It used to be a gig for high schoolers. Like the ubiquitous summer job, picking up a few hours at a retail shop before the holidays was a quick and easy way to generate some extra income. This was, of course, before the most recent recession — when most adults were able to find steady, well-paying employment.
This report by the NC Justice Center shows that employers are making use of contingent employment to keep their costs low and profits high. Contingent (part-time, contracted, or temporary) workers are taking on roles that were traditionally filled by full-time salaried employees. This saves businesses money, as they are not obligated to pay into health, retirement, or workers compensation benefits and can often pay far less than the average wage for the same work.
We see this as a year-round problem in North Carolina, but as the holiday season looms, there is a spike in seasonal retail work. From pop-up Halloween stores to added personnel in malls, specialty shops, online merchants and package delivery, there is a swell in temporary employment.
This would seem to be ideal, as it is simultaneously the time of year when most families need that extra income. Heating and electric costs rise, and gift and food purchasing for holiday celebrations is the “polite” and “right” thing to do.
Often these “temporary” positions stretch far past the initial holiday period. Many workers continue on in full-time roles after the season ends, but remain categorized as contract employees. This allows employers to skirt tax and labor laws, and makes it difficult for workers to build retirement funds.
As we continue to struggle to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, we need to be focusing on long-term solutions, rather than quick-fixes. The challenge is that many families rely on contract work to put food on the table. For those trapped in the cycle of low-wage work, simply opting-out is not a reality.
Change must come from lawmakers and public pressure for corporate accountability. To that end, the NC Justice Center issues these recommendations:
- Forbid public contracts from using contingent workers. Public contracts funded by government money should include restrictions on using temp workers and sub-contractors and ensure that all public contractors pay their workers a living wage.
- Rein in the over-use of temp workers. Adopt policies that discourage companies from using temps as a means to evade legal responsibilities.
- Explicitly impose joint liability to prevent workplace abuses. Ensure that labor intermediaries comply with all workplace laws.
- Enforce wage and hour laws in contingent employment arrangements. The NC Department of Labor should issue guidance about who is liable for wage violations, and be more strategic about targeting its resources to industries known for labor violations.
- Enact policies that provide contingent workers with outside supports and benefits that are mostly available through standard, full-time work, including raising the minimum wage. These include paid sick days, access to pensions, health insurance, and pathways for career advancement.