The 4 A.M. Army

Every morning, hundreds of thousands of workers show up for jobs that are unseen, uncertain and underpaid—and vital to the U.S. economy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sally Ryan for ProPublica

Temps pay to ride to work on a bus owned by a raitero, or local labor broker.

In temp towns, it is not uncommon to find warehouses virtually without direct employees. Many temp workers say they have worked in the same factory day in and day out for years. José Miguel Rojo, for example, packed frozen pizzas for a Walmart supplier for eight years as a temp until he was injured last summer and lost his job. (Walmart spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said that Rojo wasn’t the company’s employee and that it wants its suppliers to treat their workers well.)

To be sure, temp agencies help companies weather sudden or seasonal upswings and provide flexibility for uncertain times. Employees try out jobs, gain skills and if lucky transition to full-time work. “I think our industry has been good for North America as far as keeping people working,” says Randall Hatcher, president of MAU Workforce Solutions, which supplies temps to BMW. “I get laid off by Employer A and go over here to Employer B, and maybe they have a job for me. People get a lot of different experiences.” Companies like the flexibility, he adds. “To be able to call someone and say ‘I need 100 people’ is very powerful. It allows them to meet orders that they might not otherwise.”

But over the years, many companies have upended that model and stretched the definition of temporary. At least 840,000 temp workers are like Ramirez, working a blue collar job and earning less than $25,000 a year, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal labor data. Only about 30% of industrial temp jobs become permanent. African Americans make up 11% of the overall workforce but over 20% of temp workers. Latinos represent another 20%. In many temp towns, agencies have flocked to neighborhoods full of undocumented immigrants, finding labor that is kept cheap in part by these workers’ legal vulnerability: they cannot complain without risking deportation.

“You Are Not Driving Goats”
By 4:52 a.m., the chairs at staffing Network are filled as workers line the walls clutching plastic lunch bags. From behind the tall white counter, the voice of a dispatcher booms like a game-show host’s, calling out the first batch of workers: “Mendoza … Rosales … Centeno … Martinez …”

Ramirez lives in the living room of an old Victorian boardinghouse. There is a cheap mattress on the floor, and a sheet covers the French doors that separate her room and the hallway. The rent is $450 a month, which she splits with her boyfriend, who works as a carpet installer. She shares the kitchen and bathroom with another family. A trap by her door guards against the rats that have woken her at night.

Ramirez came to the U.S. in 1997 from Ecatepec, Mexico, where she struggled to raise two sons on her own as a street vendor selling beauty supplies. When she found out that a neighbor had hired a coyote to help her cross the border, Ramirez joined her, leaving her children with family and taking a bus to the frontera. They walked for three days across the desert to a meeting point, from which a bus took them to a safe house in Phoenix and then to Cullman, Ala.

“I worked in a poultry plant and a restaurant at the same time so I could get enough money to send back to Mexico,” she says. Like Ramirez, many immigrants who spoke for this story landed full-time jobs when they arrived in the 1990s. But many lost their jobs during the immigration crackdown after 9/11 or the recession, when factories closed, and have since found only temp work.

After raising enough money, Ramirez returned to Mexico and then took her sons across the desert to Alabama and eventually to Chicago. But the only work Ramirez could find was at temp agencies.

It is now 5:03 a.m. at Staffing Network, and the first batch of workers waits to board the bus for Philips Norelco. The agency claims it offers complimentary transportation for its employees’ benefit, but worker advocates say the vans help temp agencies by ensuring that they provide their corporate clients with the right number of workers at the right time. Many metro areas don’t have adequate transportation from working-class neighborhoods to old farmland where warehouses have sprouted over the past 15 years. So a shadow system of temp vans has popped up, often contracted by the agencies. Workers in several cities said they felt pressured to get on the vans or lose the job. They usually pay $7 to $8 a day round-trip.

In New Jersey, a worker drew a diagram showing how his agency fit 17 people in a minivan using wooden benches and baby seats and having three workers crouch in the trunk space. “They push and push us in until we get like cigarettes in a box,” said an Illinois worker. “Sometimes I say, ‘Hey, you are not driving goats!’”

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
21 comments
SCook
SCook

I would like to point out that what is being described in Mr. Grabell's article is very clearly day labor.  Vilifying the temporary labor industry by implying that all temporary workers are subjected to the conditions and treatment described in this article is ridiculous.  I work in sales and marketing for an extremely ethical staffing agency in the midwest, our goal is to connect people who are looking for work with employers who are seeking good workers.  Admittedly, not all the assignments we send our employees on lead to full-time work, but our employees are told, up-front, if the position may roll to a permanent one. We are also very concerned about the safety and health of anyone we send out - I have personally walked away from business when a potential client does not demonstrate a high level of commitment to the safety of all workers in their facilities.  

Please don't throw the baby out with the bath water!  There are reputable agencies out here who are trying to do things right and who recognize that we are dealing with people not "driving goats"!          

