The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The
by Dave Jamieson,
Huffington Post reporter
December 20, 2011
JOLIET, Ill., and FONTANA, Calif. -- Like nearly everyone
else in Joliet without good job prospects, Uylonda Dickerson
eventually found herself at the warehouses looking for work.
"I just needed a job," the 38-year-old single mother says.
Dickerson came to the right place. Over the past decade and
a half, Joliet and its Will County environs southwest of
Chicago have grown into one of the world's largest inland
ports, a major hub for dry goods destined for retail stores
throughout the Midwest and beyond. With all the new
distribution centers have come thousands of jobs at
"logistics" companies -- firms that specialize in moving
goods for retailers and manufacturers. Many of these jobs
are filled by Joliet's African Americans, like Dickerson,
and immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
But many bottom-rung workers like Dickerson don't work for
the big corporations whose products are in the warehouses,
or even the logistics companies that run them. They go to
work for labor agencies that supply workers like Dickerson.
Last year, she found work as a temp through one of the
myriad staffing agencies that serve big-box retailers and
their contractors. Thanks largely to the warehousing boom,
Will County has developed one of the highest concentrations
of temp agencies in the Midwest.
Dickerson, grateful to have even a temp job, was taken on as
a "lumper" -- someone who schleps boxes to and from trailers
all day long. As unglamorous as her duties were, Dickerson
became an essential cog in one of the most sophisticated
machines in modern commerce -- the Walmart supply chain.
Walmart, the world's largest private-sector employer, had
contracted a company called Schneider Logistics to operate
the warehouse. And Schneider, in turn, had its own contracts
with staffing companies that supplied workers.
The experience would change the way Dickerson saw the retail
industry -- particularly during the frenetic run-up to the
holidays, when workers are under tremendous pressure to get
products out the door and into stores.
"I don't think people know what the people in those
warehouses have to go through to get them their stuff in
those stores," Dickerson says. "If you don't work in a
warehouse, you don't know."
Dickerson quickly discovered that the work wasn't easy, if
there was any work at all. Each morning she showed up at her
warehouse, she wasn't sure whether she'd be assigned a
trailer and earn a day's pay. She says there were days that
she and many temps were told simply to go home, without pay,
since there wasn't as much product to unload as expected.
Sometimes Dickerson was told they didn't have any trailers
light enough for a woman, she says.
But on most days the warehouse teemed with lumpers, many of
them wearing different colored t-shirts to signify the
different agencies they worked for. Dickerson herself would
work for two different labor providers within the same
warehouse in a little more than a year.
The difficulty of a lumper's day often went according to
chance. A lucky lumper might be assigned a container filled
with boxes of Kleenex or stuffed animals, while an unlucky
lumper might pull a container filled with kiddie swimming
pools or 200-pound trampolines. For the heaviest lifts,
Dickerson would be assigned a partner, and the two would
split the pay for the trailer, moving the massive boxes onto
pallets by hand.
The job was fast-paced and stressful. Dickerson says
supervisors would walk along the warehouse's bay doors,
marking the workers' progress over time. The supervisors,
Dickerson and other workers say, often told them to speed it
up if they wanted to be invited back. Many of the workers
were temps with no job security and no recourse. And the
local unemployment rate, then around 11 percent, promised a
long line of potential replacements.
"By the end of the day, your body hurts so bad," says
Dickerson, who was among a small minority of females working
as lumpers at the warehouse. "You tell them you can't do it
the next day, ... they'll tell you, 'We've got four more
people waiting for your job.'"
For a while, Dickerson worked according to "piece rate" --
she was paid not by the hour but by the trailer -- a
stressful pay scheme meant to encourage her and her
colleagues to work faster and faster, and one that the labor
movement worked hard to abolish in many industries in the
20th century. Each paycheck was different than the last, and
most of them were disappointingly low, she says. In her year
at the warehouse, Dickerson says she never had health
benefits, sick days or vacation days. If she didn't unload
containers, she didn't get paid.
"It all depends on how fast you work," she says. "It's like
a race. You're racing to get done with the trailer so you
can get another one. Otherwise, you won't get enough money."
The warehouse floor wasn't a very welcoming place for a
woman, Dickerson says. As one of the relatively few female
lumpers, she says she was often fending off crude overtures
from male co-workers. And then there were the bathroom
issues. While it was piece rate when it benefited the boss,
the clock came on for break time. Each day Dickerson had two
15-minute personal breaks in addition to her lunch, but the
warehouse was so sprawling -- it covered ground equal to
several football fields -- that it could take her five
minutes to walk each way to get some air or use the
bathroom, leaving her with only five minutes of personal
"When I used to go to the bathroom, I literally had somebody
counting down the minutes," Dickerson says.
