It’s 4:18 a.m., and the strip mall in Hanover Park, Ill., is deserted. But tucked in back, next to a closed-down video store, an employment agency is already filling up. Rosa Ramirez enters, as she has done nearly every morning for the past six months. She signs in, sits down in one of the 100 or so blue plastic chairs that fill the office, and waits. Over the next three hours, dispatchers will bark out the names of those who will work today.
In cities across the country, workers stand on corners, line up in alleys or wait in a neon-lighted beauty salon for rickety vans to whisk them off to warehouses miles away. Workers say the 15-passenger vans often carry 22 people. They sit on the wheel wells, in the trunk space or on milk crates or paint buckets. Female workers complain that they are forced to sit on the laps of strangers. Some workers must lie on the floor, other passengers’ feet on top of them.
This is not Mexico. It is not Guatemala or Honduras. This is Chicago, New Jersey, Boston.
The people here are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They load the trucks and stock the shelves for some of the U.S.’s largest companies—Walmart, Nike, PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division—but they are not paid by them; instead they work for temp agencies. On June 7, the Labor Department reported that the nation had more temp workers than ever before: 2.7 million. Almost one-fifth of the total job growth since the recession has been in the temp sector. One list of the biggest U.S. employers placed Kelly Services second only to Walmart.
Outsourcing to temp agencies has cut deep into the U.S. job market: 1 in 5 manual laborers who move and pack merchandise is now a temp, as is 1 in 6 team assemblers, who often work at auto plants. This system insulates companies from workers’-compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives and the duty to ensure that their workers are legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the temps suffer high injury rates, and many of them endure hours of unpaid waiting and face fees that depress their pay below the minimum wage. Many get by renting rooms in run-down houses, eating dinners of beans and potatoes and surviving on food banks and taxpayer-funded health care. They almost never get benefits and have little opportunity for advancement.