The Pandemic Has Highlighted Shortcomings of Temporary Jobs

Grocery delivery worker

The loss of older workers from the labor market has been a notable trend during the pandemic. We do not know how many of those who left the workforce will seek to reenter it, but among those who do pursue reemployment, many may turn to temporary jobs. Temporary help services (THS) give employers the flexibility to add or subtract staff according to immediate or rapidly fluctuating economic conditions. This greater staffing flexibility means temporary workers are often the first to lose work hours and jobs in economic downturns. On the flip side, temporary workers are also usually the first group of workers employers add back into their workforce during an economic recovery. Thus, as COVID-19 wanes, temporary jobs are likely to grow and can provide an opportunity for jobseekers to get back to work. Nevertheless, the pandemic has highlighted some of the downsides of temporary employment for workers.

Temporary Jobs Have Grown to be a Significant Part of the Labor Market

The THS industry has been growing for decades. Researchers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that employment in temporary help services more than doubled from 1990 to 2008. When this same team of experts reviewed THS data again more recently, they found that after slumping during the Great Recession, which started in 2007, the number of temporary jobs in the US rose once again by approximately 75 percent by 2018. The THS industry has always acted as a barometer for the overall economy because temporary jobs trends signal the beginning and end of job downturns. But with temporary jobs growing so significantly, they have become even more central to our understanding of labor market conditions.

Temporary Jobs Have Played a Vital Role During the Pandemic

Temporary jobs can vary significantly in quality. Though limited to a specific contract period, some higher-quality THS jobs are full-time, with longer-term stable assignments. A temporary staffing agency that employs such workers may also provide benefits, such as leave, retirement, and health care plans, similar to those of permanent employees. Nevertheless, the pandemic has spotlighted some of the significant challenges many temporary workers face. One of the starkest is the health risks they often have confronted, especially in frontline work.

While the pandemic underscored the importance of essential workers, what is less well known is that many such workers in warehouses, grocery stores, and hospitals performing in these critical roles are in temporary jobs. In addition to facing the well-documented safety issues and challenges of all essential workers, these essential temporary workers may not have access to the same health and safety training, protective equipment, or, depending on the type of work, worksite conditions as their permanently employed counterparts. But because THS jobs are often more precarious and a staffing agency is their employer, temporary workers may be wary of refusing assignments they feel are unsafe. These health risks are in addition to the longstanding financial hazards temporary workers often experience, such as lack of access to benefits, lower pay, greater income volatility, and a higher probability of losing work hours or employment.

Some Older Jobseekers May End Up in Temporary Work as they Seek to Reenter the Labor Market

Despite these downsides, older jobseekers who stayed out of the labor market during the pandemic and now want to reenter may turn to THS jobs to gain a foothold back into employment. While some older workers value the flexibility of temporary work, many may prefer permanent employment, particularly if their temporary jobs do not provide similar benefits, protections, stable work hours, and pay. These workers will want to transition out of temporary work as soon as they can. Yet if THS jobs continue to grow, the result could be a rise in "permatemps"—that is, workers who are stuck in temporary jobs—and a growing difficulty in moving from temporary to regular employment. Such workers will continue to face the challenges of being a part of the temporary workforce.

For more jobs data: Find the latest employment data in the AARP Public Policy Institute's (PPI) Employment Data Digest, PPI's monthly review of job trends for those ages 55 and over. Visit the AARP website's work and jobs section for articles on work and unemployment and job search resources.

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