It was particularly difficult when she was on her period and
she felt couldn't use the restroom when she needed to.
Eventually, she was being reprimanded for too many breaks,
she says. Worried about losing her job, she says she tried
so hard to avoid using the bathroom that she eventually
developed a bladder infection.
Physically and emotionally drained, Dickerson stopped
showing up at the warehouse earlier this year.
"My body still is not the same," she says. "I still have
aches and I still have pains. I have migraines because of
the stress I went through working at that place."
Dickerson says she's now living in a house where the
electricity and water have been shut off, sharing a cell
phone with some of her neighbors. She's on government-
sponsored health care, just as she was while working at the
warehouse, and she now relies on food stamps to get by.
The one place she refuses to take her food stamps is
Walmart. * * * * *
Walmart may have been the end beneficiary of Dickerson's
sweat, but the big-box retailer wasn't directly responsible
for her low pay or her aching body. That's one of the many
benefits to an employment arrangement based on outsourcing
and subcontracting: The corporation at the top indemnifies
itself from any unpleasantness at the bottom, thanks to the
smaller corporate players in the middle. Many American
companies have woken up to this fact, with broad
implications for the future of blue-collar work.
"It seems to be spreading like wildfire," Nelson
Lichtenstein, a professor of American labor history at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, says of such
outsourcing, particularly as it relates to temp workers like
Dickerson. "All of these companies, wherever they possibly
can, they want to create a workforce that doesn't work for
them. The question is, Why? What is the incentive?"
"They're smart," he says. "They run the numbers."
Earlier this year, temporary workers at a Pennsylvania plant
packing Hershey products staged a mass walkout over what
they described as abusive working conditions. The workers,
who were students from Asia and Eastern Europe here on J-1
guest visas for the summer, said they were required to lift
50-pound boxes throughout the day and were threatened with
deportation if they couldn't keep up. Although they packed
Hershey goods, the students were employed by a staffing
company twice removed from Hershey, which had more than $5
billion in revenues last year. Similar outsourcing has
spread to much of the American food-packing industry.
But such sub-contracting isn't contained to warehouses and
plants. In an effort to cut costs, even hotels have started
quietly contracting out a considerable chunk of their back-
of-the-house workforce to labor agencies. Hyatt, for
example, has replaced many of its housekeepers with cheaper
temp workers. Hyatt's direct hires now work alongside many
lesser-paid agency workers, some of whom work on a temporary
basis for years on end, tracking the minimum wage.
Such subcontracting enables corporations to essentially take
workers off their books, foisting the traditional
responsibilities that go with being an employer -- paying a
reasonable wage, offering health benefits, providing a
pension or retirement plan, chipping into workers'
compensation coverage -- conveniently onto someone else.
Workers like Dickerson, of course, aren't accounted for when
Walmart touts that more than half of its workforce receives
As manufacturing jobs continue to head overseas, Americans
need new sectors that can provide good, middle-class work
for millions of people. Driven as it is by the consumer
economy, the retail supply chain should be one of those
sectors. But plenty of workers who are lucky enough to have
jobs in the industry find themselves earning poverty wages.
And while workers get squeezed in the name of lower prices,
the overall benefits to consumers may be illusory. By many
measures, the middle class is shrinking -- and not just
because of the Great Recession. There are simply fewer jobs
that pay good wages. More than 46 million Americans --
roughly one in six -- are now living in poverty, the highest
number ever recorded by the Census Bureau. Between 2001 and
2007, as the economy boomed, poverty expanded among working-
age people for the first time ever during a period of
growth. Workers on the whole made less at the end of the
boom than they did at the beginning.
In the case of the warehouse industry, where permanent temps
are now common, many workers performing the most difficult
jobs don't even enjoy the status of basic employees. They
work at the pleasure of the agencies employing them. For
many of them, getting hurt or slowing down means the end of
their gig with no parting compensation -- similar to the
arrangement detailed in a devastating expose of an Amazon
warehouse by the Pennsylvania Morning Call in September.
"We have the re-industrialization of America in this
distribution nexus," says Lichtenstein. "It's a booming
sector of our economy. The kind of work they do is factory
labor, and they should be earning [good wages] with
benefits. But instead, it's insecure, and it's low-wage.
