DAYTON, Ohio — Seven years ago, Larry Mayham earned $13 an hour, often working 60 to 70 hours a week as a driver taking handicapped clients to their jobs.
Today, he holds a similar job – but as a temporary worker. He earns $10 an hour and works less than 30 hours a week. He’s in constant pain from a tooth extraction gone bad, but he can’t afford to see a specialist.
He goes to the food pantry once a month, just to get by.
Mayham is part of a growing trend in the American workforce. In an uncertain economy, more and more companies are relying on temporary workers, who accounted for about one-fifth of private-sector job growth in Ohio in 2012, according to federal labor data. In June, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the nation has 2.7 million temp workers, the highest number on record.
In Ohio, temporary staffing services employed 105,412 people in 2012 compared to 73,757 in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual pay for a temp worker in Ohio was estimated at $22,512 in 2012, with an average weekly wage of $433. That’s essentially flatlined since 2007, when temporary employees averaged an annual salary of $21,590. “I haven’t had a raise in six years,” Mayham said.
Some people, like Connie Adam of Middletown, Ohio, love the flexibility of temp work because it allows her to go on more vacations and manage her own schedule. In the past, she had worked her way into a full-time job through a temp-to-hire arrangement. “My experiences have been mostly positive,” she said. “I love it now, because I can take time off to spend with my grandkids. I’m not bound by the company’s vacation schedule.”
But others experience a significant reduction in salary, self-esteem and quality of life. Single mother Michelle Back of Bellefontaine, Ohio, can’t afford to buy a home or provide basic medical care for her young daughter. “It is a bad time for the worker,” said Glenn Couch, 64, of Middletown. “You can’t find work nowhere unless it’s at one of these temp agencies that are popping up everywhere.”
Tom Maher, president and CEO of Manpower of Dayton Inc., an employment agency, believes the uptick is due to the scarcity of skilled labor and the uncertainty about governmental programs, particularly the Affordable Care Act. “There’s still uncertainty about the rules and regulations under the ACA, so there’s uncertainty about the pending costs,” he said.
Shawn Cassiman, associate professor of social work at the University of Dayton, said that the health care law isn’t to blame — that the resurgence of the temporary worker is “part of a whole cycle, a long-term trend that includes a withdrawal of support from workers and an attack on labor unions. Workers today are less likely to be represented fairly in the workforce.”
She said economists have described the trend as the rise of a new precarious class. “There are more and more workers living precarious lives, not knowing when they’re going to be fired,” she explained. “McDonald’s even talks about the second job that employees might need to make ends meet.”
Doug Barry, the president of BarryStaff, a Dayton-based staffing company, said the company sees about 125 people per week apply for temp work. Barry said the goal is to get temp workers hired on as full-time employees, and the company has succeeded with many of its workers.
“We only hire 20 to 25 percent of people who walk through our door,” he said. “We want good workers, so we really weed through applicants with an interview process and testing.”
For Mayham, temp work represents a painful change in his lifestyle. “I enjoy the work, but I wish it paid more,” he said. “I use 70 percent of my income just to pay the rent.”
Robert Davis, 50, of West Dayton, walked into a national temp agency in Dayton in search of immediate employment. After a year of work through the agency, Davis left his manufacturing job, vowing to never to do temp work again. He made $9 an hour and often worked overtime, but the negative work environment outweighed the paycheck for Davis. He says his work with chemicals resulted in respiratory issues and skin rashes, and has little means to pay for treatment. “When (temp agencies) send you to a place, they pretty much send you out to the wolves,” he said. “I felt like a piece of cattle.”
Now Davis works as a self-employed mechanic. “You have to make a living and you feel like you have to put up with just about anything to do that when you’re not a permanent worker,” he said.
Getting a step up
But for others, like 26-year-old Mallory Pohlman of Oakwood, Ohio, temp work has proven to be a stepping stone to a good job. She served with the Peace Corps for nearly three years after graduating from the University of Dayton in 2009. Readjusting to life in the United States meant coming into a leaner, meaner job market — and one in which her life skills weren’t always easy to translate.
“It was shocking to me to come back from Africa and try to get my footing again,” Pohlman said. “What’s on paper doesn’t reflect my abilities or potential.”
Worse yet, her unsubsidized student loans had expanded like the Goodyear blimp. Her luck changed when she contacted Manpower. “I was contacted almost immediately upon signing up, and asked to come in for an interview,” she said. That eventually led to a job as a project manager at a communications company that looks like it will turn into full-time employment. “Being a temp worker has been good for me to feel more confident in my abilities and help me to realize my potential,” Pohlman said.
For Debra Heckler, 44, of Springfield, Ohio, however, being a temp worker has been a drain on her pocketbook and a drag on her self-esteem. “I’m in debt up to my ears with student loans, with no way to pay them,” said Heckler, who has three grown children and four grandchildren. “As a temp worker, you’re always living in fear of when it’s going to end. I always used to be good at everything I did, but when you’re let go for no reason, it makes you feel like you’re not good enough — like no one is going to hire you.”
Her husband is self-employed, so the couple has gone without health insurance for several years. Heckler may be on the verge of getting a permanent, full-time job, but, she added, “it has been such a long time that I’m afraid to hope.”
