Hermits Rock

Go to content Go to navigation

Temp non-Agency

American employers are redefining what it means to be employed, according to a new survey put out today by the Iowa Policy Project. Labor surveys probably vastly underestimate the number of under- and uninsured Americans. By relying increasingly on contract laborers, temporary workers, and part-time employees, they are creating what amounts to a subclass of workers who are both insecure and uninsured.

The report, Nonstandard Jobs, Substandard Benefits (the link is to a PDF document of the entire report; for a shorter PDF summary, see the press release) examines the practices of employers to hire workers under nonstandard terms in large part in order to avoid costs such as health care and retirement plans. These practices are exacerbated by the fact that standard labor statistics have not kept good track of these changes in hiring. The IPP finds that labor surveys probably vastly underestimate the number of under- and uninsured Americans: nearly 20 percent of nonstandard workers who report being insured probably aren’t. That 20 percent is of approximately 35 million workers (or 25 percent of the total American workforce).

The report documents in many ways what I’ve been living this year. I’ve worked at two different corporations that regularly hire temporary workers (what the IPP calls “direct-hire temporary” labor) to fulfill their obligations. Much of what I’ve done is niche work: scoring essays for standardized exams, many of which are the direct result of the No Child Left Behind Act. The companies I’ve worked for contract with state boards of education to read the essays, and in turn they hire temps like me to do the reading. It’s niche work because readers must first be educated—some projects even require that you have been a teacher for at least three years: consequently, these companies set up scoring centers in R1 college towns like Columbus, Ohio. There they can feed off desperate graduate students and recent M.F.A.s.

But scoring has no future because, well, it’s designed not to. You’re hired until a project is finished. Then you wait until another starts or until you’re hired somewhere for a permanent job or until you graduate with your Ph.D. and get a visiting/adjunct/tenure-track job or until next year when surely you’ll get hired or until you get fed up with it all and just walk out. Yet it’s work that won’t go away given education’s ever-greater reliance on testing. Might not industrial education benefit by cultivating professionalism in its back end? But it doesn’t. I know men and women who have been doing that work for five, six, years and never been hired on anything but a project basis. (The ones I know who’ve done it ten and twelve years never wanted more than what they got.)

A similar hiring trend, which I won’t go into detail about now, is universities’ hiring two adjuncts to replace one tenure-track professorship. Likewise, Wal-Mart: yesterday, a now-retired friend, who served for many years as a human resources manager at a local Proctor & Gample plant, argued that Wal-Mart is strapped by the fact that its workers don’t want to work full-time. His was an attempt to shift the conditions of work to the worker, not the employer. It’s a common argument. According to the IPP’s report, “Some have tried to argue that increasing numbers of workers—particularly working mothers, young workers, and re-entering retirees—prefer ‘flexible’ jobs, and that this has been the predominant reason for the increase in this category of nonstandard jobs. . .. [In] fact businesses are the driving force behind the increase, not worker preferences.”

What the IPP documents, in other words, is something that we’ll see more rather than less of in the future. Not only are companies dumping old pensions, they also aren’t starting new ones. Nor are they finding ways to provide health care more cheaply—in part because health care gets more expensive with every year. Yet so long as the United States continues to define employers as the fundamental providers of Americans’ health care, American workers will continue to find that their full-time jobs with benefits are becoming more and more ephemeral.



from frontline: is walmart good for america? November 2004 New York Times article cites a study in Georgia that found 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees were in the state’s healthcare program at a cost to taxpayers of $10 million a year. The same article describes a hospital in North Carolina that found that 31 percent of its 1,900 patients were Wal-Mart employees on Medicaid, and an additional 16 percent were Wal-Mart employees with no insurance at all. And in California, a study released in August 2004 by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley determined that the healthcare expenses of uninsured Wal-Mart employees were costing the already economically-strapped state $32 million a year in taxpayer funds. Wal-Mart has disputed findings that the company encourages its employees to apply for public assistance and called the California study “biased,” noting that the researchers at Berkeley did not contact the company for facts and statistics.

Wal-Mart officials claim that 90 percent of its employees are insured either through the company’s policies or elsewhere. Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark told FRONTLINE that over 500,000 of the company’s 1.2 million U.S. employees are insured by Wal-Mart and that the company insures a total of 900,000 employees and their dependents. According to Clark, 29 percent of Wal-Mart associates are ineligible for coverage. Stringent eligibility requirements and the employee turnover rate may account for that 29 percent: Full-time employees must work for six months before they can be covered, and part-time employees must work for at least two years. Wal-Mart’s labor turnover rate is 44 percent per year—close to the retail industry average.

Wal-Mart’s healthcare premiums are also high for the average associate’s salary. Currently, Wal-Mart’s employees must pay 33 percent of their healthcare costs: $30.50 a month for an individual or between $132.50 and $230.50 a month for families. Wal-Mart argues that its associates are a different demographic base than most companies’ employees. “One of the most significant facts is that about two-thirds of Wal-Mart associates are senior citizens, college students or second income providers, which also means that many of our associates receive their healthcare coverage from a parent, spouse or even Medicare,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Clark wrote in an e-mail to FRONTLINE. But Wal-Mart spokesperson Mona Williams admitted to the Los Angeles Times that Wal-Mart might not be the right job for a family breadwinner: “Wal-Mart is a great match for a lot of people,” she said. “But if you are the sole provider for your family and do not have the time or the skills to move up the ladder, them maybe it’s not the right place for you.”

Yeah, Wal-Mart’s pretty bad about these kinds of hiring; it’s also a big target, so it’s easy to hit…

Mark Schmidt defines the problems that Wal-Mart presents to social policy (its history and future development) decisions better than I ever could. Essentially, what he says is that there really hasn’t been sufficient policy efforts to convince W-M (and other companies like it, although there are few companies like W-M) to act differently than it does. Moreover, there also hasn’t been sufficient pressure from within the company to actually support its workers in ways that are more than minimalist.

What’s curious is that many businesses that employ workers in this way have lobbied against the one thing that ought to be in their interest: universal health care. Take a look at this story by John Judis about the politicking, in 1993/94, over Clinton’s health care plan for instance. Universal health care would ease the guilt corporations must feel (don’t laugh!; I’m serious!) for not supporting the people who work for them.

no real thought…just a link and a vignette

Mr Wagoner on GM and health care

he’s got a great name, for being ceo of gm…too bad it’s not chrysler.

along these lines…spoke to a guy who’s moved up to work on the saturns near nashville…in the same conversation he lamented not getting into the company 2 years earlier because the benefits would’ve been kickin’ and said that gm was going down because of imports and the high costs of benefits—those lousy unions wanted too much of the pie.

we’ve moved away from instructors and gone to visiting instructors who can work for no more than 2 appointments, grad assistants, lecturers (who can be permanent appointments) and us tenured/tenure trackers.

and they deliberately changed the title to a visiting so that those applying would not get the idea that it was to be permanent and those hiring could have an excuse to say…no don’t come back, you were just visiting. there were those gasp who were instructors and were good teachers and would come back year after year…if i remember correctly, the need to pay, and the inability to pay health care was among the main reasons for making this change.