Everybody Only Wants Temps

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Back at the Labor Ready office, I have to wait nearly 30 minutes to receive my check. The job paid $8 an hour—minimum wage. For five hours of labor, I get $37.34 after taxes. I am not paid, however, for the four hours on call, or the time spent in transit to and from the job site, or waiting to get paid. None of this meets the legal definition of wage theft, but it sure feels like it. A large banner inside the office boasts, “Temporary Workers on Demand,” possibly the key selling point for Labor Ready clients. But for the workers, “on demand” is simply shorthand for lots of unpaid hours. For that matter, Labor Ready has been hit with a string of class-action suits over the years—including one filed last summer in New Jersey — alleging that it forced people to work off-the-clock, and failed to give them minimum wage and overtime pay.

“For five hours of labor, I get $37.34 after taxes.”

Leonard, at least, avoids the waiting game on the front end, as the warehouse calls in a few days a week to request him. But he’s still only making half of his old handyman wage, and he tells me he rarely gets paid rest breaks — if true, a violation of California labor law. (The company says it works with clients to ensure they comply with the law, and that a toll-free “care line” is available 24/7 for workers with concerns.) Not that Leonard is complaining. “I get by,” he says. “I know I’m a cheap worker, but I’ve seen a lot worse.”

Not Your Stepping Stone

In the two weeks that I spend working out of Oakland’s Labor Ready branch, my “honest pay” tops out at $8.75 an hour. I’ll clean a yard for a trucking firm, scrape industrial glue from cement floors for a construction company, and screw on the caps of bottles at an massage oil company whose “Making Love” line is a bestseller. I’ll also move heavy tools for a multinational corporation that repairs boilers on ships and be asked to serve food at Oakland A’s games for Aramark, a $13 billion powerhouse. (I wasn’t able to take that one, but if I had, I would have been earning $8 an hour next to unionized workers making $14.30.)

Labor Ready’s Oakland workforce is nearly entirely black, excepting the branch manager, who is white. Most of the workers I talk to are searching for stability but finding it elusive. They include homeowners in foreclosure, apartment-dwellers who are being evicted, and residents of motels negotiating for a few more days. And many express hope they can parlay a temp gig into something permanent. “I’ve been with Labor Ready for over a year now and still haven’t had any luck,” says Stanley, who resembles a young Eddie Murphy. We’re standing in a dusty lot in Hayward, 15 miles south of Oakland, surrounded by 300 cars that have seen better days. “Most jobs are like this one, not looking to hire anyone full time.”

We’ve landed one of the more interesting Labor Ready assignments, a weekly charity auto auction. Six of us were hired to drive donated cars across the lot and idle under a canopy where used-car dealers make frantic bids and ask us questions like, “How’s the transmission feel?” After the bidding, we’re supposed to park the car and grab another. Several times, a vehicle I’m driving gives out as I attempt to pull away, at which point a forklift arrives and carries the carcass out of sight. I’ll drive cars that overheat, that refuse to shift into park or reverse, and that compel you to jump through the window Dukes of Hazard-style because the doors don’t open. “It’s a big risk,” a full-time auction employee tells me. “Buyers don’t know what they’re getting.” One buyer is excited that a car I’m driving has a full tank of gas.

I’ll meet a number of people who, like Stanley, have churned through a seemingly endless line of minimum-wage jobs. “They get stuck and then adjust to it,” says David Van Arsdale, a professor of sociology at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York, who studies industrial temp agencies. As part of his research, Van Arsdale worked for three summers at Labor Ready, and rarely saw anyone land a permanent position. “Their whole lives get structured around the ephemeral nature of the work,” he says. “Companies use temps precisely to rid themselves of all the obligations of employment.”

The potential to convert a temp job into full-time employment is one of the benefits promoted by Labor Ready, but the company doesn’t actually know at what rate this happens. “I’d love to think future technology will track that,” says Stacey Burke, who is now VP of communications for parent company TrueBlue. Burke insists that Labor Ready helps workers along the path to permanent employment by giving them job connections and an employment history, thus making them more marketable. And if a company wants to make a temp worker permanent, they are not obliged to compensate Labor Ready. “We assist in the whole experience,” Burke says.

Yet there’s little evidence to support the claim that temp agencies help impoverished workers. In fact, a 2010 study by economists David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Susan Houseman of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that temp jobs play a negligible—and if anything, negative—role in boosting people’s earnings. Looking at welfare-to-work participants in Detroit, the authors found that after a short spike in earnings, temp workers eventually saw a net decrease in income and employment, even when compared to workers who’d had no help securing work. Providing low-skill workers with a temp job, they wrote, “is no more effective than providing no job placements at all.”

“What You Experienced…Is Not Acceptable”

From Oakland, I travel south to the Labor Ready branch in downtown San Jose, where I fill out another round of employment papers. As before, it’s a lengthy process. Labor Ready asks its laborers dozens of questions, including some that may help it qualify for tax breaks: Have you received food stamps? Are you a military veteran? Buried in the stack is a document I must sign that waives my right to sue over wage violations.

As I wait at the counter to hand over my papers, two men return from a job and turn in their time sheets. “You worked from 8:00 to 12:30, right?” asks the dispatcher.

“No, we were there at 7:30,” says one of the men, a muscular Latino who looks capable of knocking down a building in a single shift all by himself.

“But you started at 8:00, right?”

“Yeah, we started at 8:00, but they told us to be there at 7:30.” He’s growing agitated. “So we were there at 7:30.”

“Oh,” says the dispatcher, flashing an understanding smile. “They just wanted you to check in early. That’s all.”

The man grumbles but accepts the diminished paycheck and leaves. Dispatchers, after all, decide who works and who sits, so why make trouble over a few dollars?

“An employment attorney told me that what I witnessed is wage theft.”

Still, William Sokol, an employment attorney with law firm Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfield, told me that what I witnessed is wage theft. “The law mandates that an employer is obligated to pay an employee when the employee is engaged to wait,” he says. “If the employer says, ‘Be at a certain place at a certain time so that you will be ready to work,’ the employer has to pay him.”

“I don’t care if you get hit by a bus,” the dispatcher says. “You must be there — and be a half-hour early.”

While it may only have been a half hour, those half hours can add up. The next morning, I show up for my first workday at the bustling San Jose office, where the phone rings off the hook and the staff hustles to fill available jobs. At 8 o’clock, I’m enlisted as part of a six-man team for a Friday-Saturday assignment, setting up exhibits for a beauty expo at a nearby convention center. This time, a different Labor Ready dispatcher tells us the score. “I don’t care if you get hit by a bus, you must be there — and be a half-hour early.”

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