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 work force. 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 work force.”
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 Barry Staff, 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, Michelle Back of Bellefontaine, 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.”