Labor Ready had other trends on its side as well. Welstad credited welfare reform with dumping more cheap workers at his door: Somewhere between 15 and 40 percent of former welfare recipients (depending on the state) found work as temps. It certainly didn’t hurt that people who’d gotten tangled up in the drug war found regular employment hard to come by.
“Welstad credited welfare reform with dumping more cheap workers at his door”
Soon after Labor Ready went public, it became a target of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, which was seeking to unionize temporary workers. “From a corporate campaign perspective it was like a dream come true,” remembers Will Collette, the lead researcher in the endeavor. In the end, the union gave up on Labor Ready. While high injury rates were documented in the company’s SEC filings, “workers were almost impossible to organize,” Collette says. “They were angry, but didn’t stick around. I’ve never seen a multinational company whose workforce turns over every 21 days.”
In 2000, CEO Welstad resigned abruptly after taking out an “unauthorized loan” of $3.5 million. While the loan was quickly repaid, the fallout left Labor Ready reeling, and it took a few years to regain its footing. In 2007, the company changed its name to TrueBlue, but it retained Labor Ready as its primary brand, which today accounts for nearly two-thirds of overall revenue.
Rather than continue Welstad’s aggressive expansion, which required severe cutbacks during recessions, current CEO Steve Cooper has instead focused on managing costs and diversifying: TrueBlue now owns  four other small staffing companies specializing in industries like aviation and trucking, and is focused on landing big national accounts such as Walmart, which has utilized Labor Ready’s services. There’s also been a marked shift in public relations. At times, Welstad seemed hardly able to contain his disdain for temp workers — “The segment we deal with lacks discipline,” he told the Chicago Tribune. But Cooper now characterizes TrueBlue as a socially conscious firm dedicated to “changing the world by putting people to work.” Labor Ready, its website boasts, is the place for companies who need people that will put in “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
The Waiting Game
After an hour spent cooling my heels at the Oakland storefront, I step outside to stretch my legs, and strike up a conversation with Darryl, who looks to be in his 40s and is wearing a Raiders sweatshirt and black beanie. (I’ve changed most names to respect the workers’ privacy, as I hadn’t yet revealed myself as a reporter.) Darryl tells me he’s struggled to find regular employment since he got out of jail. “I keep hoping and praying that something hits,” he says. “But people hear about being in jail and that’s the end of the conversation.” I don’t pry, but from other workers I will ascertain that their past crimes typically involve drug possession. Some mornings, half of the names on the sign-in sheet are from a nearby prisoner re-entry program.
Before working for Labor Ready, job seekers must complete a 73-question behavioral test to assess trustworthiness. I passed this test a long time ago when I worked briefly for the company in New York, so I’m already listed in its system as being behaved. Among other things, Labor Ready had asked me to list which drugs I’d recently consumed, to rate my proficiency at fighting with my fists, and to estimate the value of goods I’d stolen from previous employers during the last six months. (I was half inclined to request a calculator.)
By 9:30, I find myself alone in the Labor Ready office. The others have either been sent off to work, left to attend a class for parolees, or given up. I’m about to call it a day myself when Natalie motions for me. “You’ve got a car, right?” she asks. (I do, unlike many of the others.) She needs someone to get to a warehouse quickly to replace another Labor Ready worker. She hands me a pair of gloves and a work ticket. “It’s easy, doing cleanup.”
I make my way to an industrial stretch near the Oakland Coliseum and meet Chris, who manages a large warehouse along with several empty lots across the street. “I sent the other guy home,” he tells me. “I don’t know what happened, but his hand was all swollen.”
Chris hands me off to Hank, his 70-year-old assistant. It’s instantly clear who does the work around here. Chris is portly and soft, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis. Hank is from Montana and looks it, or so it seems to a city boy: His angular face has deep creases from the sun and he wears a trucker’s cap, flannel shirt, and stained jeans. In a diner during election season, politicians would shove babies out of their way to score a photo-op with Hank.
Hank passes me to Leonard, another Labor Ready employee, who takes a break from shoveling to explain that we are moving a bunch of dirt from one lot to another. I pick up a shovel and start digging, soon falling behind the pace set by Leonard, who at 65 is more than three decades my senior. A retired handyman, he takes temp jobs to help cover the bills.
Several hours later, I’m standing atop an uneven mound of earth, perhaps seven feet high, struggling to anchor a tarp with large rocks. The wind whips dust into my face, but after a short struggle I secure the plastic. “This is nothing,” Leonard says. A black man with a stocky build and deep voice that frequently gathers steam into a rumbling laugh, he grew up in the California farming town of Tracy and started working the fields at 13. He’s harvested just about every crop the state has to offer, from lettuce to strawberries. “Now it’s all Mexicans doing the work,” Leonard says.
We shovel for a bit. “You ever heard of the ‘West Coast shorty’?” he asks presently. I shake my head. “Some people called it the short-handled hoe.”
The short-handled hoe, which California outlawed in 1975, was Leonard’s companion for years. The implement was infamous for destroying the backs of farmworkers, who were forced to stoop over the crops with their noses to the ground. Eventually, Leonard got a better job cutting sheet metal. The shearing machine didn’t have a safety guard, though, and when one day his knee bumped the button, the blade sliced off four of his fingers. No wonder he finds Labor Ready an easy gig: The man is a walking embodiment of the war on workers. “At least I got a settlement,” he tells me, “and the company had to put safeties on all their machines.” By the end of the work day I’m exhausted and dirty; Leonard seems unaffected.