because there are growing numbers of temporary workers — long-term temporary workers at companies who desperately hope to become permanent workers. And so they give it all they've got. So they work overtime. They're extra creative. They're extra productive in the hopes being converted to permanent status.

CONAN: And you say there are structural problems to this. But there are also, for, at least some people, a lot of benefits. You can be more flexible. You can get into a company this way, and eventually do get a permanent job.

HATTON: That's absolutely true. When I talk about the problems of the perma-temp economy, that's not to say that all temporary jobs are bad. In fact, for many workers, it works quite well. I know plenty of people who temp at, you know, in their early 20s, out of college, didn't quite know what they wanted to do. They had fun, they temped, they made decent money and it works just fine. Also in the IT world, a number of people can have the flexibility want, make good money as a temp, and then work when - not work when they don't want. But for most people, this kind of job is all about insecurity, lower wages, instability and uncertainty.

CONAN: We want to hear - for those of you who've worked with these temp agencies, how did that work out for you. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Forrest, Forrest on the line with us from South Bend.

FORREST: Hi. Yeah, I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead. What's your experience been like?

FORREST: Well, I'm just getting out of my job right now, and it's a great job, and I love it. But I'm just biting my nails every week hoping that I'll get hired, and it's almost, now, five months after I started. They told me after first of the month in January, I should be hired. But still waiting on that.

CONAN: What kind of a company is it?

FORREST: It's a factory job. But I do production work and modify TVs. So I can't complain. It's good work and decent pay. Everybody's real friendly.

CONAN: And do you get benefits?

FORREST: I could get benefits but I turned them down, thinking I was going to get hired soon and should get hired by the next month. But so far, that still hasn't happened.

CONAN: And any word on when a decision might be coming down the road?

FORREST: No. I have just been told when things pick up.

CONAN: When things pick up. Well, good luck with that, Forrest. And in the meantime, though, it's working out OK.

FORREST: Oh, yeah. Like I said, everybody's good, everybody's friendly. Have no complaints, and it's been a real pleasure talking to you, Neal.

CONAN: All right. Forrest, thanks very much. When things pick up - Erin Hatton - that could be tomorrow, it could be never.

HATTON: Yes. Unfortunately, that's the case. And the more they say that, the more they say that - it keeps going this way. And these kinds of perma-temps, these long-term temporary workers, are, unfortunately, becoming more than norm than the exception. So when things pick up, really, could be - it could be tomorrow, but it really could be never.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Notorious(ph): Six months in, I was hired as an employee of the org. February marks three years I've been with them. So that's one of those people who got in as a temp and did get a permanent job.

From Jujifruitzero(ph): It worked out great. Right after college, I was hired on, bought out at my second gig for a company I really love.

And from Littlemissquincy(ph): My landlord, on the first, I still feel unemployed so that gives you some idea of the range of experience. I still feel unemployed that insecurity can eat away at people.

HATTON: I think that's absolutely the case. And, again, many people have great experiences as temps. But for me, what I'm talking about here, is this model of employment, the way we think about workers, whether or nor they're independent contractors, adjunct at universities, temporary workers and so on. There's this new model of employment where we think that every penny that we spend on a worker is a penny taken away from the bottom line. And, again, that wasn't always the case. But this is the model that we're living in.

CONAN: And how prevalent is it?

HATTON: It's absolutely prevalent. Now, there are about three million people who work as temporary workers a day. But in pointing a fact, temps only make two to three percent of the workforce. But then there are independent contractors than there are part-time employees than there are subcontracted workers. The list goes on and on and on. Then there are outsourced jobs that are not even in the United States anymore. This model of employment is pervasive.

CONAN: We're talking, on the opinion page today, with Erin Hatton, an assistant professor of sociology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her book is "The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America." You can find a link to her piece in The New York Times at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Jules(ph). Jules with us from Dallas.

JULES: How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JULES: I have worked through many temp agencies and I actually, in many ways, prefer it to having a regular job because I get bored very easily. And if I get bored with an assignment, I can just call my account manager at the temp agency and tell them, you know, this is fine, it's not working out for me, I would like to move into something else whenever you can place me there, and it's not a problem, because they don't want someone to be there who doesn't want to be there. And they can come up with a number of reasons to the employer why they're going to shift somebody else in and out of there. But I have had great assignments.

