By Phil La Duke
I spent the month of October at two different conferences, the National Safety Council in Atlanta and EHS Today’s Leadership Conference and of the several themes to emerge one could not have come through more strongly: OSHA is taking a hard stand on the safety of temporary workers. Temporary, lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent; transient; not made to last; single use, disposable.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability 40.4% of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers—temps, contractors, or other workers whose job status is shaky at best. There’s a tendency among many to think of “temps” as worth less to society than the stalwarts who pay mortgages, own homes, and grind it out forty-plus hours (when exactly did we lose the 40-hour work week? When did putting in an honest week’s work become the mark of a disgraceful slacker who shows neither ambition or loyalty to the company?) to buy some meager measure of security.
I’ve never worked as a temp. I’ve worked as a “contractor” which was just a euphemism for a guy who works of the books, beyond the protection of the authorities; an outlaw in the purest sense—not protected by the law and no longer a part of the tribe, peripheral to society. Get injured on the job? Screw you. Die because in addition to paying workers “under the table” the people who hire these workers take dangerous shortcuts? Tough crap. Working in a job like that changes you; it shapes your perception of who you are. Treated like a commodity to be used up and thrown away makes you try extra hard to show yourself and those around you that you DO matter. You over compensate and cop an attitude, but do that work long enough and you start to believe they’re right, that you don’t matter, that you aren’t going anyplace or anywhere that you will spend the rest of your life drifting along the bottom of life.
So why did I do it? It was 1988 and I had been out of work for over a year. People remember Ronald Regan as this great political hero, but I remember a different 1980’s. For me, in Detroit life, was bleak. When I caught the break of a lifetime and got a job working the line at a doomed GM plant I wasn’t worried; even though the plant I got a job had a clear and irrevocable death sentence (the antiquated facility was slated to close in less than five years as the work was being moved to the modern and more efficient Detroit Hamtramck “Poletown” plant) I wasn’t concerned. I was in the GM system, I might be laid off for awhile but I would get picked up somewhere in the system. I hadn’t counted on General Motors closing 15 plants and laying off 50,000 other workers. A year later I moved out of my rental home, and I was living in the upstairs of my brother’s ancient and decaying farmhouse. I had a baby and a wife. Loss doesn’t come all at once, life takes things away from you a little at a time; I gave up my independence,, my marriage was evaporating under the strain, and finally my pride. I signed up for focus hope and was able to get government cheese, dry beans, canned meat that I swear I never could learn to choke down. I didn’t qualify for any government assistance because I wasn’t 6 months behind in my bills and they wouldn’t even give me food stamps because I shared a kitchen with my brother and heaven forbid he might eat food allotted for me and my family. Better for all of us to starve I guess, but I wasn’t bitter (and ma not bitter now) those were just the rules and one thing you learn quick when you are living at the bottom is the rules and how to exploit them. I joined a program, a Christian co-op where members of some church would “sponsor” you and I could go to a special store where I could buy expired (past their pull dates) food at a discount on the condition that I attend meetings to “learn about Jesus” despite having been raised in a Christian household and despite everything was still a practicing Catholic. It was miserable but it put food on the table. Eventually, the grocery store shut the practice down (selling that food even to the poor and the desperate) was illegal; and even though I never liked that scene I had to do what I had to do. Nobody, not my family or even my closest friends, ever knew how bad it was I was able to keep up some semblance of appearances; I would keep that for as long as I could. When my soon to be ex-wife’s family offered me work off the books I jumped at it. The work was tearing out stores in malls so that new stores could be built in their places. There was no training, no PPE, no JSAs, and most of all no social security cards (but I declared the money I earned anyway—I wasn’t likely to earn all that much so taxes weren’t that much of a concern, even though unemployment pay is taxed). It was that environment that turned me into a permament hire and my life and my safety was worth no less then than it it is today
My daughter worked as a recruiter in a Temp Agency and has told me enough stories for me to realize that a lot of temp workers are temps for a reason. From the stripper who refused to provide anything beyond her stage name to the parade of screw ups who showed up drunk or didn’t show up at all. But there are other stories as well, stories of people who are looking to find their one true passion or their live’s work, stories of free spirits who want to work in an office one day and a warehouse the next, stories of empty nesters looking to return to the workforce, and stories of college grads getting work experience until the jobs they were promised materialize.
OSHA isn’t coming for the kind of companies that I worked for, and they aren’t coming for the temporary agencies, they are coming for coming for the companies who hire temps and treat them as industrial cannon fodder; if, that is, they come at all.