Contingent Workers in a Changing Economy: Endure, Adapt, or Organize


A growing portion of America’s working poor are “contingent” workers: the disposable, part-time, and temporary labor force that comprises as much as thirty percent of American workers. Contingent workers encounter a wide array of problems as a result of their contingent status: their employers may fail to take responsibility for payment of social security, minimum wages, or workers’ compensation benefits; their lack of job security may facilitate sexual or racial harassment by employers or co-workers; or their short-term worksites may fail to comply with basic health and safety standards. These problems are largely due to the fact that contingent laborers often lack vital job protections that Congress and employers have extended over the last sixty years. Such protections include federally-mandated programs like social security, minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA),and workers’ compensation; standard employee benefits like health insurance, sick leave, and a pension; and federal antidiscrimination and family leave provisions.

The trend toward using temporary labor has permeated every type of working environment. Different groups have very different needs and legal problems related to their status as temporary and expendable. Thus, the nature of the contingent workplace relationship varies for those working for low-cost contractors, for those who are themselves classified – albeit unwillingly – as independent contractors, for part-time workers, and for temporary workers. However, all of these groups of employees share a common vulnerability under current labor and employment law.

Businesses in every facet of production are increasingly “outsourcing”elements of their operations to low-cost contractors who cut corners to compete. As firms contract out more and more work, they transfer legal responsibility for the employees ultimately doing the work to subcontractors farther down the line. The result for workers in the garment, electron-ics, and janitorial industries (to name just a few notorious offenders) maybe weeks or months of work for bottom-rung contractors who evade legal requirements and then shut down, move, or declare bankruptcy, leaving workers unpaid or injured due to illegal working conditions. Where such workers are classified as independent contractors and therefore not covered by protective legislation, or where their temporary status leaves them outside the traditional employer/employee relationship on which much of federal and state employment law is based, they are likely to be without legal recourse.

Suggested Reading

From the 2016 Symposium: Dishwashers, Domestic Workers, and Day Laborers: Can Alternative Organizing Revive the Labor Movement? Panel II: Friend or Foe: Labor Law and Non-Union Workers March 25, 2016 Wilma B. Liebman[1]             Is the Depression-era National Labor Relations