The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

Melissa Chadburn goes undercover as a temp worker.

Melissa Chadburn | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (3,090 words)

Last year I worked undercover at a temp agency in Los Angeles. While I took the assignment for an article I was working on, I’d also been unemployed for over a year. It seemed I was in that middling space of over-qualified for entry-level jobs, under-qualified for the jobs I most desired, and aged out or irrelevant as a labor union organizer, where I’d gained the bulk of my work experience.

One altered resume later I joined a temp agency and became the biggest ghost of them all, a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi. I’d found my squad, a cadre of screw-ups, felons, floozies, single moms, the differently abled, students, immigrants, the homeless and hungry, the overqualified and under-qualified, all of us ghosted by the traditional marketplace.


There is a story about an invisible hand that guides the free market. There is a story about ghosts. There is a story about a ghost economy. The distance between the main employer, the company that hires the temp agency, and the worker who fulfills these gigs, allows for the same type of casual cruelty that is exchanged between people who meet on online dating apps.


Temp jobs began after the second world war, offering work at companies like Kelly Girl, a billion-dollar staffing company based in Michigan, on a short-term basis. Today, the temporary or “on-demand” industry employs over 2.9 million people, over 2 percent of America’s total workforce. As temping has grown, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, and temps now earn 20 to 25 percent less an hour than those who work as direct hires, according to government statistics.

I joined a temp agency and became a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi.

To think of The Ghosted is to think of injustice, a cataloging of fist-fights, tuberculosis, detention centers, scabies, crabs, lice, roaches, hot plates, Section 8 housing, laborers hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks, children lying stiff against the tops of trains, assembly lines in windowless heat-filled rooms — a type of economic violence many consumers try to close their minds to. We do not want to think of them because of what it says about us.


It has never been clearer to me than when working temporary jobs that I am a merely a body. Yet. Here in the temp job, the narrative of this body no longer matters. This is both refreshing and sobering.

The worksites are like prison yards in that these bodies aggregate by race. I get notices on my cell phone to dig a ditch or clean up construction sites or serve cocktails at a corporate party. People live like this for years, responding to a text message every day, holding out for the promise of a permanent position. The city is alive and abuzz with Hail Marys. Hail Mary, give me a job. Hail Mary, may I not get hurt. No health insurance, no unemployment insurance, no workers’ comp. There’s no maternity leave, no way to plan a life, sign a lease, pay off debt. Many temps get their job alerts on prepaid phones that charge for each text message.


My first assignment with this company was at an outdoor concert venue on a scorching summer weekend: 96 degrees in the shade, 102 at its peak.

One woman complained, “Well, I’m glad I put my face on for this,” as sweat and foundation trickled down her cheeks.

I worked from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. assembling lunch bags, breaking down boxes, running up and down aisles in the blazing sun. I got paid 40 bucks. I got a break for lunch, a perk that delighted one of the guys on the job who was working for the first time in five years. “Last time I worked for this company…we were told to go into a house without any protective gear and clean out the asbestos. I didn’t even know what asbestos was.”

Another guy showed up in full gear, a sun hat, yellow vest; a tall guy who looked to be in his early 40s said he’d been working like this for years. He chimed in, “Oh, you’ll get those jobs. In fact, this is the first job I ever worked with women. I was thinking when I saw you, ‘What the heck they gonna have me do?’”

He broke it down: “If a job calls you to come and it’s a four-hour job but they only work you two hours, or someone disrespects you or something, you can leave and still get paid four hours. Don’t take a job that says digging. That is a tough job. You won’t be able to do that. Another must-miss position: working in the landfill. If you’re a woman they might have you standing in the middle flagging — directing traffic or sorting through all the trash, going through tampons and crap and all that stuff.”

As temping has grown, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, and temps now earn 20 to 25 percent less an hour than those who work as direct hires.

Most of us women were new and eager to work. We said we’d be willing to do anything. At least three of us corrected him, “You don’t know all the terrible jobs I’ve done.”

The guy reiterated, “Nah-uh, you can’t do this. I tell you — it smells out there.”

The permanent staff worked a good city union job but they hired temp workers to fill in the gaps. So temps do the same shit job beside someone for less money and no benefits.

The workers are managed so that we would only go so far as to secretly gripe about our wages and hours but would not rebel, or leave, or worse, unionize. Some of our smiles are propped up by everything but happiness. We only spoke to the staff who hired us we were encouraged to compete against one another, offered praise, and the prospects of getting called back another day. Some of us slid applications to be direct-hires of the main employer.


