Christino Jackson Jr. has had steady work for the past seven years — mostly as a temp.
Jobs working construction, building fences, or helping plumbers and electricians — all for a temporary help agency — have meant stability for the 36-year-old Baltimore resident.
"I know that I'm going to have work," said Jackson, an employee of Just Temps who is trained as a mason and currently is working on a residential rehabilitation project along North Calvert and St. Paul streets. "I've learned basically every trade out there. I'm working every day. It helps you in the long run as far as gaining more skills and working different jobs."
Employers seeking hiring flexibility have pushed temporary jobs to an all-time high of 2.8 million, or 2 percent of the workforce, according to a report released this month by the National Employment Law Project. More than 12 million workers flowed in and out of staffing agencies last year, and the temp industry is expected to be one of the fastest-growing sectors over the next decade.
In the Baltimore metro area, "temporary employment services are a growing component of the labor force, but it's also true that [the region] is adding other jobs as well," said Gary Keith, regional economist for M&T; Bank. "It's still a part of the management tool kit that many companies employ to be flexible, and flexibility is the name of the game right now in terms of getting through a sluggish economy."
In the region, the number of private-sector temporary employment services jobs rose nearly 7 percent to 31,800 in the 12 months ending in July, Keith said.
The growth in temporary work has been accompanied by a shift in the nature of the jobs, from largely clerical to largely industrial, according to the Law Project's report. Jobs in transportation, and moving and production of goods, now account for 42 percent of the temp industry.
The study argues that the shift is creating a multi-tiered employment structure that puts downward pressure on the agencies competing for contracts, leading in turn to cuts in wages and safety. Median hourly wages of staffing workers are 22 percent lower than wages of all private-sector workers, the report said.
"Companies are increasingly exercising huge control over their workforce, but they are farming out the business of being an employer to sometimes a whole chain of labor intermediaries," said Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the Washington-based organization. "That trend is having an ill effect to the workers on the bottom.
"We're seeing the staffing industry playing that intermediary role not just in short-term jobs in office buildings but longer-term jobs in factories and warehouses … jobs that are far more dangerous than the jobs that the traditional Kelly Girl worked in decades ago," she said.
The entire employment services industry, made up of staffing agencies, employer organizations and employment placement agencies, represents 2.5 percent of all jobs, up from 1.4 percent nearly 25 years ago, the Law Project found.
As companies have needed to increase the ranks of construction and warehouse workers over the past year and a half, many are turning to agencies such as Baltimore-based Just Temps. Companies use staffing firms to avoid recruiting and pre-hiring costs for hard-to-find skills or high-turnover jobs, says Bob Guiney, president of the regional company, which specializes in industrial labor, manufacturing, construction and distribution.
"My clients are telling me it's still difficult to attract [workers], and they're using companies like us and can save a lot of money," said Guiney, who said the company has been growing about 25 percent a year. "Most of the people who work for us are looking for permanent jobs. If they come here, they can get a chance, if they prove themselves, to get one."
Other employees are seeking job flexibility or a chance to earn extra money outside a regular job, Guiney said. Some "want to go on different projects. They enjoy the flexibility of going out and doing something different."
At technology staffing company Kavaliro, some of the firm's best-qualified employees get multiple offers for temporary jobs, said Suresh Raj, an executive vice president who oversees a region including Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia. The company has seen a big increase in hiring this year.
"The commercial sector is really hiring a lot, and it's hard [for employers] to find the right skills," Raj said. "It is easier for companies to bring temporary contract staff into their shops to fulfill the needs for projects."
The firm, which offers benefits, attracts employees who "know they're going for a year or a year and a half, then can go to a new company and get new skills and fresh technology. They're more marketable when they work with multiple companies and multiple projects."
In the second quarter of this year, staffing companies in the United States employed an average of 3.15 million temporary and contract workers per week, a 5.6 percent increase from the same period last year, according to data released Thursday by the American Staffing Association.
Businesses say they can more easily ride out the ups and downs of business cycles with temporary workers, but in Smith's view, "it's another way of treating workers like any other input to be acquired at the cheapest cost you can. The advantages for companies are to divest themselves of any responsibilities of an employer while at the same time exerting substantial control over how workers do the work for your company and how they're paid for the work."
Some workers can be afraid to complain about problems or injuries because their position is so tenuous and they need the work, Smith said.
Luis Larin worked in temporary jobs for years before becoming a leader with Baltimore-based United Workers, which advocates for and helps organize low-wage workers. In 2005, he worked for a temp agency on a cleaning crew at Camden Yards, where the day laborers typically made no more than $7 per hour and brought home less than that after having to pay for van transportation to the stadium.
"If you were needed to work at 10 p.m., you had to show up at 5 or 6 and you don't get paid" for that time, he said. "You were waiting and hoping to get a job. Day by day, you never knew how much money you were going to make or what kind of job you were going to do. If they are not happy, you won't have a job tomorrow."
At other times, he worked in factories in the city for $6.50 or $7 an hour, including one where he said he used chemicals to clean metal parts but wasn't given protective gear. He stayed because, he said, "it was really difficult to find jobs."
In 2007, United Workers won a campaign to improve pay for temporary workers at Camden Yards. But elsewhere in the Baltimore area, temp workers from low-income communities still struggle with low hourly pay, no benefits and no security.
"People are still making the same amount of money under the same or worse conditions," Larin said. "That is still a problem."
Smith, one of the authors of the Law Project report, said employers that use temporary firms need to take responsibility for the actions of staffing firms and effects on workers, some of whom have begun to organize to improve pay and health an safety conditions.
"The companies at the top need to ensure that the wage and hour laws are complied with, that workers have the ability to organize, that health and safety is protected," she said. "The companies at the top control what the companies in the middle do and how they do it."
But many temp workers don't feel exploited and welcome the opportunity for any work.
"The temporary agency is really good for people who don't have a job at the moment," said Jackson, who does construction work for Just Temps.
He said he's never felt treated unfairly as a temporary employee and on occasion has found jobs that pay as high as $20 an hour.
"I don't get treated badly on these jobs," he said. "When I go on a job … I do my best to have a great attitude. I know that I'm going to have work."