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The Plight of Blue-Collar Temp Workers

In Race, To The Bottom: The Demographics of the Blue-Collar Temporary Staffing, Dave DeSario and Jannelle White unpack federal and state data to help us see the challenges of blue-collar temp workers. The authors crunch the numbers and find that Uncle Sam’s data collection undercounts this part of the labor force.

In 2018-2019, the Responsible Jobs Creation Act mandated the Illinois Department of Labor to begin tracking demographic information of temp agency workers. The Prairie State’s data collection approaches differed from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state-level data delivered “a clearer picture of blue-collar tempworkers,” according to DeSario, director of Temp Worker Justice, and White, lead organizer and digital media coordinator with the Temp Worker Union Alliance Project.

Here is a shortcoming of Uncle Sam’s data on temp workers. “Businesses that engage in more than one activity, of which temporary staffing is included,” according to DeSario and White, “are not having their temporary workers counted by BLS if temporary staffing is not how they define their principal product or service.” Company definitions matter.

Getting better demographic numbers on temp workers from the state of Illinois came with effort. This data became available on the first full-year of reporting in 2019, after Temp Worker Justice filed a Freedom of Information Act request in May 2020.

The overrepresentation of black and Latinx workers in blue-collar temp jobs is striking. According to DeSario and White, “83% of blue-collar temp assignments are staffed by non-white workers in a state where non-white workers are just 35% of the workforce (Illinois).” Further, “75% of those temp assignments went to African-American and Latinx workers.”

To underscore the racial demographics of this industry, DeSario and White write: “Blue-collar temp workers are 2.5 times more likely to be African-American and Latinx than the overall workforce. (3.43x for African-American and 2.05x for Latinx – Illinois). The over-representation of African-American and Latinx workers found in blue-collar temp assignments is more than twice as significant as BLS data has established for the temporary staffing industry (43% vs. 91%).”

Why does the racial demographics of blue-collar temp workers matter? In brief, such workers earn lower hourly pay and experience less job stability (e.g., weekly work schedules) than direct-hire employees experience. It is worth noting the two classifications of workers can and do toil side-by-side.

Employers reap a higher rate of profit from blue-collar temp workers. That is no conspiracy theory, just the regular daily operations of the capitalist marketplace.

Forming labor unions for blue-collar temp workers is also a heavy lift. US labor law favors employers in unionization campaigns.

Blue-collar temp workers also face sexual harassment and wage theft. Last, there are “hidden non-compete agreements that block access to good jobs, and permatemping: where so-called “temps” are on the job for years,” according to DeSario and White. ‘In Illinois, the average temp spends six years in “temporary”assignments, and 4 out of 5 never have a temp job turn into a permanent one.”

I asked DeSario what surprised him most in his co-authored report. “We expected the demographic numbers to be mostly in line with the federal data from BLS,” he said via email, “but the over-representation was double what the federal data says. So among other things, it tells us there’s a crisis here—a predatory industry that profits by perpetuating poverty, overwhelmingly taking advantage of people of color – and the federal government is mostly blind to it because its data can’t really see these non-traditional forms of employment like temp work. Their systems of tracking workers are stuck in the 1970s before the work force was subcontracted, outsourced, gigged and temped-out.”

DeSario and White’s report consists of a summary, introduction, findings, discrepancies and recommendations. The full 17-page report including a one-page summary is available here.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

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