Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A 'Permatemp' Economy: The Idea Of The Expendable Employee

According to the American Staffing Association, the U.S. temp industry has added more jobs than any other over the past three years.
According to the American Staffing Association, the U.S. temp industry has added more jobs than any other over the past three years.

As lawmakers in Washington debate job creation, and unemployment rates remain high, the temporary labor workforce continues to grow.

The temp industry has added more jobs than any other over the past three years, according to the American Staffing Association. Nearly 13 million people head to work as temporary and contract employees each year. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, sociologist Erin Hatton traces the evolution of the temp industry and argues that the model has given birth to an anti-worker ideology that must be eliminated.

"Many people have great experiences as temps," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "What I'm talking about here is this model of employment, the way we think about workers. ... There's this new model of employment where we think that every penny that we spend on a worker is a penny taken away from the bottom line."

Hatton traces the origins of the temporary help industry back to World War II, when temp agencies like Kelly Girls and Manpower were created mainly for secretarial labor. The industry really picked up in the 1970s when agencies started advertising campaigns that pushed the advantages of the temporary employee. A Kelly Girl ad from 1971 showcases "The Never-Never Girl" — a worker who never takes a vacation, asks for a raise or "costs you for fringe benefits."

"They started selling this new model of employment, this permatemp model of employment," Hatton says. "They started trying to convince employers to replace permanent employees with temporary employees."

Hatton, author of The Temp Economy: From Kelly Girls to Permatemps in Postwar America, worries that temp work is perpetuating the idea of the expendable employee.

"These kinds of permatemps — these long-term temporary workers — are, unfortunately, becoming more the norm than the exception," Hatton says. "So when things pick up ... could be tomorrow, but it really could be never."

Interview Highlights

On how temp agencies got around union opposition

"They developed, in fact, what was a really clever strategy. ... When the temporary help industry surfaced in the years after World War II, many people thought ... that perhaps they might take union jobs. But they got around that opposition by saying, no, no, no, we're not taking advantage of immigrant workers. We're not encroaching in on male jobs in the factories. We're just connecting housewives who are bored, who have nothing better to do. When their children go to school, they can come and work for us. And when their children come home, they'll be ready and waiting."

On the perceived efficiency of temporary workers

"If employers are looking for loyalty, well, you're not going to get them from temps. If they're looking for, perhaps, creativity or high productivity, you may not get them from temps either. But on the flip side, today you might, because there are growing numbers of temporary workers — long-term temporary workers — at companies who desperately hope to become permanent workers. And so they give it all they've got. ... They're extra creative. They're extra productive in the hopes of being converted to permanent status."

On the benefits of the temp industry

"When I talk about the problems of the permatemp economy, that's not to say that all temporary jobs are bad. In fact, for many workers, it works quite well. I know plenty of people who temp ... in their early 20s, out of college, didn't quite know what they wanted to do. They had fun, they temped, they made decent money, and it works just fine.

"Also in the IT world, a number of people can have the flexibility, make good money as a temp, and then work when — not work when they don't want. But for most people, this kind of job is all about insecurity, lower wages, instability and uncertainty."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.