After reading the “Challenge of Temporary Work in Twenty-First Century Labor Markets” report issued recently by the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University Of Massachusetts, Amherst, there are two things I am absolutely sure of.
One: it is a unique report; it presents the seedy underside of the Massachusetts temp staffing industry in a “low wage economy.”
Two: this report is not really about the temporary staffing industry.
The report is subtitled “Flexibility With Fairness for the Low-Wage Temporary Workforce.” It is authored by Harris Freeman and George Gonos, who are college professors at Western New England University School of Law in Springfield, MA and the State University of New York, Potsdam, respectively.
It encapsulates the underpinnings for proposed changes to the Massachusetts Employment Agency Law, which the report claims is outdated. These changes are currently moving through the Massachusetts legislature as House Bill 1393.
Staffing industry heavyweights such as the American Staffing Association oppose these changes as far too onerous, unnecessary and ultimately destructive to legitimate staffing firms.
The report opens with some fairly standard observations about the staffing industry. It claims that in the wake of the recession, temp staffing is becoming the “new normal” in Massachusetts. I’ve written about that myself, in the belief that it’s going to take awhile for businesses to begin hiring full-time again.
It also presents the growth of the temporary staffing industry from 1980, warts and all, including the lack of healthcare benefits and job security; these concerns are not new either and have been addressed by staffing firms as they have rolled out temp-to-hire and HR services.
But as the subtitle suggests, the aim of this report is to protect what the authors term the “low-wage temporary workforce”:
All evidence points to a low‐wage temporary workforce that includes large numbers of immigrants and undocumented workers whose vulnerabilities are exacerbated by language and literacy barriers as well as legal status.
It presents several vivid examples of so-called employers check-splitting, ignoring overtime hours, packing strangers into unmarked vans, not telling them who them who the employer is or where they’re going or what their jobs will be, not bothering to train them or provide the necessary safety equipment.
And suddenly, we’re not talking about the temporary staffing industry anymore.
We’re talking about immigration, and education, and how far the government and U.S. industry should go to protect the disadvantaged.
This is no longer about just the temp workforce, because if people in your workforce are undocumented, they’re not part of the workforce. You shouldn’t be hiring them at all.
And if part of this workforce can’t read or speak the appropriate languages to work in Massachusetts, that part needs to go to any number of existing community resources to help them become viable work candidates.
If they don’t, and you hire them, you’re probably not going to be in business for very long. That’s partially because we already have a scad of laws in the U.S. enacted to prevent that sort of thing. The OSH Act, the WARN Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act come to mind here, but there are many more.
The report also brings up another interesting concept:
The unchecked and widespread abuse of workplace standards in the low-wage temp agency sector promotes a race to the bottom that undermines efforts to create good jobs and threatens the viability of law abiding temporary staffing agencies and their clients.
Are businesses engaging in a “race to the bottom?” Yes. Aren’t they always?
No good businessperson is going to give anything away. You try to get the most for the least. Anything that costs you money without a clear return has got to go, and sometimes the employees suffer. That’s business.
There are plenty of areas where the lines can get blurred – should you keep temps on indefinitely without benefits? Should you cap their hours? For the most part it’s perfectly legal.
But if, as a business owner, you find yourself behaving in ways described in this report, you’re no longer blurring the lines. You are officially a dirtbag who should be arrested and convicted.
More importantly, you can be arrested and convicted (see above, re: scad).
This might be a good document for advancing social change. But it’s not about temporary staffing. Because there’s no way that staffing, or any one industry, can by itself sustain the advancement.