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Part-time workers face full-time problems

Maybe someday we will run across pickets with signs proclaiming, "Economic justice for permatemps," or "Unfair: Contract workers need pensions."

Well, maybe not. But there is growing concern over whether American business is being fair to its growing army of non-staff workers. There were 32.8 million people with nonstandard jobs in 1997, the latest government data show.

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These are temps, 20 million part-time workers, contract workers, on-call workers, day laborers, independent contractors, and so on.

Economists sometimes call these people the "contingent" labor force. They provide business with greater flexibility in meeting staff needs, often at lower cost. Those cost savings, however, can come out of the hide of those taking these nonstandard jobs.

A tendency to exploit these workers is getting greater attention nowadays. Here are some examples:

*Members of Congress are popping bills into the legislative hopper to change the rules for these workers.

Last week, for example, Rep. Lane Evans, (D) of Illinois, introduced two bills to provide greater protection for "permatemps" - those "temporary" workers who work full time and long term for companies but are excluded from benefits offered full-time staff employees.

"Employers are using the back door to deny benefits to employees and treat them as second-class citizens," says Mr. Evans. His legislation would apply health and safety laws to temps and prevent discrimination in pay.

*Employees are seeking remedies from the courts. Last week, nine current and former temporary workers sued Atlantic Richfield Co. They accused the Los Angeles oil company of misclassifying employees to avoid paying benefits during the last 10 years.

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Another class-action suit has been won by permatemps at Microsoft. The Seattle-based software giant lost its latest appeal of a seven-year-old lawsuit. On June 24, the ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Microsoft's request that the court reconsider a May ruling that gave its temp workers the right to buy stock at the same 15 percent discount offered regular employees.

*Public policy analysts are proposing reforms. The latest report, by 2030 Center in Washington, examines a trend many parents may have noticed. Not all their sons and daughters are getting a regular job. They work for temp agencies or find other nonstandard work.

Overall, more than 1 in every 4 young workers (age 20 to 34) do not have a permanent, full-time job.

"While some people clearly enjoy their temporary work arrangement because it provides them with flexibility and control of their own work, for the vast majority of people temporary work provides a substandard job," writes economist Helena Jorgensen. The problem is that temp work, more often than not, provides lower wages, fewer benefits, and no effective way to win collective bargaining rights. Though temp workers are covered by minimum wage and overtime rules, these provisions don't cover independent contractors. The current labor shortage in the US has stopped the growth of part-time, temp, and other nonstandard jobs. Workers can more easily find regular work. But any slowdown will likely revive the trend.

So it's time to end the unfair advantages that temp workers give their employers in a competitive environment. Flexibility in the job market is highly desirable. But there should be rules to require fairness.

Mr. Evan's bills require comparable benefits for permatemps after about six months of employment. The danger in such a law is that firms would lay off temps in their fifth month. Aware of this risk, Ms. Jorgensen suggests making both the temp agency and client company "joint employers" of temps. This would bring the temps under a host of labor laws.

There are ways to help contingent workers escape exploitation.

*David R. Francis is the Monitor's senior economic correspondent.

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