Everybody Only Wants Temps

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The branch manager, a tanned middle-aged woman, nods her assent. “This is a very important account,” she says, sizing up the group for potential misfits.

We are but a small part of what will be a sizable Labor Ready contingent. Between the lot of us, the unpaid half-hours could easily exceed 16 hours over the two days. But in the end, I never make it to the jobsite: Riding my bike the next day, I get hit by a car and break my collarbone.

“What you experienced is not prevalent because it’s not acceptable,” says Labor Ready’s spokeswoman.

When I tell spokeswoman Burke what I saw, she initially sounds eager to investigate. “When we are wrong, we refresh people on the policy,” she says. “Our workers are owed money for every minute that they are asked to be on the jobsite. What you experienced is not prevalent because it’s not acceptable. Enough said.”

“Joseph spent 16 years as a union laborer, pulling in $25 an hour plus benefits.”

But when we speak again a few days later, Burke is less curious. “I don’t want to speculate,” she says, adding that I could have misinterpreted the situation. “The point is that we pay our workers for the work done. We train. We review. We reinforce. We train again. It’s a cycle of making sure we get it right.”

When I attempt to clarify — because what I saw seemed mighty hard to misinterpret — she interrupts. “Do you think that’s really the best use of this time?” she asks, and so we move on. She’s excited to talk about the ways the company “empowers” its workers, which includes a hotline that people can call to anonymously report problems. “It’s all about compliance,” she says.

“All I Need Is a Real Job”

The final Labor Ready office I visit is in Hayward, which is where I meet Joseph, a redheaded Brooklyn native who is wearing a fluorescent orange safety vest over a UCLA sweatshirt. At 51, Joseph has the solid build that comes from a lifetime spent putting buildings up and knocking them down. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” he says, with more than a hint of pride. “Demolition, framework, carpentry — you put me on any construction site and I know what to do.”

Joseph spent 16 years as a union laborer, pulling in $25 an hour plus benefits. When times were good he purchased a three-bedroom house for his wife and two sons. But when the economy tanked, his work through the union hall slowed to a trickle. He was finally forced to go on unemployment, and then that ran out. All the while he filled out countless job applications and fine-tuned his resume, but no one was hiring. Now, with a credit union preparing to foreclose on his house, he’s out of options. “They want $8,000,” he says. “Where can I get that kind of money?”

The two men standing next to Joseph share similar predicaments. One lost his union job in 2010 when the Toyota plant in nearby Fremont closed; another worked at a lumber yard that shed 15 people in 2009.

After waiting around for six hours, Joseph is finally dispatched to a warehouse where he’ll unload boxes of noodles. “If people see how I work, they might hire me,” he tells me hopefully. He’s feeling less optimistic the next morning, though. At the warehouse, he met another Labor Ready employee who had worked full-time at the site for more than a year and was still a temp. He shakes his head. “Companies know they can use Labor Ready to cut a buck.”

It’s a slow morning, so Joseph takes me to his house. Located at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, it looks peaceful enough from the outside, a spacious and well-maintained two-story home with flowers in the front yard. But inside, where his 14-year-old son is preparing for school, the living room is empty and the kitchen shelves are bare. The credit union sent a notice threatening to evict the family within 72 hours, so Joseph moved all the furniture to in-laws. Boxes of Ritz crackers and Sprite are piled on the kitchen floor. “We’ve got enough food in the fridge for a few days,” he says.

Joseph grows quiet on the drive back to Labor Ready. “All I need is a real job,” he eventually says. “But now it seems everyone only wants temps.”