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GAO Report: Contingent Workers Not Guaranteed Safe and Healthy Workplaces

Public Protections

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that contingent workers earn lower pay, receive fewer benefits, have less job security, and may be at greater risk of on-the-job injuries compared to standard employees. 

While there is no official definition of “contingent workers,” according to GAO, labor experts generally agree that it includes workers with variable schedules and without job security, such as temporary workers, day laborers, and on-call workers.  Although some in the labor movement would define contingent workers more broadly to include self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and part-time employees, GAO chose to base its findings on the narrower group, which it describes as the “core contingent workforce.” 

GAO found that, in 2010, core contingent workers made up 7.9 percent of all employed workers.  Applying the broadest definition, GAO’s estimate grew to 40.4 percent.  Regardless of the definition applied, when compared to 2005 and 2006, GAO’s estimates reveal that the contingent workforce in the U.S. is growing larger every year.  This emerging trend in the labor market is not only reshaping our traditional understanding of the employer-employment relationship, but it is also bringing new challenges to protecting workers’ health and safety. 

While employers might choose to hire temporary staff over permanent, full-time employees for many reasons, there is no good reason for denying contingent workers the same health and safety protections as provided to all other employees.  Yet some scofflaw employers choose not to provide safety training to day laborers and temporary workers, disregarding the substantial risk of harm to their employees in hopes of saving a few dollars for themselves. 

For many temporary jobs, a staffing agency takes on the cost of workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, which removes the cost-incentive for employers to keep workers safe or to keep an injured worker on staff while they recover.  When work-related injuries occur, contingent workers may be fired and find it difficult to find new jobs.  Thus, it is not surprising that GAO found the lack of protections afforded to contingent workers results in a greater reliance on public assistance than standard work. 

As disheartening as this is, the Center for Progressive Reform’s white paper, At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions proposes several recommendations that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Congress could implement in the short-term to begin addressing these challenges. 

The good news is that OSHA has acknowledged the problem and taken some action to address it.  OSHA has emphasized that staffing agencies and host employers are jointly responsible for the health and safety of temporary workers.  The agency has also directed regional safety and health officials to document as part of their inspections the presence of temporary workers and whether they are working in unsafe or unhealthy conditions.

Moving forward, OSHA could also develop ergonomics standards for industries in which contingent workers suffer high rates of musculoskeletal disorders, reform its Voluntary Protection Program to discourage firms from using large numbers of contingent workers, promote educational, easily accessible informational resources for contingent workers, as well as enhance the foreign language capabilities of agency staff.  From the enforcement side, the white paper recommends that OSHA conduct “sweeps” of industries with the largest contingent workforce and impose enhanced penalties on employers who fail to accommodate contingent employees in their health and safety programs. 

Congress could also take action to update the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).  The authors of the CPR white paper recommend that Congress amend the law to allow any person to file suit against another person who violates the statute or its implementing regulations.  However, partisan gridlock in both chambers of Congress makes it unlikely we will see legislation modernizing the outdated statute anytime soon.

All workers—permanent or contingent—should be able to go to work knowing they will make it home to their loved ones at the end of the day without injury or illness.  Since the OSH Act became law in 1970, worker injuries, illnesses, and deaths have declined every year, but for this trend to continue, our worker health and safety laws and regulations must reflect the evolving employer-employee relationship as well as the evolving hazards in the American workplace.  With this latest GAO report confirming the trend toward using contingent workers and against providing them with the benefits and protections they deserve, hopefully OSHA and Congress will step up to the task.


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