Temps lack knowledge of benefits

Monday, August 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:46 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 4, 2008

Like most of us, Daryl McKenzie gets a lot of mail.

So when the Express Personnel Services temporary worker received a notice from his employment agency offering affordable health insurance, he didn’t realize it could reduce the cost of his premium by more than 40 percent.

He misplaced the letter and forgot all about it, continuing each month to pay higher fees for private insurance.

McKenzie is among the estimated 65 workers at Express Personnel Services’ Columbia office who qualify for a range of benefits, including health and dental insurance, a vision plan and a 401(k) retirement plan.

But despite having qualified for these perks months ago, McKenzie has yet to cash in.

“I got the letter, but I just didn’t worry about that,” he said.

Columbia’s branch of Express Personnel, which opened 20 years ago, is part of an international corporation that offers its temporary workers benefits comparable to those provided to permanent employees.

Temp workers become eligible for benefits through Express after completing 500 hours of steady work, or about 72 days of full-time employment.

Job Finders Employment Services, another local employment agency, has offered health insurance for temporary employees since 1995.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is available from an employee’s first day at a discounted group rate. Anne Williams, the local office’s general manager, said only one employee is considering the option.

“Most (temporary workers) just aren’t interested,” Williams said. “I don’t have a sign in my window that says ‘Health Insurance Offered Here,’ but I tell them about it at the interview and when they’re hired.”

Spreading the word seems to be half the battle at these agencies. The other half is pure economics .

“The labor-class population living week-to-week doesn’t want any money taken out of the paycheck,” Joe Morell said. Morrell owns Westaff, another national employment agency with a Columbia office.

Morell’s employees must wait only a week before becoming eligible for a comprehensive and competitive benefits package. But they seldom show interest in the $14.44-per-week individual medical plan, he said.

“A lot of people choose to take the risk and gamble of not being covered,” Morell said.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, the number of temporary workers has tripled over the past decade, making the temp staffing business the second-fastest growing industry in the United States. Each day, about 2.8 million Americans work as temps.

However, the temporary employment business often fails to offer compensation and benefits comparable to permanent work. Many of the smaller temporary agencies do not provide health-insurance options, or if they do, they often make the process inaccessible to short-term employees.

Although Columbia is home to several employment agencies that offer benefit options for temporary workers, awareness of such services is lacking.

The mention of health insurance jogged a vague memory for Missey Botts, an Express Personnel temp who just reached her three-month mark with the company.

Botts, who opted to continue health insurance from her previous employer at significantly higher costs, was surprised to learn that she qualifies for full benefits.

“I’ve put the insurance issue out of my mind,” Botts said, explaining that she took a temp job to tide her over before an upcoming move to Las Vegas.

But now that she knows about the cheaper alternative, Botts said she probably will use the temp agency’s plan until her departure.

“I can save $420 by enrolling for just one month,” she said.

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