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Report: Temp workers struggle in a ‘two-tiered workforce with a permanent underclass’ – USA TODAY

Despite a recent victory for temp and contract tech workers unionizing, there are still too many hurdles for other temp workers to overcome to gain permanent employment in the industry. 

That’s according to a report, “Temps in Tech: How Big Tech’s Use of Temp Labor Degrades Job Quality and Locks Workers Out of Permanent, Stable Jobs,” by the nonprofits National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Temp Worker Justice

The report released this month informally polled workers who have been employed by a temp agency or other contract firm to perform work for a tech company during a two-year period.

“It’s a system that entices workers with the lead tech company’s prestige, perks of a ‘cool’ work environment, and illusions of high pay while shifting responsibility to lesser-known subcontractors that become the worker’s employer on paper,” the report said. “The result is a two-tiered workforce with a permanent underclass that has fewer rights and less power.”

That’s been an ongoing issue with minimal resolution in sight, said Ron Hira, a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute. He said while the report is “vital and consistent” with his longtime research, it just scratches the surface of the issues involving temporary and contracted workers in tech.

“This report is important because it sheds light on the actual employment situation for most technology workers, which is much worse than what most people, including reporters and policymakers, believe to be the case,” Hira said. “There’s a large gap between what people’s impression of the technology labor market versus its true state.”

Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco, agrees. She said her research shows that many temp and contract workers in tech, especially those who live in big metropolitan areas like the Bay Area, Boston, and Seattle, often struggle to make ends meet.

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The report said that most of the workers surveyed earn less than $62,400, well below the median annual wage of $88,240 for those in computer and information technology jobs. 

“For some of them, it’s just hard to pay rent, put food on the table with the money they’re bringing home even though they are doing the same work as full-time employees,” Dubal said. “They struggle being consumers in an economy that the government  desperately wants to take off.”

The Temps in Tech report comes more than two weeks after a group of Pittsburgh-based unionized tech workers ratified a three-year contract with HCL Technologies, a consulting company that staffs the workers for tech giant Google.

The new deal also arrives two years after the Pittsburgh tech workers voted to join the United Steelworkers Union and about seven months after more than 200 Google engineers and other workers formed a dues-paying organized group called the Alphabet Workers Union that’s affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), with members within the media and telecoms. 

Google has not commented on the Pittsburgh ratification. Still, when the HCL workers joined the union, the company said, “whether HCL’s employees unionize or not is between them and their employer. We’ll continue to partner with HCL.” The company made a similar statement about the Alphabet Workers Union in January. 

While the ratification in Pittsburgh is considered a major win for workers, more work needs to be done for all temporary workers in the industry, said Ben Gwin, an HCL worker who co-authored the Temps in Tech report. 

“We are really lucky and fortunate to be unionized,” Gwin said. “This was a tough process of organizing and negotiating. Hopefully, this will improve our situation, and others can use what we did as a blueprint.”

However, Gwin knows it will not be easy for other temp workers seeking to organize and get a collective bargaining deal.

“We’re hoping this report brings attention to the big goal about the conditions of contractors and temp workers,” Gwin said. “Hopefully, there can be legislation to improve the labor laws and make it easier for workers to organize.”

Hira also disputed the misperception that there’s a shortage of technology workers, and as a result, those workers have their pick of jobs, can demand high wages and luxurious working conditions. 

“The (tech) companies themselves have played an aggressive role in creating the false version of the technology labor market,” Hira said. “It is so difficult to break through with the truth because the misperception of widespread labor shortages has become a truism for most people.”

Joint employer liability where both tech companies and intermediaries such as temp staffing agencies are responsible for their workers’ working conditions, said the report. Among the changes, the report recommends temp tech and contract workers should be paid the same as permanent employees performing similar work. The report also suggests the workers and joint employers be at the bargaining table during union negotiations.

Additionally, the report recommends staffing agencies should be more transparent with temp and contract workers about the terms and conditions, including the length of the assignment, the difference in what a temp or contracted worker makes compared to a full-time employee as well as the actual odds of temps getting a permanent job.    

And, the report recommends more clarity on terms that allow temp workers to seek permanent job opportunities within the company or get a job with a competing company. The report also suggests that temp agencies be required to keep records about each temp worker assignment, including its length, pay, and hours, and placement, including demographic information and length of employment.

The report said this type of recordkeeping could “shine a light on discriminatory and abusive practices.”