Contingent: a nice name for precarious, underpaid work

Photo by photologue_np , published under Creative Commons license.

Photo by photologue_np , published under Creative Commons license.

Forty percent of U.S. workers are “contingent,” and, for most of us, that’s not good. Contingent means that you don’t have a “permanent jobs with a traditional employer-employee relationship.” So we are the self-employed (3.3 percent), part-time (16.2 percent), independent contractors (12.9 percent), contract workers (3.0 percent), on-call (3.5 percent), and agency temps (1.3 percent). I’ve been in all of those categories. It’s not pretty.

As a contingent worker, you usually don’t have health insurance, sick days or paid holidays or vacation. (Sure, take Christmas Eve off. In fact, take the whole week off, since our offices will be closed. Just don’t expect a paycheck. Merry Christmas!)

The Government Accountability Office just issued the results of a study of contingent employment, and Elaine Pofeldt published a good article about it at Forbes. The broadest contingent worker definition grew from 35.3 percent of the workforce in 2006 to 40.4 percent in 2010. The GAO said a smaller number of “core contingent workers” is the worst-off. These include agency temps, direct-hire temps, on-call workers, and day laborers, and they made up 7.9 percent of the workforce in 2010.

According to the GAO study:

“We found that compared to standard full-time workers, core contingent workers are more likely to be younger, Hispanic, have no high school degree, and have low family income. These contingent workers are also more likely than standard workers to experience job instability, and to be less satisfied with their benefits and employment arrangements than standard full-time workers. Because contingent work can be unstable, or may afford fewer worker protections depending on a worker’s particular employment arrangement, it tends to lead to lower earnings, fewer benefits, and a greater reliance on public assistance than standard work.”

Many of the characteristics of “core” contingent workers apply to the larger group of all contingent workers, regardless of their status.

  • Some independent contractors may be highly-paid consultants who can pick and choose from available jobs. Most are not so lucky — they are more likely to look like workers-without-benefits, hired by the job for pay as low as the market will bear.
  • Some self-employed workers own stable businesses that can pay them decent salaries and benefits. More are small businesses, like one or two-person landscaping and alley-plowing businesses, scrambling for jobs whenever and wherever they can find work.
  • Some part-time workers choose that schedule so they can spend time taking care of children or playing golf. More part-time workers have no alternative, and cobble together the hours that they can get, along with help from foodshelves and friends.

The GAO report is long and its data analysis complex. The bottom line, however, is that workers are hurting. We can and must take action to support workers in today’s uncertain and changing economic picture. Pofeldt poses the right questions at the end of her article:

“Do we revamp our social safety net to reflect the fact that so many million of Americans are untethered from employers who once provided security? Should we crack down on businesses that try to avoid paying a living wage or benefits through new legislation–or amp up enforcement of existing labor laws, even though they were created long before our current digital economy existed? Should we revamp our education system so all Americans are prepared for the reality that they’re nearly as likely to become free agents as to have a traditional job–and provide  more support and incentives for the self-employed?”

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