"This is the blue-collar working class that should be
replacing the steel worker," he says. * * * * *
Until a year ago, Debora Terkelson worked in the Costco
warehouse near Mira Loma, Calif. She ran one of the
cigarette machines, handling boxes of smokes, until she
threw her back out moving a heavy load in April 2010, she
says. She worked a few months of light duty but eventually
even that proved too painful. No longer able to work, she's
now collecting workers' compensation.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to lift again," says
Terkelson, 48. "Just doing my laundry each day is a new
adventure in pain."
Her life-altering injury notwithstanding, Terkelson had it
pretty good by warehouse standards, and in many ways she's
lucky to be collecting workers' comp benefits. She says the
Costco distribution center is one of the good players in the
Inland Empire, an area of Southern California that
encompasses San Bernardino and Riverside counties and is now
home to one of the largest warehouse clusters in the world.
Costco's well-earned reputation for treating its in-store
employees well carries over to its warehouse. The Costco
warehouse does not rely on temp workers. It hires employees
directly, it pays pretty well and it has a safety
representative and even stretching classes. Despite all
that, the company still manages to provide some of the
lowest prices available to consumers.
"We tend to not outsource even if we could save money by
doing it," says Richard Galanti, Costco's chief financial
officer. "We recognize it might cost more but we think it's
the right thing to do. ... Everyone in the building feels
like they're employed."
That attitude makes Costco an outlier in the area, Terkelson
says. Her son worked in a nearby shoe warehouse for a temp
agency. He came home exhausted each day, with little to show
for it, though she guesses the agency made pretty good money
off of his work. "They hire them, and as soon as they don't
need them, they get rid of them," she says. "They don't
care. They treat them like a slave. I'm sorry."
Despite the economic downturn, the Inland Empire is still in
the midst of a long-term warehousing boom. Some of the first
arrived in the 1990s, when retailers and developers took
notice of the area's relatively affordable land and lax
regulatory atmosphere. Walmart, Target, Home Depot, and
Lowe's all picked up warehouse space in the area. They
continue to sprout up today, creeping further eastward, some
of them with footprints covering more than a million square
As in Joliet, locals and politicians in Southern California
have hoped warehouse work might replace the decent blue-
collar jobs that disappeared with much of the American
manufacturing sector in the late decades of the last
century. Even if we no longer manufacture much in America,
we will always need workers to handle all the clothing,
electronics, furniture and toys that come here from Asia.
And with its proximity to the ports in and around Los
Angeles, where the cheap imports from China and elsewhere
tend to land, the Inland Empire seemed poised as well as
anyone to net a lot of working-class jobs.
There's no doubt that retailers and logistics companies have
benefited from the Inland Empire's warehouse boom. The
question is whether blue-collar workers have benefited in
John Husing says they have. An economist who's consulted to
local governments dealing with the logistics industry,
Husing says, "for blue collar workers, the decline in
manufacturing shut off their access through that sector to
the middle class. In Southern California in particular,
logistics has become an alternative to get to the same
Others are less boosterish, including Juan De Lara, an
assistant professor at the University of Southern California
who's studied the logistics industry in the region. "It's
been good to many workers who get paid decent wages for
higher-skilled jobs as direct employees," says De Lara. "But
it's also been pretty terrible for the workers that work for
these temporary agencies."
There are now more than 125,000 direct-hire, full-time jobs
in the Inland Empire's logistics industry. Available data
makes it difficult to know just how many temp jobs there.
Husing doubts it's more than 10,000. Others believe it's
several times that number -- perhaps even half of all jobs
in logistics, according to Warehouse Workers United, a
union-backed group that now advocates on behalf of the
area's lowest-paid warehouse workers. (Husing dismisses the
group's numbers: "The people who throw that stuff around are
ideologues. They don't want that sector to survive because
they consider it to be dirty.")
The group says the number of temp jobs in the region has
skyrocketed in the last two decades, thanks largely to the
explosion in the number of warehouses. The industry relies
so heavily on temp work that many temp agencies actually
have offices inside the warehouses themselves.
Sheheryar Kaoosji, an organizer with Warehouse Workers
United, says a decade ago, the ratio of direct hires to
temps was 80 percent to 20 in many warehouses.
"Now, it's the opposite. And it's accelerated with the
[economic] crash," Kaoosji says. "The way that these guys
work -- the way a Walmart operates -- every year they're
going to push costs down on each of their contractors. Every
year, they're coming back, 'This is going to cost less.'