Another temp job I took was as a sound monitor. I sat outside a house and wrote down all the noises I heard over the course of 12 hours. When I arrived at the location I was handed a bag of snacks — discontinued items that were sold at the Dollar Store, like parmesan garlic popcorn or Goldfish in the rainbow colors. A Red Bull. This was in a residential neighborhood surrounding an amusement park that was in the process of expanding. They wanted to prove their expansion didn’t produce any noise pollution for the neighborhood. Someone did relieve me for a 10-minute break, but there was no nearby restroom and I had to go down a mountain and find a Starbucks, a 20-minute drive away. One of the guys living inside the house I was stationed outside of began yelling to his roommate about me.

“We’ve gotta do something about this,” he said pointing to me. “You know, I wake up in the morning and then this is here.” He was standing right next to me. I’m not sure what exactly he was complaining about — it seemed my mere existence; my body by his nice house on the hill, was a disruption.


It wasn’t my first time as a temp. In the early 2000s, I temped as a receptionist for a lighting manufacturer. “Keep up the good work and we might keep you on,” a manager there told me with a wink. I smiled gratefully, but did not believe him. Did not let myself want to be kept. Whenever I’d entertained the possibility of being hired full-time — I’d long survived filling in for vacationing receptionists — I’d get pulled back into another crap office in another crap town doing another crap job.

At that time temporary workers mostly did office work and numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The terms were clearer then — before the gig economy. I would have an assignment for several months while a permanent staff member was on medical leave. There weren’t these on-demand gigs created by companies like Task Rabbit or the agency I worked for — gigs like hanging a whiteboard or cleaning up a construction site.

I was in my 20s then and couldn’t find a full-time job with benefits. Instead, I was contracted out by the temp agency to a slew of clerical assignments. It was exhausting to get my assignment: I had to take a bus and a train and another bus from my sister’s apartment in Oakland to industrial warehouse towns about 65 miles away. I’d come home excited, stuffed with gossip. I’d try my best to bridge the gap between my queer city life and the world of these seemingly rural warehousers. I applied and interviewed for a full-time job I’d already been performing for two months as a temp. At the end of the deal, HR suggested I would benefit from more “pep.” Ultimately, the company wanted employees with a sunnier disposition. I spent a night crying, then left that gig for more-honest work. As a stripper.

It has never been clearer to me than when working temporary jobs that I am a merely a body. Yet. Here in the temp job, the narrative of this body no longer matters. This is both refreshing and sobering.

I’d be lying if I said stripping was easy, but this was San Francisco, and many of the other dancers were queer, and familiar. I hated my body. I hated getting naked, but I was contracted to do a very specific job and I knew what that job was. I had a brother who was dying of AIDS in D.C. and I needed to make a ton of money over a short period of time and it was much easier to accomplish that in dark rooms with mirrored ceilings during the day in Little Italy than in warehouse towns across the bay.

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It’s also true dancing and drinking and being naked in a body I didn’t like brought on a bottom for me, but this still seemed a much more honest exchange than the drawn out nagging pain of being exploited, performing property service work on a temporary hourly basis. I quit stripping once I got enough money to go see my brother; after maybe only a couple of months. Unfortunately, it was too late. By the time I’d gotten the money and mustered the nerve to call I discovered he’d already been dead a month. Still I’d experienced the freedom of an explicitly transactional relationship. I was The Body. I stood outside and lured people in with my body. I got paid piecemeal, per song, per seduction — with my body. After that it was hard to return to the temp industry that promoted a much different shuck and jive If you do good, if you work hard, maybe one day you too will become a permanent employee. I got a job working at a piercing studio in the city.


When you are poor, when you are so poor that you have to withstand some sort of public shame, the shame of a shitty uniform, the shame of twirling a sign on a corner, the shame of handing out lotion in a bathroom, the shame of sitting in a canvas chair in front of someone’s home all day, you become invisible.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the physical and psychological distance afforded by the subcontracted model. The remoteness of the primary employer and the temporary worker reminds me of those famous experiments of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. A study where what were believed to be traumatic electric shocks were delivered by surprisingly obedient people. An actor went into a room and warned the subject of the experiment that they had a heart condition. The subject was instructed to ask a series of questions and whenever the actor gave the wrong answer the subject was instructed to deliver a shock to the actor, each time increasing the shock voltage. No actual shocks were delivered. The subject heard screams from the actor or banging on doors. At this point the subject asked to leave or expressed discomfort but the subject was reassured they would not be held responsible. If at any time the subject expressed discomfort they were given a series of prompts in this order:

1. Please continue.

2. The experiment requires that you continue.

3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal prods, Milgram halted the experiment. Otherwise, it was stopped after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession. The result? Sixty-five percent of the experiment’s subjects administered what they believed to be the final 450-volt shock. Milgram summarized his findings in his paper The Perils of Obedience. “Ordinary people,” he wrote, “simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Another of Milgram’s lessons was that remoteness from the victim facilitates cruelty. When a primary employer utilizes a temp agency they are able to wield life-altering impact on those who work for them with zero physical contact.

