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Forty percent of temporary workers prefer nonpermanent employment status, Cornell University study concludes

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A Cornell University study has found that four out of 10 contract workers are satisfied with their nonpermanent employee status.

The finding, included in the study "Contract Workers: How Do They Feel About Their Deal?" dismisses the long-held belief that most individuals employed as office temps, for example, are unhappy with their status as nonpermanent employees and are simply waiting for permanent jobs. A contract or temporary worker is an individual who is employed full time in a nonpermanent position.

"We were somewhat surprised to find that such a large group of temporary or contract workers actually preferred their nonpermanent employment status over permanent employment," said George Milkovich, the Martin P. Catherwood Professor of Human Resource Studies at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "There is this group of temporary workers who like the flexibility that goes with this sort of assignment.

"This finding really cautions us about making generalizations about contract or temporary workers and why they are in this situation," Milkovich said. "Often, temporary work conjures images of 'bad' jobs, such as low-paid clerical positions, filled primarily by down-on-their-luck people searching for a 'real' job. In fact, temporary work arrangements and the people who are in them vary in a number of ways."

Not surprisingly, this group of satisfied temporary workers was largely unwilling (73 percent) to trade lower pay for greater job security, and when asked whether they would trade lower pay for better benefits, like health care, about 60 percent said no.

But not everyone finds temporary employment desirable, especially those who are hoping to receive benefits, such as health care coverage, from a job. The lack of benefits for temporary workers continues to be a source of great frustration. The survey found that nearly eight in 10 workers reported receiving no benefits, and nearly seven in 10 said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their benefits situation.

"This great dissatisfaction over benefits is what makes people generally uncomfortable about temporary work," Milkovich said. "By making benefits portable, by that I mean benefits we could carry with us from job to job, we could increase the flexibility of the workforce and make temporary work a more promising arrangement for people who desire it."

Only 3 percent of those who reported receiving benefits indicated they received partially paid health care, while 27 percent received either paid vacation or paid holidays. Nine percent indicated they were receiving benefits other than paid health care, vacation and holidays.

Aside from benefits, job security was a major concern for the temporary workers surveyed. Almost one-third (32 percent) of those polled said they did not know how long their current job would last, while over 50 percent said that it is likely or very likely they would leave their current assignments within one year. This uncertainty means that temporary workers are often reading want ads, sending out resumes and talking with friends about other employment possibilities.

Other key findings from the survey are:

-- the average hourly wage for temporary workers polled is $17.25, with 31 percent earning less than $10 an hour and 8 percent earning more than $33 an hour.

-- about half said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their pay.

-- a majority said they work independently without much supervision and that they have control over how their work is completed.

-- 41 percent reported receiving no training for their current temporary assignment.

The Cornell study was based on a sample of 280 temporary or contract employees in 1995 from staffing services firms throughout the Northeast. Assisting Milkovich on the study were Melissa Barringer of the University of Massachusetts and Geoffrey Dubiski of Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm.

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