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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