Michael Grabbel of ProPublica wrote an in-depth provocative look at the rise of the temp worker in America. It was published in TIME Magazine, The 4. A.M. Army: Every morning, hundreds of thousands of workers show up for jobs that are unseen, uncertain and underpaid—and vital to the U.S. economy. This piece was a collaboration between Time and ProPublica showing us what it’s like to be a part of the booming temp industry. Spoiler alert: The workers’ lives are not booming.
You can read the article to get the specifics. Basically, temp workers are not covered by workmen’s comp insurance, they aren’t backed by unions (this is starting to change, albeit very slowly), they’re paid less than minimum wage, they have to pay their own money to get to their work sites (even though they’re not supposed to), their jobs aren’t guaranteed, they have no federal protection, and they have nearly zero chance at upward mobility.
The article featured Rosa Ramirez as an example of what life is like for a temp worker.
Ramirez lives in the living room of an old Victorian boardinghouse. There is a cheap mattress on the floor, and a sheet covers the French doors that separate her room and the hallway. The rent is $450 a month, which she splits with her boyfriend, who works as a carpet installer. She shares the kitchen and bathroom with another family. A trap by her door guards against the rats that have woken her at night.
Her statement at the end of the article had my flaming liberal heart in a vice.
Passing through Chicago’s working-class suburbs recently, Ramirez pointed to a row of small, red brick homes. “I’ve always dreamed of having a little house, a really small little house,” she said. Asked whether she thought she’d ever be able to buy one, she laughed. “Earning $8.25 an hour?” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that.
The whole system that proliferates these injustices on the people who are most scared to speak up (since they have the most to lose) makes me so angry. You hear about WalMart rolling back prices all the time. That’s because they spend less money on labor. They don’t have to pay full-time wages or health benefits or retirement savings. It just makes me sick. I don’t know enough about the political machinations that contribute to this inequitable system. But I do know when you support companies who unfairly treat their employees, you are participating in that cycle. Just like when you support companies that conduct animal research, you are also responsible for their pain and suffering.
In the TIME online discussion, the first question asked who companies outsource their labor to temp agencies.
This isn’t easy to answer because corporations aren’t required to report which temp agencies they work with and temp agencies aren’t required to report who they serve. But we were surprised to find these workers in the supply chains of some of America’s best known companies and brands – Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, FritoLay, Fresh Express, Del Monte, Marlboro, Sony, Smirnoff, Walgreen’s.
Once you know something, you can’t un-know it. When you know a company treats its workers as no better than slave labor, it’s really hard to justify buying their goods again. I don’t know what the answer is for the consumer who wants to make more ethical choices. At times I do feel stuck between a horrible choice and a slightly less horrible choice. But just because we don’t know the clear answer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the questions.
If you are in any position to make choices you probably have some disposable income. Disposable income is what separates us from the temp workers. This poor woman has busted her ass for more than a decade and yet her bedroom is a mattress in a rat-ridden boardinghouse? I feel like the frickin’ King of England in comparison. Who am I to be upset that I can’t afford organic eggs or that I can’t fix the rear defrost on my car. I have a kitchen! I have a car! I have a full-time permanent job that pays me health insurance and allows me to contribute to a 401(k) plan and pays me for vacation time and sick time. How did I get so lucky? So much of life is luck. It is stupid, random, ridiculous luck. It’s not just that I had an education or I worked hard; it’s that I happened to be born to parents who believe in education. That I happened to be born to parents who live in America. That I happened to be born to parents who weren’t starting out in debt. That I happened to be born to parents who had access to birth control.
That is what people don’t get when they bitch about “entitlement” programs. They forget we weren’t all born at the same starting line, with an emergency fund, in a good school, with family members who could help out when it was tough, in a community that valued education and minimized crime. I was born lucky. That’s all it was. Stupid, random, ridiculous luck.
I got lucky when I married my husband and his mom gave us money. That was money we could put as a down payment on a house. That was money that allowed us to build equity. That was money that will allow us to give a child their own bedroom one day and it won’t be on a mattress in a rat-ridden apartment. I got lucky when my grandfather died and left my parents money so that they could save to send us to college so I would graduate with minimal student loan debt. When you graduate school and you join the workforce, the kids with the least debt are the furthest ahead of their peers. They will always be further ahead. So much of life is crappy luck, but so much provides fortunes that are beyond Rosa Ramirez’s wildest dreams.
I don’t have the answer to this multifaceted, global problem of temp workers. Today I know these truths: I can pay more money for a product from a more ethical company. I can be grateful for all the people who helped me along the way. I can pay it forward.