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"Everyone Only Wants Temps"

My stint doing "on demand" grunt work for one of America's hottest growth industries.

| Mon Jul. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

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.

Labor Ready's test asked about my drug use, my ability to fight, and how much I'd stolen from past employers.

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.

For five hours of labor, plus four-and-a-half hours of waiting, I net $37.34 after taxes.

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.

"I know I'm a cheap worker," Leonard says, "but I've seen a lot worse."

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.

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 insists that 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.

"Most jobs are like this one: not looking to hire anyone full time," Stanley says.

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.

"Companies use temps precisely to rid themselves of all the obligations of employment," says sociologist David Van Arsdale.

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.

Providing low-skill workers with temp jobs "is no more effective than providing no job placement at all."

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."

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