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How long can an employee work in a temporary status?

While there is no one answer to this question, a key factor in setting a time limit is benefits eligibility. If a temporary employee is working the same hours as a regular employee, with no set end date in sight, denying him or her benefits simply because of the "temporary" classification can be problematic.

Temporary workers are often ineligible for employer-provided benefits due to the limited duration of their employment. When employees classified as "temporary" are denied benefits and temporary jobs are allowed to continue without clear limits, it can be argued that the employer is denying benefits to otherwise eligible employees, thereby violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

While each employer determines what length of time defines temporary employment within the organization, it is recommended that such employees be hired for a fixed period of time or for the duration of a specific project, rather than for an ongoing period without limits. For the greatest protection, an employer may want to impose limits on the length of time a temporary employee can work that would not exceed the defined waiting periods for benefits. At a minimum, an employer should be able to state an end date to the temporary assignment, such as the end of a project, the return of an employee on parental leave or the end of a defined busy season to uphold the "temporary" classification.

To ensure the fair classification of temporary employees, employers should train hiring managers on the appropriate use of temporary workers, establish clear policies on the status of temporary employees and set specific time limits for temporary assignments.


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