temporary worker

temporary worker

temporary worker, an employee, hired through a specialized employment agency, who generally works less than a year on one assignment, regardless of the number of hours worked per week. Temporary workers (also called "contingency staffing" or "temps") are utilized to accommodate fluctuations in labor requirements. While these workers may have full-time positions with companies, they are paid by private employment agencies. Such agencies recruit, train, and place temporary staff, and the companies using the temporary workers pay fees to the agencies. Because these workers receive job-specific training, many of these jobs can eventually lead to permanent staff positions.

Temporary services grew from 0.6% of the U.S. workforce in 1982 to 2.7% in 1998, by which time it had become a $60 billion industry; in 1999, about 2.9 million people were working in temporary jobs. Substantial growth in the use of temporary workers began in the late 1980s when changes in federal tax laws forced many employers to reclassify independent contractors as full-time employees, with the result that those firms owed large amounts of payroll taxes from previous years. As a consequence, companies instead began to use temporary workers placed by (and paid by) agencies. In addition, some corporations have laid off large numbers of employees (downsized) and then hired replacement workers through agencies; because temporary workers do not get benefits from the corporation, there is a cost savings to the firm. (Some agencies, however, provide benefits such as health insurance and vacation to the workers they place.) Controversy about benefits developed in the 1990s, when large companies such as Microsoft used temporary workers for long-term, multiyear projects but did not offer them benefits such as stock options. Several class-action lawsuits and federal decisions required Microsoft to offer back benefits to many of these workers.

See R. S. Belous, The Contingent Economy: The Growth of the Temporary, Part-time, and Subcontracted Workforce (1989); K. D. Henson, Just a Temp (1996).

Temporary work or temporary employment refers to a situation where the employee is expected to leave the employer within a certain period of time. Temporary employees are sometimes called "contractual" or "seasonal" or "freelance" or "temps." Agricultural workers are often temporarily employed for harvesting. In some instances, temporary professional employees (particularly in the white collar fields, such as law, engineering, and accounting) even refer to themselves as "consultants." This is not to be confused with management consultants who are salaried employees of major consulting firms (e.g. McKinsey & Company, The Boston Consulting Group).

They may work full-time or part-time, depending on the individual case. In some instances, they are given benefits (such as health insurance), but usually the best treatment is reserved for the permanent employees. It is important to note that not all temporary employees find jobs through a temporary Employment agency. For example, a person can simply apply at a local park for seasonal jobs.

A temporary work agency, or temp agency or temporary staffing firm finds and retains workers. Other companies, in need of short-term workers, contract with the temp agency to send temporary workers, or temps, on assignment to work at the other companies. Temporary employees are also used in work that has a cyclical nature that requires frequent adjustment of staffing levels.

Temporary agencies

A temporary agency may be distinct from a recruitment firm, which seeks to place permanent employees, but there is often a large overlap: a permanent employee may start out as a "try-before-you-buy" trial temporary worker.

Many temporary agencies specialize in a particular profession or field of business, such as general industrial labor, accounting, health care, technical or secretarial. Some even "specialize" in odd-jobs. Because of the added level of communication between the employer (worksite) and the temporary agency and then finally to the agency's employee these short-term roles can be miscommunicated and cancelled on a whim. The employer (worksite) is paying for a service and can decide to stop that service (labor/skills) at any time.

A temporary agency may have a standard set of tests to judge the competence of the secretarial or clerical skills of an applicant. An applicant is hired based on their scores on these tests, and is placed into a database. Companies or individuals looking to hire someone temporarily contact the agency and describe the skill set they are seeking. A temporary employee is then found in the database and is contacted to see if they would be interested in taking the assignment.

Temporary workers

When a temporary employee agrees to take on an assignment, he or she receives instructions pertaining to the job. Information is provided on the correct attire to wear, hours of work, the wage to be paid, and who to report to upon arriving. If a temporary employee arrives at a job assignment and is asked to perform duties not described to him or her when accepting the job, he or she is expected to call the agency and speak with a representative. If he or she then chooses not to continue on the assignment based on these discrepancies, they will most likely be subject to loss of pay and will undermine their chances of job opportunities. However, some agencies will guarantee an employee a certain number of hours pay if, once the temporary employee arrives, there is no work or the work isn't as described. Most agencies will not require an employee to continue work if the discrepancies are enough to make it difficult for the employee to actually do the work.

It is up to the temporary employee to keep in constant contact with the agency when not currently working on an assignment; by letting the agency know that they are available to work they are given priority over those who may be in the agency database who have not made it clear that they are ready and willing to take an assignment. A temporary agency employee is the exclusive employee of the agency, not of the company in which they are placed (although subject to legal dispute). The temporary employee is bound by the rules and regulations of their direct employer, even if they contrast with those of the company in which they are placed. For example, if a temporary employee is asked by the company in which they are placed to lift a heavy box, they may respond "I am sorry, my agency does not allow me to perform that task. I wish I could help. Please feel free to contact my supervisor there for more information."

Temporary employees are in a constant state of employment flux because they are never guaranteed consistent employment, nor are they assured of a solid start or finish date for their assignment. A temporary employee's assignment can be ended at any time, even in the middle of its projected time frame, without explanation. This causes potential turbulence in cases of discrimination, which is usually handled internally between the employee and the agency.


The classic permatemp situation results when a worker classified as "temporary" works alongside regular employees doing similar work for a long period. By claiming that the employee is only temporary, the worksite company avoids paying for benefits and employer taxes. Benefits and taxes, such as social security, typically are 33% of the employee's pay. For example, if you made 30k per year as a permanent employee (aka with benefits), approximately 10k would be paid for your health insurance, retirement, employer payroll taxes, etc (in some states sales tax is even paid by the worksite, as the temporary employee's "labor" is considered a sold good). Typically at least that 10k is paid to the temporary agency, who provides little to no benefits to their employee. The worksite company also tangentially benefits because it has no responsibility to the employee — permatemp employees can be fired or laid off at any time, as they have no career service protection or seniority. Temporary employees are often ineligible to apply for jobs open to regular employees.

Pros and cons

Advantages to those seeking employment from a temp agency are:

  • Easy hire: Those meeting technical requirements for the type of work are often virtually guaranteed a job without a selection process.
  • Flexible hours; a choice of which shifts to work; the ability to take off for weekends, holidays, vacations, personal appointments, or for any other reason of choice, or to work on such days for additional pay
  • Pay rates are often higher than the customary wages in a comparable permanent position
  • The likelihood of getting fired is lower than in a permanent position, though a client of the agency can make a request for the temporary worker not to return, even for a minor infraction

Drawbacks to temp agencies are as follows:

  • Many temp agencies do not offer any type of benefits, such as health insurance. Benefits package is usually 30 to 40 percent of a permanent's employee base income.
  • Temp to hire positions have been known to have high turn over rates.

In some temp agencies, workers are considered self-employed independent contractors, who have a status similar to those running their own businesses.

  • Reduced liability protection: With independent contractor status, contractors are required to carry liability insurance or else can be held accountable in a negligence lawsuit when an error results in damage.
  • Lack of reference: Many employers of experienced job positions do not consider work done for a temporary agency as sufficient on a resume.


Temp agencies have been involved in some legal controversies, often pertaining to the trust of workers who have been screened little if at all for a position requiring high security clearance.

For example, in 2004, prior to the election some voter registration applications for Democrats were found to be discarded in a trash bin outside of the office. According to the local board of elections, a temp agency was hired to process these applications

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