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.

Eclipse president David Simono declined to comment. Walmart said that it couldn’t comment on the specifics of a subcontractor’s employee but that it provides all its workers opportunities for growth.

A Temp Worker Bill of Rights
maybe so, but a sustainable standard of living is another matter. A 2005 Labor Department survey, the most recent available, found that only 4% of temps have a pension or retirement plan from their employer. Only 8% get health insurance from their employer, compared with 56% of permanent workers. What the employer doesn’t provide, the worker gets from the social safety net—that is, taxpayers.

And don’t look for Obamacare to fix it. Under the law, employers must provide health coverage only to employees who average 30 hours a week or more. After pressure from the temp industry and others, the IRS ruled that companies have up to a year to determine whether workers qualify.

Economists like Susan Houseman of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research predict that 2013 will be a boom year for temping because of health care reform. This notion has even seeped into popular investment shows. Mad Money host Jim Cramer recently said, “That’s why businesses of all sizes are now searching for ways around the law, and the easiest way to avoid paying these expenses is to hire more temps.”

In contrast with how it monitors nearly every other industry, the government does not keep statistics on injuries among temp workers. But a study of workers’-comp data in Washington State found that temp workers in construction and manufacturing were twice as likely to be injured as regular staff doing the same work. Members of Congress have introduced a handful of bills to protect temp workers in the past two decades. None has made it out of committee.

But advocates say Massachusetts’ Temporary Workers Right to Know law, which took effect in January, provides a model for states. The law requires temp agencies to give workers written notice of the basics: for whom they will work, how much they’ll be paid and what safety equipment they’ll need. The law limits transportation costs and prohibits fees that would push workers’ pay below minimum wage. Agencies must also reimburse workers if they are sent to a work site only to find there is no job.

Similar bills have passed in New Jersey and Illinois in the past few years. But while the American Staffing Association, which represents the temp industry, has a code of ethics containing similar guidelines, it has fought such laws. “All laws that apply to every other employee apply to temporary workers,” says ASA general counsel Stephen Dwyer. “We thought that heaping new laws on top of existing laws would not be effective.”

State laws that do exist are honored mostly in the breach. Illinois prohibits agencies from charging for transportation. But many get around this by using so-called raiteros, who act as labor brokers for agencies and charge for transportation. The law also requires a notice stating the name of the host company, the wage and any equipment needed. Out of more than 50 Chicago-area workers interviewed, only a handful had ever received one.

Passing through Chicago’s working-class suburbs recently, Ramirez pointed to a row of small, red brick homes. “I’ve always dreamed of having a little house, a really small little house,” she said. Asked whether she thought she’d ever be able to buy one, she laughed. “Earning $8.25 an hour?” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that.”

Back at the temp agency, Ramirez continues to wait with about 50 other people. Around 6 a.m., she again inquires if there will be any work. The dispatcher tells her to give it 15 minutes. Then he breaks the news: There is no work today.

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