Every year you do that, it's going to have an effect. The
conditions are going to go down.
"At this point, the wages in some of the facilities have
gone down below the federal and state minimums," he says. *
* * * *
With most retailers getting the same products from the same
place -- i.e., Asia -- the supply chain has become one of
the few arenas where big-box chains can compete. This
competition has led to a tremendous pressure to move goods
as quickly as possible. Even the word "warehouse" itself has
become something of a misnomer; the idea is no longer to
house goods but to keep them moving, from port to rail to
tractor-trailer to store display. That's why many warehouses
have morphed into what's called a "cross dock": the products
come in one side of the warehouse and almost immediately go
out the other, barely touching the ground.
Despite modern automation, most warehouses still require
bodies, and the pressure to move goods faster and faster
often falls on the ones at the bottom. It doesn't help that
many of the workers toiling inside the Inland Empire's
distribution centers are believed to be undocumented workers
from Mexico -- a workforce that's generally grateful for
whatever pay it can get and far less likely than American
citizens to report workplace abuses, for fear of
There's plenty of opportunity for exploitation. According to
charges filed by the California labor department this fall,
a company operating in a warehouse handling Walmart goods
was allegedly breaking labor law by not providing workers
with legitimate earnings statements. Officials allege most
of the lumpers were being paid on a piece rate plan that
many of them couldn't understand, in what officials have
described as a "concerted effort" to cheat the workers out
of their wages. The state issued more than $1 million in
The two labor suppliers cited, Tennessee-based Impact
Logistics and North Carolina-based Premier Warehousing,
apparently have contracts with Schneider, which, in turn,
has a contract with Walmart. Neither Schneider nor Walmart
has been accused of any wrongdoing, precisely the outcome
the contractor arrangement facilitates.
Julie Su, the California labor commissioner, told HuffPost
at the time that the layers of outsourcing can make it
nearly impossible to hold big players accountable -- a huge
collateral benefit in addition to any cost-cutting that goes
with subcontracting. "Warehouses are one example of the
ever-increasing contracting out of labor," Su said. "It's
difficult for enforcement, and in many instances it's a
deliberate effort to avoid compliance."
Six lumpers at the warehouse filed a class-action lawsuit on
the heels of the state investigation. Everardo Carrillo and
his co-workers say they've been moving Walmart goods in a
warehouse where the temperature regularly climbs to over 90
degrees, walking in and out of 53-foot-long steel containers
that get even hotter baking in the Southern California sun.
After working for a set hourly wage, the workers claim that
a year and a half ago they were switched to a piece-rate pay
plan -- an arrangement largely out of a bygone era. Their
bosses told them they would earn "much more money" under the
new scheme, which paid them according to the container, but
their earnings actually fell, according to the lawsuit.
The workers claim it was never made clear how their pay was
supposed to break down -- an allegation apparently bolstered
by the state's investigation. They claim that when they
complained about their confusing paychecks, their
supervisors responded by sending them home without pay or
refusing to give them work the following day. The lumpers
were working on a temp basis. According to the lawsuit, the
majority of workers were direct hires as recently as 2006;
now, three out of every four workers are temps.
When asked if a Schneider executive could be interviewed
about allegations from temp workers in its warehouses, a
spokesperson sent HuffPost a statement, saying its labor
suppliers are "separate corporate entities": "The only legal
avenue which Schneider has to enforce their compliance would
be to terminate the contract with these vendors. We have no
plans to terminate the contracts with our vendors; our
expectation is that they will comply with all applicable
statutes, regulations and orders."
Walmart, whose products the workers were handling, also kept
an arm's length from the charges. When HuffPost reported on
the state investigation and lawsuit in October, a Walmart
spokesman said the retailer is "not involved in this
matter." When a similar lawsuit was filed in April in
Illinois -- again, naming low-level companies contracted to
move Walmart products -- the company asserted its distance
from the allegations then as well, a spokesman noting that
"the facility isn't operated by Walmart nor are the people
who work in it employed by Walmart."
In an interview, Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman declines to
say how much of Walmart's logistics work is outsourced, but
he says the company has 147 distribution centers across the
country, the majority of them owned and operated by Walmart
itself. Indeed, the jobs at Walmart's smaller, more regional
distribution centers are known to be good, highly coveted
jobs. When asked why the company would outsource the work at
some of its largest and most important facilities, Fogleman
says there are times when a third-party can simply do it
better, faster and cheaper.
