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The Guardian Reporting - Underpaid and misled: how staffing agencies manipulate temps

The Guardian following our report showing temp workers have few protections, even as staffing industry sees explosive growth


Haley Hodges was working as a temp at a medical staffing agency in Iowa when she found out there were complications with her pregnancy and she was forced to cancel a few shifts. The cancellations led to her being placed on probation and her wages being slashed.


The pandemic has led to a huge surge in temporary hiring, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Temp Worker Justice that highlights the struggles many of those workers face.


“I was struggling with pre-eclampsia [a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure] and I had made my employer aware that my pregnancy had become high risk. We agreed I would continue to work until I couldn’t,” said Hodges.

After her obstetrician called her into the hospital to induce labor, she called her agency and told them what was going on. They seemed understanding at the time, she said.


“It wasn’t until after [the baby] was born that I was informed that I would be placed on probation for having to cancel the remainder of my scheduled shifts for six months,” said Hodges. “My wage would be cut down by $6 an hour and I wasn’t allowed to call in or cancel shifts during probation or I would be terminated.” She worked through the probation period at the reduced wage because she couldn’t afford to lose the job or find another after just having a baby.


Hodges’ experience is not an isolated case. NELP’s report, compiled with help compiled with the help of Chicago Workers Collaborative, Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, New Labor, Warehouse Workers for Justice, and North Carolina Justice Center, details the rapid growth of temp work during the pandemic and the extent to which these workers face low wages, retaliation and wage theft and are misled by staffing agencies about pay or the temp-to-hire nature of their positions.


From April 2020 to October 2021, temporary work in the US grew at 2.5 times the rate of all other private sector industries. Revenue in the US staffing industry is projected to have grown by a record 16% in 2021 to $157.4bn.



Labor rights advocates are calling for more regulation of temporary staffing agencies. Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP

“Sectors where temp work is highly prevalent, like warehousing, are growing as e-commerce booms, and then there’s also industry organizing to grow temp work in sectors like retail,” said Maya Pinto, a senior researcher and policy analyst at NELP and a co-author of the report. “The US lags way behind other industrialized nations in regulating temp work. That lack of regulation has left an opening for the largest employers in the US and sectors like warehousing, manufacturing, and increasingly in retail, to use temporary agencies to squeeze more from workers.”


Efforts are being made to give temp workers more rights. Representatives Emanuel Cleaver and Joe Kennedy’s Restoring Worker Power Act is set to be reintroduced in Congress soon and, if passed, would regulate the temp industry and provide temp workers with rights such as pay equity and paths to permanent hiring.

Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Washington and New York City have all passed legislation to regulate temp work. Mississippi and New Jersey introduced such bills this year.


In the meantime, the army of temp workers keeps growing. An estimated 13 million to 16 million US workers are hired through staffing agencies annually, according to industry estimates. In December 2021, 2.8 million Americans were employed as temporary help and through staffing agencies.

The NELP report includes a survey of 1,337 temporary workers in 47 states conducted by Temp Worker Justice, with results revealing the harrowing realities of poverty and abuse these workers regularly face on the job.


From 1992 to 2014, Reynalda Cruz worked on a regular basis for temporary staffing agencies in the New Brunswick, New Jersey, area, before taking on a role as an organizer for New Labor, a workplace justice organization based in New Jersey.

Cruz said that as a temp worker she, and many other workers, had to work multiple jobs due to the inconsistency of work availability and schedules through staffing agencies.


She also had $50 or more deducted from her weekly paychecks to cover the transportation the temp agency provided from its office to work sites.


“There were some instances where I was left abandoned at the workplace because they didn’t pick me up or they came late to get me and other workers there. Sometimes they brought us to workplaces and we wouldn’t be needed, but would be forced to wait four to five hours in the cafeteria for the temp agency transportation to pick us up, and none of that time was paid,” said Cruz. “Also they make you show up early, they don’t come to pick you up at your house so you get there at six in the morning and wait until they send you out that day, and you aren’t paid for that time.”

Temp workers are more than twice as likely to be paid poverty wages compared to workers in all industries. These workers are often paid less than their direct hire counterparts doing the same work. Staffing and temp agencies receive a cut of an hourly fee they charge host employers, which can range from 30% to more than 150% of the wages the worker receives.

In other findings, NELP reports:

  • 36% of workers reported they or their dependents relied on some form of government assistance while they worked through a staffing agency.

  • 24% of workers reported experiencing wage theft through a staffing agency, in which they were paid less than minimum wage, not paid overtime, or not paid the proper amount forhours they worked.

  • 17% of workers reported suffering an illness or injury on the job, and 41% of those workers said they had to cover the costs of medical care themselves.

  • 24% of temp workers said they have never received safety training before beginning a temp position, and 23% said they only sometimes received safety training.

  • 80% of workers reported interest in joining a worker organization such as a union to improve working conditions.

  • 71% of workers reported experiencing retaliation for raising workplace concerns to their management.

The survey also found high rates of racial, gender, and age discrimination in temp jobs. Workers also reported that staffing agencies misled them about the chances of being hired permanently or about pay.


John Martinez of Orange county, California, started working through a temp staffing agency in October 2021, working inventory for companies such as Oakley. The staffing agency started paying him late a few weeks into his first assignment and he continued having issues in resolving the late pay with the agency in his second temp assignment.


“I stopped going because I wasn’t being paid,” said Martinez, who ended up taking a lower-paying job closer to home. “I would have liked to have stayed at Oakley, but my gut said ditch this staffing agency.”


Temp workers are often used by employers to replace workers on strike or to deter organizing efforts: Nissan relied on temp workers as the company fought off unionizing efforts by the United Auto Workers and Kroger used temporary workers during a grocery worker strike in Colorado.


Though temp jobs are often marketed as an opportunity to be hired directly by an employer, 35% of workers reported their current temp assignment had lasted more than one year and 18% reported their current temp assignment surpassed two years in duration. The vast majority of workers, 72%, reported they have never been hired into a permanent position from a temp position.


“That long-term perma-temping is how the industry makes money and that’s why they have these bondage fees charged to host employers to control workers from ever leaving,” said Dave Desario, director of Temp Worker Justice and a contributor to the report. “It’s also why agencies present the idea of temp-to-perm positions, because that convinces people to work for substandard wages because they think something better is on the horizon, without knowing how their movement in the job market is controlled and limited.”


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