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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. You can find her on twitter @melissachadburn

The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

(Arno Masse/Getty)

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.

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