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December 1989, Vol. 112, No. 12
On the definition of "contingent work"
Anne E. Polivka and Thomas Nardone
In the 1980's, the American economy produced the longest peacetime expansion of the post-World War II era. During this expansion, employment increased by about 20 million and unemployment reached its lowest level in 15 years. While labor market prospects for many American workers undoubtedly improved, the work arrangements of some individuals may have fundamentally changed.
During the 1980's, firms have strived to gain greater control over their labor costs by seeking to quickly adjust the size of their work force in response to changing market conditions.1 A perception exists that firms are relying more heavily on part-time and temporary workers and contracting out for services previously performed in-house. These flexible arrangements, along with other arrangements that do not involve full-time wage and salary workers, have come to be referred to by labor market analysts as "contingent work."
Analysts of the effects of contingent staffing methods on the American workplace have reached various conclusions. Some analysts view the flexibility provided by contingent arrangements as necessary to meet variable market conditions and changing demographics.2 Many other analysts, however, have concluded that contingent staffing methods have detrimental effects for both employees and employers. Some researchers cite the possible erosion of pay, decline in benefits, loss of job security, inability to obtain on-the-job training, and lack of access to advancement resulting from contingent arrangements as indications of the weakening position of the American worker.3 Others suggest that the lack of loyalty among contingent workers to their employers could hurt productivity and product quality.4 Unfortunately, a careful examination of these issues has been hampered by the lack of an established definition of contingent work.
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1 Reasons firms have sought greater control of labor costs include the severe recessions of the early 1980's, the rise in international competition in many manufacturing industries, and the deregulation of domestic transportation, communication, and finance industries. See Audrey Freedman, "How the 1980's have changed industrial relations," Monthly Labor Review, May 1988, pp. 35-38; and Roberta V. McKay, "International Competition: Its Impact on Employment," in Flexible Workstyles: A Look at Contingent Labor (U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, 1988), pp. 23-28.
2 Richard S. Belous, "How human resource systems adjust to the shift toward contingent workers," Monthly Labor Review, March 1989, pp. 7-12.
3 Testimony of Rodger Dillon before the Committee on Government Operations, U.S. House of Representatives, Rising Use of Part-time and Temporary Workers: Who Benefits and Who Loses? (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), pp. 116-38 Kathleen Christensen, "Women's Labor Force Attachment: Rise of Contingent Work," in Flexible Workstyles, pp. 76-82; and Marcia Freedman, "Shifts in Labor Market Structure and Patterns of Occupational Training," in Flexible Workstyles, pp. 65-68.
4 Joani Nelson-Horchler, "The Trouble with Temps," Industry Week, Dec. 14, 1987, pp. 53-57; and testimony of Rodger Dillon, pp. 136-37.
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Into contingent and alternative employment: by choice.Oct. 1996.
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