"Kelly Girl Strategy" Undermined Employment Standards for All, Helped Create the Economic Mess We're In Today

Deliberate, aggressive campaign by temp industry changed the meaning of work in America

Release Date: December 15, 2008


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A UB employment sociologist says the temporary employment industry has contributed to the current economic crisis.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo labor and employment sociologist says before we can resolve the economic crisis, we need to understand how we got into it, then get out and stay out.

Erin Hatton, Ph.D., visiting professor of sociology at UB, says there's plenty of blame to go around, but she points her finger directly at the temporary employment industry.

"For 50 years, the temporary employment industry -- now one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy -- has deliberately and strenuously worked against government regulators, unions and public opinion to divest business of its investment in permanent employees," she says.

"In doing so, it has helped change the very meaning of work in America, undermining employment standards for all workers."

Hatton says her work illuminates one of the paths that brought us to the point of economic collapse: a path along which workers became commodities and work became abstracted from the workplace.

"If we understand this," she says, "we can also grasp such things as how real home mortgages could become default swap mirages. My research offers a diagnosis of the problem and describes how something like this could happen. It also offers a prescription for change that will keep us out of this mess in the future.

"Perhaps surprisingly to some," Hatton says, "it was the 'Kelly Girl' -- the bright-eyed, white-gloved icon of the post-war temp industry -- that helped undo the traditional employment relationship based on a long-term agreement between employer and employee."

As advertised, the Kelly Girl -- despite her low pay, lack of job security or employment benefits -- was possessed of a ubiquitous smile and an eagerness to please. She was, in temp parlance, the ideal employee.

Hatton says most observers think the emergence of the temp industry after World War II was a natural response to such structural changes in the economy as globalization and deindustrialization, but she says that is not the case.

"Although the temp industry itself fosters this view, the industry was never driven by the market alone," she says

"Leaders of the temp industry developed and aggressively marketed a 'no strings attached' model of work in which permanent employees -- with their job security, health benefits and vacation days -- were considered a drain on the bottom line," she says.

"To reduce this profit drain, industry leaders sold owners on the idea of replacing permanent employees with temps," Hatton says.

"Not only that, they taught employers how to do this by, for example, shifting permanent employees to the payrolls of temp agencies or by outsourcing whole departments -- like the mailroom -- to a temp agency."

She points out that this didn't happen in the 1990s, but in the 1960s and '70s, long before these strategies had become what they are now, a normal way of operating in the business world.

"Because that 'standard' long-term employment agreement was only promised to certain workers -- that is, white men -- the temp industry could easily gain entry into the labor market by selling temporary work as 'women's work,'" she says. So they did.

"Although temp industry employed substantial numbers of men," says Hatton, "early industry leaders sold temp work -- using the 'Kelly Girl' icon -- as perfect for white, middle-class housewives 'with a little extra time on their hands.'"

In so doing, she says the industry established an entirely new category of work -- at once 'respectable' (white, middle class) and 'marginal' (part time, low paid, no benefits, expendable).

"Later, as the temp industry expanded across the labor market beyond the pink-collar sector to include factory workers, engineers, doctors, lawyers and even CEOS," Hatton says, "the temp industry's model of work helped undermine employment standards for all workers, including those once protected by the traditional standard."

Hatton's research focuses on work, poverty and public policy, including topics such as the changing nature of employment, the modern strikebreaking industry and businesses that profit off of the poor. She is the co-author of "The Coffee Pot Wars: Unions and Firm Restructuring in the Hotel Industry," in Low-Wage America: How Employers are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace (2003, Russell Sage Foundation). The title of her forthcoming book is The Temp Industry and the Transformation of Work in America since World War II (Temple University Press).

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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