"Since the early days of our company, the ability to move
products quickly and efficiently has really been a driver
for our success," Fogleman says. "We're looking for every
opportunity to improve our efficiencies. Sometimes that
means doing it ourselves; sometimes we're using partners to
achieve that. ... We're an advocate for our customers. We're
doing everything we can to provide them with low prices." As
for the allegations from contracted workers in the Inland
Empire and elsewhere, Fogleman says, "We have serious
concerns when our contractors or sub-contractors are cited
for those types of violations. We hold all of our
contractors to the highest standards."
[Video - A promotional video for Impact Logistics, a company
recently fined by the California labor department.
Ana Sanchez, a 46-year-old from Mexico, says immigrants like
her in the Inland Empire inevitably find themselves looking
for work at the warehouses. In 2007, Sanchez herself took a
job through a labor agency wrapping and labeling boxes on
pallets inside a warehouse she says moved products for Sears
and K-Mart, among others. Sanchez was surprised to learn
that the work there was as strenuous as it was back in
She started at $6.75 an hour and says her wage climbed to
more than $8 over time, though it was outstripped by a
growing workload. Sanchez' gig required carrying a roll of
shrink wrap that, when full, weighed around 50 pounds, and
slapping labels on boxes at a dizzying pace; she went
through between 5,000 and 8,000 labels on a typical day, she
"I would often get the heaviest loads of work because I was
so fast," Sanchez says. "Whenever there was a rush order
they would call on me because I was two rolls quicker than
the other girls."
The job also required a lot of stooping over in tight
spaces. One day in 2009, Sanchez threw out her back while
working on a rush order. She hoped to be put on light duty
or trained for a new, less intensive job, but she says she
was being passed back and forth between the company that ran
the warehouse and the labor company that she technically
worked for. Soon she was fired for allegedly botching an
order, she says.
"When you go in to work for a warehouse you give it your
all," she says. "When you get hurt, they treat you as though
it doesn't matter."
Sanchez hasn't been able to do manual labor for two years.
So what does she do for money?
"I have a lot of friends and relatives who place orders for
me to cook tamales," she says with a shrug.
o some people in the Inland Empire, the warehouses have come
to represent a dubious bargain. Some good salaries have
certainly come with the logistics industry; a directly hired
forklift operator, for instance, can expect to make a decent
living. But there weren't supposed to be so many temporary
positions with measly wages and no benefits. In fact,
critics say that temp salaries weren't even figured into the
economic projections trotted out by industry boosters and
developers who sold the public on the logistics industry.
What they did include were the theoretical salaries of
unionized warehouse workers and even airplane pilots.
The Inland Empire's thousands of warehouse jobs may also
have come at a cost to public health. What used to be dairy
fields and vineyards two decades ago are now warehouse
tracts. Buffeted by mountains to the north and east, and
absorbing winds coming from Los Angeles to the west, the
Inland Empire has a geological gift for trapping particulate
pollution. The area boasted some of the worst air in the
country before the logistics boom; residents say it's now
Mira Loma Village, a community of 101 stucco townhouses
populated mostly by Latino families, has been hemmed in by
warehouses on all sides, with several thousand trucks
rolling past the community each day. According to a study
done by researchers at the University of Southern
California, kids in Mira Loma have abnormally weak lung
capacity and slow lung growth. And more warehouses are on
"I see it. I smell it. I can feel it," says Laura Borrayo,
42, a Mira Loma resident whose backyard is often coated in a
layer of soot from the truck traffic. She says some of the
neighborhood children have developed asthma due to the bad
Citing some of the worst diesel pollution in the country,
Mira Loma residents have filed a lawsuit to stop the latest
logistics project -- an additional 24 warehouses, covering
1.4 million square feet and expected to bring another 1,500
trucks per day, according to the L.A. Times. Residents say
the project will occupy what has become the last shred of
their buffer zone against the warehouses, taking away their
view of the mountains in the process. The lawsuit has put
the project on hold for the moment.
Among the residents in Mira Loma Village opposed to more
warehouses is Terkelson, the Costco warehouse employee.
"I've lived in this area for years. When I was a kid, it was
beautiful out here," Terkelson says. "But everything went
downhill. People don't even realize what they're breathing.
The soot, it's nasty. I don't wash my car no more, because
it doesn't do no good."
Residents haven't had much luck fighting warehouses in the
past, having been cast as opponents of much-needed jobs.
Riverside County has an unemployment rate hovering around 14
percent. Penny Newman, director of the Center for Community
Action and Environmental Justice, which filed the Mira Loma
lawsuit, says the kinds of jobs brought by the warehouses
aren't worth the costs.
