Waiting for work: A study of temporary help workers

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Robert C. Bogdan


Temporary help, Unemployment, Contingent work

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


"Temporary work." It is rapidly becoming the standard employment relationship in the United States. Its growth has caught many of us off-guard, often confused as to what constitutes temporary work relationships. There are in fact many kinds of temporary work. The following dissertation concerns itself with one kind of temporary work, temporary help work. More specifically, this dissertation is an ethnographic study of temporary help workers who wait for work and obtain jobs through a temporary help service with two branches in Syracuse, New York.

Millions of people everyday wait for work at temporary help services. i In fact, the temporary help industry has grown enormously since the 1970's, increasing its number of "employees" by nearly two million. ii Between 1982 and 2000 temporary help employment grew 10 times faster than overall employment. iii Today, 90% of American firms use temporary help work. iv Still, even though temporary help work has exploded in the United States, the world of temp help workers is largely unknown. Furthermore, the social problems associated with temporary help workers are rarely attributed to the socialization processes of the work, but rather, the workers themselves. At a macro-sociological level, this study examines temporary help work's relationship to social mobility. At a micro-sociological level, the study investigates how temp help workers understand the work's relationship to their social positions and circumstances. These aims are accomplished from secondary research, participant observation, and in-depth interviews.

In the spirit of C. Wright Mills, I hope to have uncovered the intimate relationship of history and biography. v As is evident from this study, the "problems" of temporary help workers are not entirely of their own making. In fact, the relationship of the work to the worker is as socializing and meaningful as other relationships of social structure-to-person that society holds dear, like religion to character, school to student, and family to child.

i Martha I. Finney and Deborah A. Dasch, A Heritage of Service (Virginia: The National Association of Temporary Services, 1991) p.1. ii See the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Hours and Earnings , United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics Bulletin (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2000). See also Robert Parker's Flesh Peddlers and Warm Bodies: The Temporary Help Industry and Its Workers (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994) p. 29. Parker shows that in 1970 Temporary Help Supply Services employed 184,000 people; by 1993 they employed 1,493,600. iii Marcello Estevao and Saul Lach, "The Evolution and Demand for Temporary Help Supply Employment in the United States," in Nonstandard Work: The Nature and Challenges of Changing Employment Arrangements (Industrial Relations Research Association, 2000). Marcello Estevao and Saul Lach note that 10% of job growth in the 1990's was in the temporary help industry. iv Martha I. Finney and Deborah A. Dasch, 1991, p. 1. v C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).


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