When Kenneth Foreman had "a decent job with a decent company," he did the things that most people with a strong, steady paycheck do.
He and his wife bought a house close to his elderly parents in Hopewell, Va., and lived what he describes as a normal middle-class life.
“You know, work was good, family was good, kids were good,” he said.
But since he was laid off in December 2006 from the technology job he held for nearly six years, Foreman, 49, has only been able to string together a series of temporary jobs, often with months of unemployment between gigs.
Although he feels grateful for the paychecks, he is well aware they could stop anytime.
“They are not even required to give me notice,” he said of his current job as a hardware planner for a large technology company. “I could come in one day and my badge won’t work and they’ll say that you were relieved.”
Foreman is far from alone as "permatemps" like him become an enduring feature of the slow-growth economy.
About 2.53 million people were working temporary jobs as of June, an increase of more than 40 percent from the summer of 2009, when about 1.75 million people held such jobs. The number is expected to rise again Friday when the government reports employment data for July.
But three years into the economic recovery, the rise in temporary jobs is not necessarily signaling an increase in permanent employment as it did in the past. Instead, cautious employers are content to have a substantial part of the work force on a contingency basis, which makes it easier to downsize if business slows again.
“They’re not willing to commit to full-time, permanent employees,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist for IHS Global Insight.
And with the unemployment rate at 8.2 percent in June, employers have little reason to be worried about relying on temp workers. Many undoubtedly conclude that they can just hire a batch of new ones if work picks up again, and with temporary workers they don’t have to worry about the costs of benefits or severance.
“They’re accepting the turnover so they don’t have to pay the benefits,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors.
Naroff believes the economy still isn’t adding enough temporary jobs.
Although the economy has added about 780,000 temporary jobs over the past three years, it has only just gotten close to the level of temp jobs that existed in December 2007, when the nation went into recession.
“The growth in the use of temporary workers is just as disappointing as the growth in jobs,” Naroff said.
But Gault said the rate of temporary jobs being added is about the same as in past recoveries.
“The problem is we’re just not adding the permanent jobs,” he said.
Even if hiring starts to perk up, Gault said temp workers could still find it hard to land those longer-term positions. That’s because they’ll face competition from the millions of people who have been sitting out the tough job market, waiting for things to improve.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate fear that they may have great difficulty finding a permanent job even when more permanent jobs become available,” Gault said.
Zach O’Claire, 39, would like nothing more than to be hired into a full-time, permanent job. He’s currently working in a part-time, temporary job as a lead systems engineer. It’s one of many such jobs he’s held in the last five years.
O’Claire started working in information technology in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, after having earlier served in the military. He held a full-time position for years with a startup that folded.
After losing that job in 2006, he struggled with addiction, he said. He went through a recovery program and says he has been clean and sober for more than four years.
“I fully own up to the fact that I’ve made a couple of mistakes in my life,” he said.
Although he has been able to find contract positions, he hasn’t been able to land a permanent, full-time job. He’s grateful for the jobs that he’s had but said the money isn’t always enough.
O’Claire expects he will make between $24,000 and $30,000 this year, a salary that is tough to live on in costly Santa Clara, Calif.
He’s sold off many of his possessions to keep himself afloat and has had to rely on county-funded programs for his health care. A small setback, such as a car repair, will easily burn through whatever financial safety net he can build up.
“It does get frustrating,” he said. “I see all these other people that are able to go out and have these great cars, do these great things. That’s stuff I want for myself.”
Foreman, the temporary communications worker in Virginia, makes nearly $23 an hour at the job he’s held since February. His wife doesn’t currently work because of health problems.
Foreman said he’s looking for affordable health insurance, but in the meantime he is paying cash for his wife’s medications and any health care for his two children, who are 17 and 19.
The couple has been able to make their mortgage payments but are still at risk of foreclosure because they missed three mortgage payments years ago, during short stints of unemployment.
Meanwhile, Foreman is worried that his current temp job will be cut before the end of the year. He said he’s constantly looking for new jobs but hasn’t found anything that pays enough.
“Most big employers, they don’t want to commit to hiring people full time,” he said. “They’d rather just use the temps when they need them, and then they just let them go.”
Naroff, the economist, noted that there is one danger to that cycle: At some point, the job market could improve.
“Once job growth picks up and the unemployment rate comes down, it’s ‘Take this job and shove it’ time, and the turnover is going to be massive because everybody has been dumped on for the last five years,” Naroff said. “For those businesses (in which) turnover matters, it’s going to kill them.”