"There was a lot of fanfare about goods movement being the
economic engine of the future," says Newman. "We've
discovered that these are not the kinds of jobs anyone
should have under the conditions they're facing. ... They're
temp jobs and they're low-paying and the conditions are
"The money is made by others," Newman says. * * * * *
For a lot of the goods that enter the U.S. through the
Inland Empire, the next stop is the greater Joliet area,
among the largest rail hubs in the country. Within a day's
drive of two-thirds of the country, Joliet itself is now
home to not one but two massive "intermodal terminals" --
the two modes being rail and truck -- receiving freight from
the West Coast that's then hauled to the area's warehouses
and, later, to stores across the U.S.
For one former Teamster who found himself unemployed last
year, the growth of the logistics industry in Will County
looked like his ticket back into the middle class. Last year
this Joliet native, who's in his 50's, responded to an ad in
the local paper; a labor agency was bringing on workers to
move goods for a major retailer. The firm promises to save
its clients on labor costs while simultaneously boosting
worker efficiency. (Due to ongoing litigation, neither the
worker nor the company will be identified.)
Demonstrating just how booming the logistics industry is in
Joliet, the man says the firm was actually sending vehicles
out into the community as part of a mobile hiring effort, a
bit of proactive recruitment that's hard to find in this
economy. He was quickly hired, probably due to his past
experience, and to what he pitched as his greatest strength:
"I don't miss days."
The fact that this man found himself working as a warehouse
temp speaks to his diminished opportunities. He'd been a
Teamster for 12 years, driving a truck for a bread company
that was eventually shut down, and then for a waste-
management company that was relocated to the other side of
Chicago, making the commute untenable. It was the kind of
good living that's now hard to find. Aside from whatever
highly desired jobs remain at the area's lingering
refineries, he sees little work outside of the area's new
"That's all that's out here," he says.
His trucking experience landed him a pretty cherry gig at
the warehouse. He worked primarily as a "spotter," pulling
loaded trucks from the bay doors and parking them for the
drivers who would take them away to other, smaller
distribution centers. He was paid $12 per hour to start,
about a buck more than most other new hires, he says. Though
he was merely a temp without job security, he considered
himself pretty lucky.
"I kind of liked the job," he says. "It wasn't a bad job."
But about six months in, he says he started to understand
how everything worked by design. He was shocked by the
warehouse's turnover rate, as new workers constantly came
and went, often leaving under bad terms. He guesses the
average worker lasted three months, many of them eventually
being "pointed out." As in many of Joliet's warehouses, he
and his colleagues were working under a demerit system,
receiving points for being tardy, missing shifts or not
"making rate." Once you hit 10 points, you're gone, he says.
He now argues that workers don't last in part because
they're not supposed to. New workers, after all, are cheaper
workers. And he also says the little-known temp agencies are
there largely to facilitate the churn.
"That's part of the trick -- to put as many people between
[the retailers] and the actual workers, so they don't have
to deal with the actual workers," he says. "They don't have
this headache. ... They put these temp services between them
and the people."
The former Teamster's duties evolved at the warehouse, and
eventually he found himself filling online orders to be
shipped directly to customers' homes. Working off an order
list, he was expected to pick 500 boxes during his 12-hour
shift -- tight but doable. The problem, he says, is that
sometimes the products weren't where they were supposed to
be, which cut into his efficiency rate. He says he was
supposed to hit a perfect 100 percent each day, but
sometimes he dropped into the 90s due to missing products.
He clashed with a supervisor over the issue. "How do you
expect me to be perfect when the system isn't perfect?" he
One year into his job, he says he was canned after barely
missing his rate three days in a row, earning three
consecutive writeups -- a fireable offense. He wasn't
shocked. Having just hit his one-year anniversary, he had
become expensive, at least by warehouse standards. His pay
had risen to $14 an hour -- still not a living wage for the
area by some measures, but more than many lumpers will ever
see. He had also just started to accrue paid vacation time.
Or at least he thought he had.
According to a lawsuit the man filed earlier this year, his
company had agreed to give employees one week of paid
vacation after they'd worked for the company for a full
year. When he was terminated, he was told he'd come up a
mere 40 work hours short of earning vacation. But the man
says management's tally ignored the considerable overtime
he'd worked during the peak season.
