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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

"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.

Employment attorney William Sokol told me that what I witnessed at Labor Ready is wage theft.

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?

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."

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."

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?"

"If people see how I work, they might hire me," Joseph tells me hopefully.

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."

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project

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Front page image: Shira Golding/Flickr