"Everyone Only Wants Temps"
My stint doing "on demand" grunt work for one of
America's hottest growth industries
By Gabriel Thompson
Mother Jones July 16, 2012
It's still dark when I show up at the Labor Ready
storefront in downtown Oakland, California, just a few
blocks from the plaza where the Occupy crowd threw up
its tents against the one percent. From the sidewalk,
the place looks vaguely illicit, with minimal signage
and floor-to-ceiling shades that remain drawn 24/7.
Later, I will come to think of this as the company
"look" - unwelcoming and easy to miss - often tucked
alongside a check-cashing business or payday lender.
The office opens at 5:30 a.m., but job seekers start
appearing an hour early, hoping to snag a top spot on
the sign-in sheet. By the time I arrive, 20 people, all
but one of them men, are already inside - the space is
essentially a waiting room with a long counter -
standing or slouching in white plastic chairs. Behind
the counter sits an African American woman with short
hair and a bearing that suggests a low tolerance for
bullshit. "I can't remember the last time I got eight
hours sleep," a bleary-eyed man behind me announces to
no one in particular.
After signing in, I grab a chair from a stack in the
corner and take a seat, studying a sign that implores
me to be "true" and "passionate" and "creative." In
reality, passion and creativity have nothing to do with
it. Labor Ready provides warm bodies for grunt work
that pays minimum wage or thereabouts. "Here's a
sledgehammer, there's the wall," is how Stacey Burke,
the company's vice-president of communications,
characterized the work to Businessweek back in 2006.
It's not a pretty formula, but it works. With 600
offices and a workforce of 400,000 - more employees
than Target or Home Depot - Labor Ready is the
undisputed king of the blue-collar temp industry.
Specializing in "tough-to-fill, high-turnover
positions," the company dispatches people to dig
ditches, demolish buildings, remove debris, stock giant
fulfillment warehouses - jobs that take their toll on a
body. (See "I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave.") And
business is booming. Labor Ready's parent company,
TrueBlue, saw its profits soar 55 percent last year, to
$31 million, on $1.3 billion in sales. The Bureau of
Labor Statistics predicts that "employment services,"
which includes temporary labor, will remain among the
fastest growing sectors through 2020. TrueBlue CEO
Steve Cooper, who took home nearly $2 million last
year, predicts "a bright future ahead."
The woman behind the counter, whom I'll call Natalie,
turns on a television and pops in a video that
job-seekers must tolerate every morning no matter how
many times they've seen it. On the screen, a man who
lost his arm in a workplace accident reminds us to be
safe. A sign on the wall to my left states the number
of consecutive days the branch has remained
accident-free - 330, which, given the physical nature
of the work, almost seems too good to be true.
At one end of the room, a slender black man with a
shaved head is leading an animated discussion of
current events. "If it was a brother coming across the
border, they would have sealed that shit up," he says.
The people around him nod. Someone comments that Latino
immigrants have it easy.
"No, I wouldn't say that," the man responds. "Don't
forget: They have no recourse if they get hurt." And
"they get 10 bucks an hour, but the men picking them up
on the corner are going to get 30 or 40 bucks an hour
out of them."
Labor Ready's business customers are billed for the
temp workers' wages, plus fees that cover things like
workers compensation insurance, payroll taxes, and, of
course, a significant markup. The clients save cash on
HR and training, and they save even more by eliminating
the need for health insurance, paid sick leave,
vacation time, and other standard employee benefits.
But for Labor Ready clients, perhaps the biggest
advantage is that they get workers who are "flexible" -
that is, dispensable. If you are unhappy with a Labor
Ready worker "for any reason," the company will replace
that worker free of charge. And temps quickly learn to
neither expect, nor ask for, raises, health care, or
job security of any sort.
This low-cost arrangement, which leaves workers largely
powerless, helps explain why more industries are
turning to perma-temp workforces. According to the
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for instance, more
than 15 percent of pickers, packers, movers, and
unloaders - the warehouse workers who jump into action
every time you order an item online - are temps. On
average, they are paid $3 an hour less than their
"The McDonalds of the Temp Industry"
Supplying cheap workers was Labor Ready's mission from
the day it launched in 1989. "We don't encourage them
to stay here," company cofounder Glenn Welstad once
admitted to a reporter. "If we paid them more money or
if we provided them with benefits, they would have a
tendency to stick around."