I have worked for Kelly Services before when I was living in Kansas City. They sent me on a four-month assignment to the Federal Reserve while somebody was out on medical leave. And then when that assignment ended, they instead told them they would keep me in a very nice, cush data entry job as long as I wanted to stay there. So I went into the data entry job, I was able to take my - back then it was a walkman, with me to work, and I could listen to music as I did all these data entry and in the mean time, I was looking for a permanent job. And when I found a permanent job, I just gave notice and everybody was really nice to me. I have no complaints whatsoever. When I first moved to San Francisco, I got a job as a temp and I went to a publishing company and that was a really great job too. I loved it.

CONAN: And is one agency markedly different from another?

JULES: You know, it depends on the office. I wouldn't say it's the companies themselves, because most of them are part of larger corporations. It just depends on the office and you really need to find somebody - well, back in the day, they placed ads in the paper and you could kind of look and see what sort of things they were mostly handling, if it was like office work or if it was like assembly work. But I've had really good experiences, because I worked for temp agencies, I've gotten a ton of experience across the board. I worked for criminal attorneys, I worked of the Fed, and I worked for publishers. It would be hard for me to get that kind of experience seeking it on my own.

CONAN: OK, Jules, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JULES: Sure. Thank you.

CONAN: And it's interesting, Erin Hatton, the - what she described at the Federal Reserve, somebody out four months on medical leave, that's precisely what a temp job is supposed to be for.

HATTON: That's exactly right. And one of the points that I make in the book is that let's not throw the baby out with a bath water. There are real uses - there's - there are real benefits to temporary employment, for both employers and for workers like Jules. However, when we start to misuse temporary workers, when we start to keep them on like Forrest, the first caller you had, who is waiting, who was promised to be converted to a permanent status, but is still waiting and could still be waiting next year and the year after that. That is when problems arise. So let's keep temporary employment. Let's take the good but let's leave off the bad.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. And this is Bill. Bill on the line with us from New Castle in Delaware.

BILL: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

BILL: Yes. I have bitter and sweet experience with the health care, or actually with the temp agency. As I was just explaining, my office, which was a health care company, a national health care company, closed here right outside of Philadelphia and they consolidated its office into three offices: one in Tampa, one in Minnesota, one in Phoenix. And those who could go, they were paid to make the move. So for those who couldn't have to stay. Well, I went to work for a temp agency who's calling, it was the company that I was employed with. And of course, I went, you know, on as a temp in one of our branches - local branches here in Delaware - and for less money, not the same job.

But what I found more advantage of - more advantageous for me to do was to just let my contract expire with them and go on unemployment because when those workers that I worked with had paid holidays off, I didn't. If I got sick, I couldn't get paid. If I wanted to go on a interview, also I wouldn't get paid. So I found it more advantageous to let my contract expire with the temp agency and then go on employment.

CONAN: So a mixed record but it's pretty odd to go back to work for the same company that let you go and go back as a temp.

BILL: I was kind of odd, being that those were some people I had the governorship over and now is working for them. But it was just a better deal for me just to go on unemployment, that way if I got sick and couldn't go to work, I'd still got my unemployment check. If there was a paid holiday, I would still get paid for that. And...

CONAN: I don't want to cut you off but we're running out of time. I want to get a last comment from...

BILL: Yes, no problem. I'll take my - I'll take your comment off the air.

CONAN: OK, Bill. And, Erin Hatton.

HATTON: Yes. Actually, what Bill points to is an advertising strategy that some of these temp agencies explicitly laid out in the 1970s. One of the companies was very overt in trying to convince employers to shift their permanent employees to the payrolls of temp agencies. They said just say goodbye to your permanent employees and say hello again, tomorrow, to them, as temps. And some companies actually did this through the '70s and '80s and probably into the '90s as well.

CONAN: Erin Hatton, thank you very much for your time today.

HATTON: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Erin Hatton, an assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York-Buffalo, author of "The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America," with us today from member station WBFO. Tomorrow, Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman joins us to talk about austerity, spending, politics deficits, debts and the state of the U.S. economy. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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