When prospective employers see my mother they see a filipina nanny, a modern day comfort woman. They don’t see the degree from UCLA, the fluency in nine languages, the years she worked as an accountant.

In October of 2012, for instance, Select Staffing temp Terry Palmer died after he was caught in a conveyer belt while working at a food processing plant in Yadkinville, North Carolina. North Carolina’s Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had uncovered a serious violation of a machinery safety standard at the plant just a year earlier. Two months prior, a worker for Remedy Intelligent Staffing (a Select Family subsidiary), 21-year-old Lawrence Daquan “Day” Davis, was crushed to death during his first day on the job at a Bacardi Bottling Corporation facility in Florida. OSHA found that temporary workers there had not received proper training about operating heavy machinery.

An examination of wage and hour violations for the years 1980 to 2010 for subcontractors, temp agencies, and primary employers of the industries that are most predominantly temped out shows that temp agencies have a substantially higher rate of failure to pay health benefits — 34 percent of workers don’t receive them — and failure to pay at all — a whole 29 percent. While not all temp agencies are committing wage theft, lack of contact with one’s primary employer creates a dehumanizing work environment. I imagine it would be difficult to make a case for an employer to provide health benefits to someone who is coming to work just for one afternoon. Someone like Lawrence Davis.


I know hurt people hurt people. Whether it be robber barons who stand at the helm of corporations or unfit mothers. I know what it’s like when the letters stop coming at the group home. My own mother was a poor person and she came to this country from the Philippines, a poor country. She came in pursuit of a dream, but wound up saddled with a military husband, two stepsons and me, and then left all that behind in pursuit of freedom. Newly single and a mother in her 20s, she arrived with us in Los Angeles. We were both robbed and raped and she was quick to discover no one asked her permission for anything in this life. For whatever reason — poverty, stress, or biology — her mental health suffered. Something fed the angry beast inside and she locked me in closets, demanded I stand on one leg and recite things on end, demanded I clean our apartment at all hours, hit me with hangers, shook me by my shoulders, yelled in my face, both of us blessed with a limitless magical and elaborate internal life yet saddled with the hustle and bustle and unfair broken rules in our external lives. Any chance I could, I ran. As a result, I was placed in foster care as a teenager.

One satisfaction about doing this type of temp work was that every day was about what’s in front of you. A landfill. A warehouse. A job folding and filling boxes. A ditch to dig.

As a child I had been a hurt person who hurt people, too. In the feral house in Seaside, California where I spent summers with my Lola, I was a kind of cruel. Salted snails. Ants burned with a magnifying glass. I’d look for things to shoot with a potato gun or crossbow. To someone with a weapon, the world takes on a different shape. Everything is a target. I turned from chump to bold. Once weak and passive, now aggressive and searching for a conflict. After turning on the insects and animals, the kids of the neighborhood turned on each other. Threatened to kick each other’s asses then kick your mama’s ass. It was the ’90s — no daddies in sight. Girls get used to a kind of schoolyard social mean. A #lifegoals image on the cover of a magazine, a cruelty we hurl at ourselves — at our bodies. A body that will not be languid or stealth or accomplished. A body that will not be paid or respected or upheld in the same manner as a man-body. I have never been sure-footed. Regret for being silent, regret for being afraid, and regret for sometimes being cruel to other kids, has made my gait awkward.


Just as I was branded with a number in foster care, my mother was prescribed a trajectory in this country the moment she arrived. Secretary, housekeeper, in-home attendant. When prospective employers see my mother they see a filipina nanny, a modern day comfort woman. They don’t see the degree from UCLA, the fluency in nine languages, the years she worked as an accountant. Today, I like to think she stopped sending the letters to protect her heart as well as mine. Like the people of her country, and the people working in the warehouses, and the landfills, and construction sites, and digging ditches, we will all one day be dead, or injured, or humiliated, or imprisoned, or abandoned. All of our needs outsourced. Benefits and overtime and healthcare and pensions and retirement and workers comp and unemployment, no longer. Planning no longer. Stability no longer. College no longer. Health no longer.


One satisfaction about doing this type of temp work was that every day was about what’s in front of you. A landfill. A warehouse. A job folding and filling boxes. A ditch to dig. I’m still, for the most part, unemployed. I stopped temping when my assignment was complete, and while I don’t miss the wage and safety violations, I do sometimes miss the solidarity of being a worker amongst workers. We were bodies. Mostly black and brown. Meanwhile, gazing down upon the snowglobe of our disparity was The Corporation. A man in a suit, getting wealthier, plumper, more powerful, a rapacious beast delivering the shocks.

* * *

This feature has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Melissa Chadburn is a fellow for Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Editor: Sari Botton