Workers Unite

Commentary By Pamela Vincent

             When I first heard about the temporary labor project (day labor companies), I had no idea of the problems and issues plaguing the homeless people who utilize temporary employment agencies.  I was both surprised and appalled by the dangerous working conditions and exploitation the workers are often subjected to.  I initially met with founder of the Low wage Workers Union and project director Dan Kerr, Lara Wixon a dedicated volunteer and Bob Molchan Jr. A volunteer, who is also a homeless temp worker.  The three of them briefed me about the interviewing process and places to meet the temp workers.  Since Bob has spent 20 years utilizing temporary employment agencies he was able to share some of the exploitative experiences that he and thousands of other workers like him endure through the temporary agencies.  I think I should clarify that not all-temporary agencies are guilty of such charges, but changes need to be made to protect all the employees regardless of which agency they work with.  This project was brought about because of the many complaints and allegations brought to light by the low wageworkers that utilize the agencies.  It was clear that they needed to organize and gather information to present their case to city officials with a public hearing.

            When Dan Kerr informed me of the number of temporary workers they hoped to interview (approximately 200) the deadline (September 2001) and the length of time each interview takes (approximately 45 min. to 2 hours) I thought this was a huge undertaking.  I was surprised that the temp workers were willing to spend so much time with us and give us their personal work histories.  Some of the workers were apprehensive about sharing their personal information with us. I think they feared that if the temp agencies found out they were talking to us, they’d punish them.  They didn’t want, so to speak, “bite the hand that feeds them”, I think it was their trust in the LWWU, NEOCH, and the compassion of the volunteers that gave them the courage to open us and share some very personal experiences with us.  Now that they are uniting as a grout it’s easier to take a stand against the temp agencies and they now have hope that things will change for the better.

            I asked Kerr to share his thoughts and impressions of the interviews he’s been a part of:  “The biggest surprise for me in doing the interviews that people were working in unskilled labor positions.  The interviews have made it clear to me that people are working in skilled jobs in both the industrial and construction sectors of the economy – jobs that used to guarantee a living wage.”

            He went on to say that “the interviews have also impressed upon me how pervasive the element of ear and retaliation is to the way temp agencies do business.  Nearly everyone I interviewed told me that if they raised a complaint they were generally ignored or told that it was their own fault.  If they persisted in raising their complaint, they would not be sent out to work.  This fear of not being sent out to work really puts workers in a position where they can not choose which types of work they will accept or decline for fear that they will not get any work at all.  In my opinion, this is what has allowed the persistence of unsafe working conditions in so many places that temp workers are sent to.”

            “The interviews also shed some light onto the persistent workings of racial segregation in the job market.  They have made it clear to me that women are working many of the same jobs as the men are working in industrial production, however, many are constantly faced with outrageous degree of sexual harassment.”  Dan was also surprised to find how willing so many people were to endure our lengthy interviews. “In spite of prevailing threats of retaliation, temp workers have shown that they are so fed up with the way the temp agencies are run that they are willing to risk talking in detail.”

            Lara Wixon had similar experienced and recounted to me how the interviews affected her personally.  “How can you describe walking in and out of someone’s life? Whenever I walk into the shelter and sit down for an interview, we almost always go so far into their life that I feel odd to just walk back out those doors at 2100 Lakeside.  These people have shared more of their stories and what they believe with me than people I’ve known for years…”  “As far as the work situation goes, everyone I’ve talked with would like to see the profits split a little more fairly.  So the majority of those interviewed would really like to see a non-profit temp agency started.  I also would like to see this project fly.  The other item missing from their work experiences is a little respect.  We all have felt this way or have been treated this way at one time or another, but some of the stories I have heard are out of this world as far as how humans can treat each other.”

            My own experiences have been filled with disbelief and outrage over the treatment the temp workers receive from the agencies.  One man I interviewed told me of a time where he was assigned to a job and the agency’s transportation driver called in sick so they asked another temp worker to use his van to drive the man to the work site.  About the same time the police stopped him and ran a check on his license only to discover it was suspended.  Not only did the driver get arrested and his van towed, but also the temp worked was taken to the police station where he was stranded overnight.  Upon calling the temp agency in the morning for assistance, they told him he was on his own finding a way back to town.  Not only did this man lose a day’s wages, and get stranded overnight but the agency also deducted a transportation fee from his check!

            The same man had another bad incident where he had been working close to 90 days for the same company.  Usually it takes 90 consecutive days of working at the same company for them to qualify for a permanent job. When he was one week shy of the qualifying date the company told him they did not need him anymore.  He then had to start all over again at another company.  He has yet to qualify for a permanent position and has become frustrated with the whole system.

            Interview, after interview our volunteers heard cases of hazardous working conditions, unpaid overtime issues, working 10+ hours without breaks and countless other violations of worker rights.  I was stunned to find out the following important facts about temp workers:

  • Many of the employees have worked for temporary agencies for 10-20 years yet they have no pension, benefits or security.
  • The number of different places and types of jobs they’ve done make them very qualified to find permanent employment.
  • They are not lazy, are more than willing to work and even though they’ve worked many years they have not earned enough money to afford housing or rise above the poverty level.
  • They are slaves to the temporary agency that keep them in a vicious cycle of reliance that most of them can’t break free from.

The ultimate goals What we want to see happen is to put regulations and laws in place to protect the workers, allow them to earn a living wage, and mandate that the agencies and companies they work for regulate their recruiting practices and associated fees.  The agencies need to be monitored and penalties and fines put in place for ones that violate worker rights.  The last and most important goal is to set up a non-profit community hiring all that would use the government subsidies in a fare and efficient employment system, where profits are more evenly distributed among the workers.

      This September we hope to present the discoveries in a City Council hearing.  The Low Wage Workers Union is urging all temp workers to be present at the hearing.  Since the hearing date hasn’t been set at the time of this printing LWWU and NEOCH will contact as many workers as possible through the shelters, meal sites and general gatherings.

      In closing, I’m reminded of the words of Helen Keller who said…”The world is moved not only by the mighty shoves of the heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tine pushes of each hones worker.”  Together we can do this!

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine, Issue #49 August-September -2001