The company wouldn't relent, so he and a colleague sued. In
addition to the vacation issue, they sued the company for
not paying workers for a minimum of four hours on days when
they were sent home early or without any work at all, as an
Illinois law now mandates. The company has denied the
Like many warehouse workers interviewed for this story, the
former Teamster has spent a lot of time wondering how much
money the agency made off of his work merely for supplying
him. The way he sees it, the reliance of Walmart and others
on temp agencies is the reason most of the warehouse jobs
will never lead to stable living, just the financial anxiety
of someone who's temping in perpetuity.
"You can't build on working at these warehouses," he says.
"I can't say, 'Sweetheart, let's get married. Let's have a
baby.' Because I don't know how long it's going to last. I
know I'm working now, but will I be working six months from
now? And how much money are they going to screw me out of?"
* * * * *
The Chicago area has long been home to warehouse jobs, and
the vast majority of them used to be decent, blue-collar
jobs, says Mark Meinster, international representative with
the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America
Union, or UE, which is leading an organizing effort of
warehouse workers in Joliet. Meinster says that over the
last two decades the jobs have changed along with the retail
With a growing focus on efficiency and cost-cutting within
the supply chain, what had been secure and well-paying union
jobs are now often low-paying temp jobs, he says. A UE-
backed group called Warehouse Workers for Justice
interviewed workers at more than 150 area warehouses in
2009, finding that despite plenty of good managerial
positions, about 63 percent of the workers in local
warehouses are temps earning less than direct hires. One in
four avail themselves of food stamps or welfare, and more
than a third have to work a second job to make ends meet.
(Warehouse Workers for Justice has no affiliation with the
California group Warehouse Workers United.)
"As late as the mid '90s, you saw many warehouse jobs that
paid a living wage," says Meinster. "In Chicago, we define
that as $15.87 an hour. Now, we're finding that the average
wage is somewhere around $9 an hour. Only 4 percent of the
workers get sick days. Many are on government assistance.
Sixty-two percent earn below the federal poverty line."
John Grueling isn't so bearish. As the head of the Will
County Center for Economic Development, a nonprofit
development corporation that did much to attract the
industry to Joliet, Grueling says the logistics industry has
brought some much-needed jobs to the area as manufacturing
has declined. Although he admits that the proliferation of
temps is something that concerns him, he says the good jobs
outweigh the bad.
"The competition is so severe that they're going to do what
they have to do, and in some cases, what they can get away
with it," Grueling says of the companies operating in the
warehouses. "But we think the industry as a whole is very
healthy for us." (Grueling says his group no longer tries to
lure logistics operations with juicy tax breaks the way they
Whatever the savings may be, there's another benefit to the
subcontracting model for the likes of Walmart: the
splintered workforce among all the temp agencies creates a
tremendous obstacle to unionization. Plenty of workers who
aren't necessarily conspiracy theorists consider it a form
of strategic disorganization emanating from down on high.
Unionization drives are easily scuttled. When it became
apparent that temps were organizing at a Joliet warehouse
for vacuum manufacturer Bissell two years ago, the workers
soon found themselves out of a job.
Fragmented though they are, dozens of warehouse workers have
managed to file class-action lawsuits alleging wage theft in
the last couple of years, many of them with the help of a
Chicago lawyer named Chris Williams, co-founder of the
Working Hands Legal Clinic, which litigates on behalf of
low-wage workers. Williams wrote a piece of legislation
called the Day and Temporary Labor Services Act, an attempt
by Illinois to wrap its hands around its booming and shadowy
temp labor industry.
The law requires that labor agencies register with the state
and also provide workers with written forms explaining what
kind of work they'll be doing and how much they'll be paid
for the assignment. Such rudimentary protections are needed,
Williams says. He and other worker advocates have discovered
fly-by-night temp agencies operating out of area garages,
convenience store parking lots and, in one case, a Super 8
In a lawsuit filed last month, 18 workers at the Walmart-
contracted warehouse accused a temp company called Eclipse
of not paying them the minimum wage and failing to pay them
for all the hours they worked. One worker, Roberto
Gutierrez, says he worked 21 hours in his first week and was
paid a mere $57. On his paystub the company says Gutierrez
worked only 12.5 hours, though by their math he still
doesn't seem to have been earning the minimum wage.
According to another lawsuit, one of the temp agencies
charged applicants for their own employment background
checks; when the cost was deducted from their first checks,
it pushed their pay below the minimum wage. Such lawsuits
are fast becoming a cost of doing business for the temp
"There's a huge problem with people being shorted," says
Williams. "In aggregate, it's millions and millions in
savings" for the companies.
