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

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Sally Ryan for ProPublica

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

A New Temp Ecosystem
At 5:20 a.m. a second batch of workers is called to go to Philips Norelco. Ramirez’s name is not called, and she suspects there may be a reason. Two months before, in November, she walked into the agency with something to say. She had been attending meetings of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, a nonprofit that advocates for temp workers and is funded by religious and anti­poverty foundations. Though Ramirez became increasingly active, her only source of income is through temp jobs.

“My name is Rosa Ramirez,” she said, flanked by leaders of the workers’ collabo­rative, which recorded the speech on a cell phone. “We wanted to read some points that we want to change here in this office.”

“Stop forcing workers to wait without pay before the work shift,” Ramirez said, standing in the center of the room and reading from a paper she had brought. “Allow workers to go directly to the work site, because some people have children and they can’t find care that early.”

The workers sitting in the bucket chairs looked down nervously.

“Don’t force employees to wait outside of the office until transportation arrives during the winter months.”

Looking back on that day, Ramirez says she feels empowered but also defeated. “I no longer could stand the abuses,” she says. “I see people accepting them, and so I thought by standing up and speaking, people would join me and would agree and would stand up for themselves. But unfortunately, the majority of the people did not.”

Staffing Network said in a statement that workers aren’t required to go to the branch office. “Our track record of being a fair and lawful employer is evidenced by the fact that more than 65% of the temporary employees we hire and place have worked with Staffing Network for one year or more,” the company wrote. “We provide all employees opportunities to voice any ­questions or concerns about any aspects of their jobs—­without any retaliation.”

Unions, embattled nationwide, have ­done little for temp workers, partly because their legal options are limited. A 2004 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board barred temp workers from joining with permanent workers for collective ­bargaining—unless the temp agency and client company agreed to the arrangement.

“Unions have had two souls when it comes to temp workers,” says Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. One is to try to include them, he says, but “the other is circle the wagons, protect the full-time workers that are there.” Will Collette, who led an AFL-CIO campaign against the temp firm Labor Ready in the early 2000s, said it was nearly impossible to organize workers with such high turnover.

Meanwhile, a whole ecosystem of contractors and subcontractors benefits from just-in-time labor. For example, Walmart’s two largest warehouse complexes are southwest of Chicago and east of Los Angeles, in the Inland Empire. Both are operated by Schneider Logistics, which subcontracts to an ever changing cast of third-­party logistics firms and staffing companies.

Such layers have helped Wal­mart avoid responsibility when regulators uncovered problems. When California inspected Walmart’s warehouse in the ­Inland Empire in 2011 and found that workers were being paid piece rate according to how many shipping containers they unloaded rather than by the hour, regulators issued more than $1 million in fines against the subcontractors for failing to show how the pay was calculated. Neither Walmart nor the main contractor, Schneider, faced penalties. Asked if the layers of subcontracting allow Walmart to escape blame, spokeswoman Buchanan said, “Absolutely not.”

“We work very hard to abide by the law,” she said, “and we expect all the businesses that we do business with and that they do business with to comply with the law.”

Schneider treats its associates with “dignity and respect,” spokeswoman Janet Bonkowski said via e-mail. “Our suppliers are independent. When we utilize third-party vendors, we contractually require full compliance with all required laws and that all parties conduct business ethically.”

As work is down-sourced through a cascade of subcontractors, some workers have seen their incomes decline. In 2007, Leticia Rodriguez was hired as a supervisor for Simos, the logistics contractor running the online part of Walmart’s warehouse outside Joliet. She said she worked on an annual ­contract for $49,500 with health insurance. In 2009, when she declined to work on what she described as a long-­awaited day off, she was fired.

Rodriguez returned to the warehouse six months later, this time starting at the bottom, loading trucks for one of Schneider’s staffing companies. She said she was paid $15 an hour, but within a year the staffing company lost the contract.

Another firm, Eclipse Advantage, took over, and Rodriguez went to work for it. There, she said, she was paid piece rate, averaging $9.50 an hour. But six months later, that company left. She and the other workers lost their jobs. Rodriguez has since interned at the union-backed campaign Warehouse Workers for Justice, earning $12,000.

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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?


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