Last month, Portland was lucky to host film producer Dave DeSario as he screened his film A Day’s Work. This 2015 tearjerker documentary shares the horrific story of 21-year old Day Davis who lost his life on his first day of work as a temporary worker at a Bacardi bottling plant. During the discussion that preceded the film screening, Desario shared an advertising quip once shared by Kelly Girl Services. This verbiage exults the services of the temporary workforce with a promise still shared by some staffing agencies and expected by some agency clients: supplying workers to be there at every moment and for every work need, without needs of their own. Immediately, I remembered green balloons. In this windowless hotel ballroom, I had to close my eyes for a minute as I remembered cellophane packages of green balloons sporting the Kelly Girl logo. Bags of surplus kelly green balloons that we used for birthdays and water fights, during these middle-1960’s – all extra stock from the advertising account Dad held back then. I remember wondering back then if all the workers had to have the name “Kelly.”
As I opened my eyes and rejoined our discussion about the absence of safety protections for many of today’s temporary workers, I was particularly struck by a panelist who shared his concern that workplace safety risks in today’s surging “gig economy” could present workplace threats similar to those faced by early Oregon and Pacific Northwest workers. Work structures that could encourage evading workforce protections most of us today, and certainly those in my line of work, demand: safety and health committees, the right to refuse unsafe work without losing your job, new employee safety training, and so much more. While many may advocate for the flexibility of the “gig” economy, or, reducing regulations – we must remind ourselves what happens when we reduce our lowest denominator in order to be the cheapest and most profitable – or, perhaps, always available at all hours and in any manner – provider.
A few months before Dad died in 2014, I was lucky to invite him to a seminar I presented on the history of workplace safety in Oregon. I smile now when I think back to this special opportunity to present Dad as our audience’s “history buff.” I relayed the tremendous improvements in workplace safety in Oregon over the past century plus – not ignoring the challenges still ahead. I acknowledged how many more people lost their lives and livelihoods while trying to earn a paycheck in our olden days. And I am reminded today – paralleling conversations about protecting human rights and the environment – that we must do the same with our workplace safety and health protections, regardless of the changes in economy and nature of work.