So far, most of the energy from gadflies like Williams has
been devoted to the Walmart supply chain. Like others,
Williams argues that Walmart has trailblazed the temp-worker
model within the retail world, and that other major
retailers are simply following its path, as they often do.
None of the lawsuits involving the Walmart warehouse have
touched Walmart itself. But the way Illinois' temp labor law
was written, a company at the top of a contracting tree
could feasibly be held accountable for abuses at the bottom.
In one case, Williams discovered that there were four
companies separating Walmart from the workers who were
handling Walmart goods at the warehouse.
"I believe Walmart is experimenting," Williams says. Of the
area's warehouses generally, he adds, "You'll see temp
agencies that supervise temp agencies that deal with temp
agencies. It just adds another level of distance."
According to worker Demetrie Collins, the presence of temp
companies has been growing just as the conditions and pay
have been deteriorating. Collins says he earned a pretty
good wage running a forklift at one of the warehouses five
years ago. Then, after a break from work and a prison stint
for a drug charge, he says he returned to the warehouses to
see temp workers everywhere. He got on as a lumper at a
warehouse but was fired earlier this year, he says.
Unemployed, he now volunteers at Warehouse Workers for
"Hell yeah, there's more temp agencies," says Collins. "Used
to be they'd pay you good. But now, the warehouses are
paying you shitty, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Fire them today, temp services gonna replace them tomorrow.
They can treat the workers however they wanna treat them."
The downsides of temping go well beyond lower wages and
fewer benefits. Many workers have to call in to the
warehouse each morning to see if they still have a job for
the day, essentially making them job seekers-in-perpetuity.
The supplication can be demoralizing. One former lumper told
HuffPost his temp status once cost him a loan -- from a
payday lender. The lender apparently thought he posed too
great a risk, seeing as he had no guarantee on his
employment from week to week.
Meinster, of the UE, says the temp system creates an entire
tier of workers who are basically second-class.
"Despite the fact that these workers are paid poverty-level
wages, we estimate that about a trillion dollars comes
through Chicago on an annual basis," says Meinster. "That's
about $6 million per warehouse worker. Each worker is
responsible for moving $6 million worth of goods through
that supply chain. These are the workers who, collectively,
if they don't show up for a day, these companies would stand
to lose a lot of money.
"That's something these companies need to pay attention to,"
he says. * * * * *
A few months ago, the former Teamster heard about 50 job
openings at the warehouse for Central Foods, a food
wholesaler based in Joliet. The positions were similar to
ones at the warehouse where he'd temped, but the pay and
benefits seemed to be from another world. The Central Foods
jobs were union jobs, starting out at a livable $16 an hour,
with good health coverage, an annual raise, a 401(k) and a
chance to make as much as $24 an hour after a few years, he
"What was the difference?" the former Teamster asks
rhetorically. "No temp service."
Unfortunately, word about the direct-hire jobs had
apparently spread throughout Joliet, with the competition so
fierce that it made the local news. "Here they have health
benefits and a pension," one man told the Joliet Herald-News
in wonderment. "I never had a job that could do that for
me." Another applicant bemoaned all the temp warehouse jobs
on his resume. "It makes me look like a job hopper, but I'm
not," he said.
When the former Teamster arrived to apply, scores of eager
jobs seekers were already there, with a line coming out the
door and snaking around the corner. Ultimately, more than a
thousand people threw their hats in the ring, many of them
boasting previous warehouse experience. The former Teamster
waited nearly three hours to put in his application and make
his trusty pitch: "I don't miss days."
Must be a great gig if you can get it, he thought.
[slide show -
In the modern consumer economy, massive retailers like
Walmart and Target need to move goods as quickly as
possible, from port to rail to tractor-trailer to store
display. The competition has given rise to the logistics
industry, which specializes in moving goods for retailers
and manufacturers. Many of these firms now depend upon low-
paid temp workers to load and unload the products that
eventually make their way into our stores. These workers
often perform difficult jobs at roughly the minimum wage --
sometimes less, according to lawsuits -- and can go years
without benefits like health insurance.
[Before joining the D.C. bureau, Jamieson reported on
transportation issues for local Washington news site TBD.com
and covered criminal justice for Washington City Paper. He's
the author of a non-fiction book, Mint Condition: How
Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, and his stories
have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, The Washington
Post, and Outside. A Capitol Hill resident, he's won the
Livingston Award for Young Journalists and the Hillman
Foundation's Sidney Award.] _______________________________________________
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