In a strip mall in Cedar Rapids, a temp agency opens at 6 a.m., ready to place workers in temporary jobs. A registered applicant can enter the waiting room, sign in on a clipboard at the counter, and wait for placement in a job in construction, hospitality or warehouse work— often the same day. There is no talk about careers or perquisites, and some days a person gets placed, others not. Every time I entered, someone was waiting for a placement— there seemed to be no shortage of labor. In a society where people need paying work, this is one place they find it.
Managing the bottom line for a large or small company, the cost of human resources stands out as a high percentage of expense. Owners and executives seek to manage these expenses— their argument is they have to to remain viable in the marketplace. They will do what is legal and necessary to optimize the dollars spent on people. One of the ways they do this is to transfer the risk and expense of having employees to other entities, like the companies that employ temp workers.
We hear a lot about outsourcing and off-shoring, but until lately little attention has been paid to temp workers: that group of low-paid people that works in our community, doing office work, construction, hospitality, light manufacturing, property maintenance and more. Large corporations have become masters of outsourcing, and when we ask where have all the jobs gone, some of them went back into the community in the form of subcontractors that use temp workers, and take expense off the bottom line.
Mike Grabell wrote an article in ProPublica titled, “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed” which is worth reading. He wrote, “the people [...] are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies– Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.”
Massachusetts passed a temporary workers right to know law that requires temporary staffing agencies to provide basic information about jobs offered to temporary workers. Essentially, it is a temp worker bill of rights.
Perhaps Iowa should consider a similar law, even if groups like the American Staffing Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council would be expected to fight it.
On the other hand, Iowa is a state where organized labor has struggled to pass any initiative in the legislature, notably the recently failed campaigns for fair share and choice of doctor. This when Democrats, the party that received substantial political contributions from organized labor, controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Temp workers are here to stay in Iowa. The protections they have are the bare minimum provided by the law. Companies push the envelope of the law to keep their bottom line expense of workers very low. For progressives, helping protect temp workers in Iowa should be on our short list of priorities. The situation lies mostly below the radar and is calling for justice.