Welstad was a farm boy from North Dakota who amassed a
small fortune running a string of Hardee's restaurants.
When another of his numerous franchise efforts failed,
he paid $50 for a name change - Dick's Hamburgers
became Labor Ready - and set about applying the
principles of fast food to the temp market. He quickly
opened a slew of cookie-cutter offices around the
country, serving up cheap labor instead of burgers. The
goal, in his words, was to become "the McDonalds of the
Welstad's timing was ideal. During the 1990s, employers
were developing an insatiable appetite for short-term
labor to cut costs and respond to fluctuating demand.
In the early 1980s, employment in the "temporary help
services" industry - which covers both temp workers and
employees of the firms that supply them - stood in the
several hundreds of thousands. Now it's 2.5 million, a
seven-fold increase in less than four decades. By 2020,
the BLS foresees more than 440,000 new jobs in the
In the meantime, the temp craze has expanded from air-
conditioned offices to warehouses and construction
sites. In 1990, a year after Labor Ready was founded,
clerical workers made up 42 percent of the temp
workforce, with blue-collar workers comprising about 25
percent. By 2000, the numbers were flipped, a
phenomenon driven by the outsourcing of American
manufacturing jobs. In 1989, according to a forthcoming
article in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review,
only 1 in 43 manufacturing jobs were temporary. By
2006, 1 in 11 were.
As the prospects for stable blue-collar employment
soured, Labor Ready's sales soared. In 1991, it had
eight stores and booked a modest $6 million in revenue.
The company went public in 1998, and by 2000 it had
nearly $1 billion in revenue and 852 offices, covering
every state in the nation, plus outlets in Canada,
Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom.
Labor Ready had other trends on its side as well.
Welstad credited welfare reform with dumping more cheap
workers at his door: Depending on the state, somewhere
between 15 and 40 percent of former welfare recipients
found work as temps. It certainly didn't hurt that
people who'd gotten tangled up in the drug war were
finding regular employment was hard to come by.
Soon after Labor Ready went public, it became a target
of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades
Department, which was seeking to unionize temporary
workers. "From a corporate campaign perspective it was
like a dream come true," remembers Will Collette, the
lead researcher in the endeavor. In the end, the union
gave up on Labor Ready. While high injury rates were
documented in the company's SEC filings, "workers were
almost impossible to organize," Collette says. "They
were angry, but didn't stick around. I've never seen a
multinational company whose workforce turns over every
In 2000, CEO Welstad resigned abruptly after taking out
an "unauthorized loan" of $3.5 million. While the loan
was quickly repaid, the fallout left Labor Ready
reeling, and it took a few years to regain its footing.
In 2007, the company changed its name to TrueBlue, but
it retained Labor Ready as its primary brand, which
today accounts for nearly two-thirds of overall
Rather than continue Welstad's aggressive expansion,
which required severe cutbacks during recessions,
current CEO Steve Cooper has instead focused on
managing costs and diversifying: TrueBlue now owns four
other small staffing companies specializing in
industries like aviation and trucking, and is focused
on landing big national accounts such as Walmart, which
has utilized Labor Ready's services. There's also been
a marked shift in public relations. At times, Welstad
seemed hardly able to contain his disdain for temp
workers - "The segment we deal with lacks discipline,"
he told the Chicago Tribune. But Cooper now
characterizes TrueBlue as a socially conscious firm
dedicated to "changing the world by putting people to
work." Labor Ready, its website boasts, is the place
for companies who need people that will put in "an
honest day's work for an honest day's pay."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
"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.
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
"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
"Oh," says the dispatcher, flashing an understanding
smile. "They just wanted you to check in early. That's
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
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
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.
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?"
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."
[Freelance journalist Gabriel Thompson is the author of
the book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the
Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do.
This story was produced with support from the Economic
Hardship Reporting Project.]
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