Temp Agencies Don't Work: 1 in 4 American Jobs Pays Less Than $23,050 a Year


My friend and I were on the train to Columbia University to attend a seminar when we started discussing the importance of attending an Ivy League school. We naively came to the conclusion that the only thing that really mattered was that a graduating student should have good work ethic and good grades. Everything else would fall into place. The woman sitting next to us politely told us that she had graduated two years ago and many of her friends were still struggling to find work. She said, “It’s not as easy as you think it is.”

While my friend and I realized the value of her words, it became clear that it hasn’t gotten any easier for college graduates to gain work. In fact, despite the increase in job numbers, it is difficult to gain employment with decent salary. As Erin Hatton’s article in the New York Times suggests, "a quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050), and the temp industry is on the rise. It helps employers save money and continues to exploit those who serve as temps.

Interestingly enough, temp work started out very humbly, offering “women’s positions” to middle class women in the 1950s, exploiting the lack of female mobility outside the home. Sometimes, women would only work to “buy a davenport or a fur coat” or to make some extra cash. However, the employment was not constructed by the employee’s terms. The contracts were negotiated between the temp agencies and the employers themselves, such that the employees were not at all involved in the terms of agreement. According to these contracts, if the employee didn’t please you, you didn’t have to pay them. The employee was also never supposed to ask for a raise, any benefits, any vacation time, or any sense of job security.

Although temping, as working in a temp agency is referred to, has been extended to both men and women, the exploiting and lack of benefits has been a continuing trend. While unions and trade workers began to strengthen their rights to collective bargaining and other benefits, temp agencies continue to advertise temp agencies as “rentable” workers who can be paid poorly and without benefits. When looking at temp agencies, it's almost as if the world of labor has taken a step backward. While temp agencies may allow for employees to try out a new field on a temporary basis, they do not provide America with the jobs that the American people need to help end this near-economic collapse.

The highly-anticipated jobs report comes out every month, with cause for celebration whenever the numbers slightly increase. However, what those numbers do not reflect is the lack of viability these jobs have to create a long-term career for young people, or anyone else for that matter. If America really wants to offer well-paying, highly-skilled jobs with decent benefits, we have to seriously think about the role of the temp agency and how we can hope to empower employees.