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.

It’s 4:18 a.m., and the strip mall in Hanover Park, Ill., is deserted. But tucked in back, next to a closed-down video store, an employment agency is already filling up. Rosa Ramirez enters, as she has done nearly every morning for the past six months. She signs in, sits down in one of the 100 or so blue plastic chairs that fill the office, and waits. Over the next three hours, dispatchers will bark out the names of those who will work today.

In cities across the country, workers stand on corners, line up in alleys or wait in a neon-lighted beauty salon for rickety vans to whisk them off to warehouses miles away. Workers say the 15-­passenger vans often carry 22 people. They sit on the wheel wells, in the trunk space or on milk crates or paint buckets. Female workers complain that they are forced to sit on the laps of strangers. Some workers must lie on the floor, other passengers’ feet on top of them.

This is not Mexico. It is not Guatemala or Honduras. This is Chicago, New Jersey, Boston.

The people here are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They load the trucks and stock the shelves for some of the U.S.’s largest ­companies—Walmart, Nike, PepsiCo’s Frito-­Lay division—but they are not paid by them; instead they work for temp ­agencies. On June 7, the Labor Department reported that the nation had more temp workers than ever before: 2.7 million. Almost one-fifth of the total job growth since the recession has been in the temp sector. One list of the biggest U.S. employers placed Kelly Services second only to Walmart.

Outsourcing to temp agencies has cut deep into the U.S. job market: 1 in 5 manual laborers who move and pack merchandise is now a temp, as is 1 in 6 team assemblers, who often work at auto plants. This system insulates companies from workers’-­compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the duty to ensure that their workers are legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the temps suffer high injury rates, and ­many of them endure hours of unpaid waiting and face fees that depress their pay below the minimum wage. Many get by renting rooms in run-down houses, eating dinners of beans and potatoes and surviving on food banks and taxpayer-funded health care. They almost never get benefits and have little opportunity for advancement.

The proportion of temp workers in the labor force reached its peak in early 2000, before the 2001 slump and the Great Recession. But now temp work is roaring back 10 times as fast as private-sector employment as a whole—a pace “exceeding even the ­dramatic run-up of the early 1990s,” ­reports the American Staffing Association. The overwhelming majority of the growth is in blue collar jobs in factories and warehouses as the temp industry sheds its refined, typing-­pool image of the past. Last year more than 1 in 20 blue collar workers were temps.

The rise of the blue collar permatemp helps explain one of the most troubling aspects of the recovery. Despite a soaring stock market and steady but meager job growth, many workers are returning to the workforce in temporary or part-time jobs. This trend is intensifying the U.S.’s decades-long rise in income inequality, in which low- and middle-­income workers have seen their real wages stagnate or decline. On average, temps earn 25% less than permanent workers.

Many economists say the growth of temp work will continue beyond the recession. One likely accelerant of the trend: the health-reform law known as Obamacare.

The Rise of “Temp Towns”
Ramirez, a 49-year-old mexican immigrant with a curly bob of brown hair and thin glasses, has been a temp worker for the better part of 12 years. She has packed free samples for Walmart, put together displays for Sony, printed ads for Marlboro, made air filters for the Navy and boxed textbooks for elite colleges and universities. None of the work led to a full-time job.

Even though some of Ramirez’s assignments last for months, every day is a crapshoot. She must check in at the temp agency by 4:30 a.m., wait and then, if she is called, take a school bus to a plant. Even though the agency, Staffing Network, is her legal employer, she is not paid until she gets to an assembly line at 6 a.m. Today the dispatcher will call most workers to pack razors for Philips Norelco.

In Kane County, Illinois, where Ramirez lives, 1 in 16 workers is a temp. Such high concentrations of temp workers exist in what researchers have begun to call “temp towns,” including places like Grand Rapids, Mich.; Middlesex County, New Jersey; Memphis; California’s Inland Empire; and Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, white vans zip through an old Hungarian neighborhood in New Brunswick, picking up workers at temp agencies along French Street. In Joliet, Ill., a temp agency operated out of a motel meeting room once a week, supplying labor to the layers of logistics contractors at one of Walmart’s biggest warehouses. In Greenville County, South Carolina, near BMW’s manufacturing plant, 1 in 11 workers was a temp in 2011, twice as many as a decade before.

(MORE: Have You Worked With a Temp Agency? Help ProPublica Investigate)

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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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