It’s short-sighted, she believes, for companies to short-shrift their workers. “I may be old school, but I was taught that people are your No. 1 asset,” Heckler said. “It seems that employers aren’t willing to invest in people any more. With temp work there’s so little camaraderie, so little sense of loyalty between employer and employee.”
As a single mother, Back, 31, has tried to shield her 8-year-old daughter, Alaina, from the harsh realities of her life as a temp worker. “I’ve been working there on and off since 2001 and they’ve never hired me yet,” she said. “I’m cheap labor for them. The company gets out of the benefits and incentives they provide for the other workers.”
Despite her associate’s degree in applied science, she’s doing factory assembly work at a wage far less than her co-workers. “I want to buy a house that belongs to us — nothing fancy, a simple, two-bedroom house out in the country where I can plant a garden and watch my daughter play in the yard,” she said. “But the simple fact is that I can’t buy a house. Nobody wants to let a temp worker do that, because you’re not guaranteed employment.”
She relies on government help for her daughter’s child care and medical expenses, but it’s still not enough. “It’s rough not being able to go to the doctor,” Back said. “I owe a bunch on medical bills, but there’s just not enough money to pay those bills.”
Glenn Couch, a retired trucker, worked for a while as a temporary factory worker, but decided it wasn’t worth it. “It’s unreal how they treat you, compared to the full-time workers,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than getting treated like a stepchild.”
Couch quit because he can afford to. “I worry about young people with kids,” he said. “I don’t know how they’re making it.”
Back believes there’s a downside for companies that rely too heavily on temp workers: “It’s always a revolving door. People don’t want to stay when they’re not getting anything worth their while.”
Cassiman concurs that companies, too, can be damaged by overreliance on temp workers. “It’s not good for companies to undergo constant job training and turnover. It’s indicative of a refusal by American companies to think in the long-term. In the past, people worked at one company forever, and they had a decent lifestyle. It was a reciprocal relationship. Now companies are more inclined to throw workers away when they’re no longer useful.”
Maher, however, believes that temporary work can be mutually beneficial for both employer and employee: “In this day and age, a long-term investment in an individual involves considerable risk, and we help to mitigate that risk. It’s a trial period, and that works both ways. The worker can decide whether this is a place they want to be and whether it is an enjoyable work environment.”
Maher is proud of the reputation and history of the Dayton office of Manpower, which his father, Thomas E. Maher Sr., founded in 1956. He said that Manpower carefully vets client companies for a safe, clean working environment, and none of the jobs are minimum wage. Top wage-earners can make $70 to $80 an hour, he said.
“We hear from a lot of former clients who have landed full-time jobs and are now working in high-level positions,” Maher said. “There are certainly abuses in this business, but I truly believe that the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Ronda Roberts of Beavercreek, Ohio, 54, lost her job as a technical writer last year when the Air Force canceled a project with her company. Now she has a temp job as an administrative assistant at a North Dayton food manufacturer. Her salary has been nearly slashed in half, at the same time her commute has quadrupled. “If I figured out how much I actually do make an hour, after constantly filling up my gas tank, I’d probably be crying,” she said.
Roberts fears losing the information technology skills she had worked so hard to attain. “I had a very highly skilled job, and now I feel like a glorified secretary,” she said. She has been working for the same company since December, but doesn’t enjoy the same vacation time or sick days as her co-workers. “I’m classified as a temp worker, but I don’t feel like a temp worker,” she said.
Roberts’ husband has medical benefits through his job, so her family hasn’t experienced a dramatic lifestyle change. But she has stopped contributing to her investment portfolio, and she’s reluctant to make nonessential purchases. “If I want a cute pair of shoes, I think twice about it,” she said.
There’s one luxury she won’t sacrifice: her 16-year-old daughter Miranda’s participation in the Beavercreek High School band, which is pay-to-play. “I would work an extra job for her to do that,” she vowed.
‘Set myself apart’
Richard Stock, director of UD’s Business Research Group, said the rise in temporary workers isn’t as dramatic as it seems, despite the Labor Department’s record numbers. “It has been bouncing in that range for some time,” he said. “You can’t say it’s the ‘new economy’ when 2.7 million workers is such a small part of the American economy which has 136 million workers,” Stock said.
The real shift, he said, has been in the number of part-time workers who are trying unsuccessfully to get full-time jobs — a figure that now stands at 8.2 million workers nationally after reaching a peak of 9.05 million in 2009. “That number has remained stubbornly high,” Stock said.
Cassiman believes it’s all part of a disturbing pattern — and one that has wide-ranging implications. “The whole idea of citizenship unravels as workplace protection unravels,” she said. “Even beyond moral and social issues, what does that mean for the health of our democracy? It’s really problematic when companies feel they have no responsibility to their workers.”
Tina Boyd, 51, of Dayton, re-entered the temp industry to support her two children after being laid off from a permanent job. Boyd has master’s and bachelor’s degrees, but her work consists of data entry and human resources — all on a temporary basis. “Nothing is guaranteed,” she said. “You can be in a job for years and then one day, they say, ‘We don’t need you any more.'”
In the past, some of Boyd’s temporary jobs led to permanent employment at companies such as LexisNexis, but today her family is struggling to get by. “I don’t have insurance,” she said. “We’re lucky no one has gotten sick. I’m not sure what will happen down the road ultimately, but we just take it day by day.”