Temp Work Now a Permanent Fixture, Creating Problems for ‘Invisible’ Workforce

CHICAGO — Ana Pérez was on the production line at a printing press outside of the city when a forklift operator rolled over her right foot. Hobbled by the pain, she said, an assembly line supervisor let her see a doctor, who provided her pills for the swelling, a bandage and then sent her home.

That accident three years ago was only the beginning of a puzzling process that had her seeking legal aid for workers’ compensation and foot surgery — a quest that continues today and has left her unable to work, she said, because she can no longer properly stand. Perhaps if she were treated like a full-time employee of the factory, entitled to health benefits, and not a temporary worker, she added, her experience would have been different.

“If they were to value people, they would respond when we have accidents. They would try to treat people as humans because I don’t think we are animals,” Pérez, 56, said recently in Spanish through a translator. “We are people, like they are.”

Pérez’s experience as a temp worker for more than 13 years echoes that of others who are placed by staffing agencies into these mostly low-wage jobs — sometimes for a day or a week, but even months or years. After millions of full-time positions were shed when the Great Recession began a decade ago, the U.S. economy is rebounding, in part, on the backs of temp workers who have helped to fill in the gaps.

And it’s at a rate suggesting they are not only increasing — but are increasingly permanent.

“This is absolutely the new frontier in the American labor force,” said Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, a labor and employment law professor at Willamette University in Oregon, who has studied how companies such as Amazon and Uber employ people.

These workers represent the underbelly of the U.S. workforce, holding an integral role in the country’s ever-evolving, on-demand economy — and whose precariousness has left them vulnerable to a system of exploitation and abuse, advocates say.

They are hired in temporary roles alongside full-timers, boxing up online orders, putting together car parts, making the flimsy aluminum trays sold in dollar stores or whatever else is needed in a pinch.

Image: Ana Perez, 56, of Chicago was a temp worker for more than 13 years.

Ana Perez, 56, of Chicago was a temp worker for more than 13 years.