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.

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!’”

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