Who's your boss?

For an increasing number of American workers, this is a hard question to answer. To cut costs and avoid liability, more companies are hiring workers on a temporary or contract basis. More than 17 million people are now employed as temporary, contract or freelance employees. This represents at least 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, a number that is expected to grow in coming years.

If you're a temporary or contract employee, which company is responsible for your pay, your schedule, your vacations -- and your right to a safe, healthy workplace? The temp agency that hired your, or the company where you've been assigned to work?

The right answer is both. At least, that's the right answer according to a group of temporary workers at a recycling plant in Milpitas, who get paid by one company -- Leadpoint Business Services -- but work under the direction of a different one -- Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), which operates the recycling facility.

When temps at the Milpitas plant filed a union organizing petition last year, they asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to recognize both Leadpoint and BFI as joint employers. Seeking representation by the Teamsters, the workers argued that since the two companies share control over the work environment, both should come to the bargaining table.


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The regional office of the NLRB disagreed, finding that Leadpoint alone was the employer. The temporary workers have appealed, and my organization -- the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health -- recently joined an amicus brief in support of their claim that both companies are joint employers.

Determining who has -- or doesn't have -- legal responsibility as an employer makes a big difference when it comes to safety on the job. Employers say the use of temporary workers gives them needed "flexibility" in a fast-changing marketplace. Sadly, too many companies use blurred lines of authority to duck responsibility when something goes wrong.

The use of temporary labor is widespread in labor-intensive jobs like sorting and processing refuse and recyclables. So are workplace tragedies:

  • "We don't train temps": That was the answer given to a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspector after a 39-year-old contract employee named Simon Martinez was crushed to death by three 800-pound bales of cardboard at a Sonoco Recycling plant in Raleigh, N.C. It was the second death at the facility in less than two months.

  • "Not responsible": 24-year old Travis Kidd, a temporary employee for a company called Workforce Staffing, was killed in 2011 when he was run over by a trash compactor at a landfill in Cleveland County, N.C. According to an OSHA report on the incident, "Landfill management felt they were not responsible to require or provide Mr. Kidd with the same PPE (personal protective equipment) because they considered him a temporary employee and not their employee."

  • A temp's temperature: 106.9 degrees: On May 29, 2012, Mark Jefferson, a former high school basketball star, went looking for work at a temporary agency, Labor Ready, in Trenton, New Jersey. He was assigned to a truck operated by Waste Management. After nine hours throwing garbage into the truck in 90-degree heat, he collapsed and never recovered; his internal temperature was recorded at 106.9 degrees. During his one and only day on the job, Jefferson never received any training on using rest, shade and water to avoid the hazards of extreme heat.

    Temp workers, it turns out, are frequently assigned the dirty, hazardous jobs that no one wants to do, and a recent investigation by ProPublica found they sustain much higher rates of workplace injuries and illness than full-time employees.

    Leadpoint Business Services employs 120 workers at the BFI recycling plant in Milpitas. It's a relatively small number of people, but they're standing up for a large cause. The growing number of U.S. temporary and contract workers should not be treated as second-class citizens. Bringing all employers to the bargaining table -- instead of letting them point fingers at one another -- is an important part of the solution.

    Mary Vogel, an attorney, is executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.