JaneWinzer
JaneWinzer

The main points of the article is a great deal of US work (and likely a growing percentage) is done by thousands of temps that do not get the same protections or benefits of "regular" employees, and  that the responsibilities of management can be shirked through such sub-contracted arrangements. This point is not altered regardless of the education or 'origin' of the employee.  You may wish to dismiss this phenomenon as "the poor always being with us" based on education or legal status - etc., but that does not make the point of the article illogical or skewed. What should be frightening even to those who like to dismiss this reality as 'just for marginalized' workers - is the fact that more and more of us will someday find ourselves one of those 'marginalized' workers. 

Destroyed
Destroyed

At $2.25 an hour the unseen workers are a steal.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

The Walmart heirs are collectively worth more than $100 Billion.

coopyman
coopyman

There have always been temp workers and this has only increased as the total population has increased with a boost from a sour economy. Very few of these workers represent individuals with a degree in business, engineering, technology or the sciences. For purposes of true data collection their background of education and origins should be included in the report. Otherwise it is illogical and skewed.

SimsatSimsatSer
SimsatSimsatSer

I'm no scholar on the subject, being Brazilian and living in Brazil say to the Americans:

In my town (Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil) there are 04 stores WALMART.

At the start of the directors of the stores wanted to keep the same principle practiced in the United States (Temporary Work).

The labor courts in Brazil did not allow it, they said:

"Temporary work should be for only 1% of people who are working in the shops, when a company wants to transfer responsibility to another company labor means she transferred the rights of these people to another that often has no major commitments to society. "

That made diminish this problem that generates a large company in the United States today.

Not only "This is Chicago, New Jersey, Boston."

If the labor courts in the United States are not subject to warn the situation will get worse every day, then comes: Atlanta, New York, Ohio ...

kevinjohnson01720
kevinjohnson01720

Some of the article's complaints seem legitimate, but others seem a bit odd.  

Requiring workers to ride in company transportation to a job site undoubtedly causes an inconvenience to some workers, but it seems necessary for companies to be able to ensure all workers show up on time.  


The oddest complaint is probably about Leticia Rodriguez.  According to the article, she was making $49,500 with benefits.  She refused to come in when called on her day off so she was fired.  As a worker (albeit in a higher paid industry), I've had to come in to deal with emergencies and do things that have to get done on my day off.  While it sucks, I don't consider it abusive to be called in when the company needs me on my day off. 


But even stranger, it says she was rehired and had to start "at the very bottom" at a rate of $15/hr.  That's pretty solid pay to load trucks. 

Rhomega
Rhomega

Wow, it's like they're one step away from the old British workhouses.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

And U.S. companies are sitting on trillions of dollars of uninvested money.

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

Shame on Walmart, Nike, PepsiCo’s Frito-­Lay division

dana74
dana74

@SCookWhether or not your employer could be deemed ethical, none of the companies you represent are.  They don't want to have to pay benefits, pure and simple.  I've been a temp worker and it doesn't matter if they tell you up front that it likely won't be a permanent job, that doesn't make your life any easier.  You take whatever you can get because it's that or have no money which in turn means no food and no home.

I would LOVE to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Dear America:  Don't tell people to "just get a job" when you won't stand with us and protect our right to KEEP a job.  And what in the world are we working for when we can just be thrown away like so much garbage?

kevinjohnson01720
kevinjohnson01720

Also, a fee of $8 to get driven to work seems fairly reasonable, given gas prices.

mrtony60
mrtony60

@Rhomega 

Frankly I'm not surprise at the state of affairs of the  temp and the cheap labor market.  I think many of us choose to not knowledge that reality that there is a very dark side to our "American way of Life" there is and has been a great human price that has been paid.  Furthermore we cannot sustain this kind of consumerism with out the possible demise of country or even this planet.

There may be under currents of societal damage now that cant be reverse. Time will tell. Certainly when just a hand few of families in this countries manage to get even richer in the last 10 years there is something wrong with that picture.  And getting richer as I write this reply! what does that mean for not only the temp labor force but for the rest of us? Unless you are part of the super super rich pact that is running this country or for that matter the world you should be concern. Forget race issues!  I actually think it's a class issue and only getting worst. I actually think we have more of an aristocracy   in this country more them a Democratic system.  Yes there are many that have "made it" here but look deeper and will find and discover that a small group of people are in control. Many of them living in New York City. I'm not so naïve to think multi nationals are in the charity business what so ever!

Destroyed
Destroyed

Never buy from those morally bankrupt entities.

Slave labor at its finest.

lurch
lurch

@Leftcoastrocky 

You would think since Nike, PepsiCo & Frito-­Lay (corporations) are people that they would feel shame.  But no, nada, no shame.

Libtards-UNITE
Libtards-UNITE

@Leftcoastrocky Yeah, but in the same breath, you are happy that you can get your cheap goods from these companies.  Are you happy to pay 30% more for your Pepsi and sneakers to make sure that guy with no education that entered our country illegally doesn't have to get up early and catch a cramped suttle to work?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,107 other followers