Trouble in "Temp Town"

Investigative Reporter Michael Grabell Discusses the Plight of Blue-collar Temporary Workers

By Kay Bechtold

Salt Palace Convention Center, Salt Lake City (June 2, 2015)—Michael Grabell of ProPublica joined the conversation on the growth of temporary work in the U.S. during the 15th Annual Upton Sinclair Lecture for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting today at AIHce 2015. Grabell, a staff writer and investigative reporter, recounted his experiences visiting “temp towns,” places where hopeful temporary workers gather and often wait many hours for a chance of a day’s work through a temp agency. He conducted interviews with workers, analyzed data, and examined OSHA investigative files for his recent series of articles, “Temp Land: Working in the New Economy,” which calls attention to the hurdles blue-collar temporary workers face in the industry: low or lost wages, no benefits, dangerous work, and higher rates of injury.

The temp industry was the fastest growing industry in 2013, Grabell said. He cited Bureau of Labor Statistics data that counted 2.9 million temp staffing workers across the country—the highest number and proportion of those workers in U.S. history.

“Only 36 percent of workers have a job like we think of it,” Grabell said.

Grabell noted that blue-collar temporary work hasn’t changed much since around 1960, when the documentary film “Harvest of Shame” highlighted the challenges of American migrant agricultural workers. Workers used to “shape up” in the town square; now they gather on street corners and in labor halls. They still travel in buses, but instead of riding in the backs of pick-up trucks, they pile into 15-passenger vans—sometimes cramming up to 17 people into a minivan. Workers told Grabell stories about having to sit on wheel wells, crowding into trunk space, and lying on the floor of vehicles with other workers’ feet on top of them. Some women said they were forced to sit on the laps of men they didn’t know.

Temporary work remains seasonal: instead of strawberries and corn, today’s worker’s pack chocolate for Valentine’s Day and assemble barbeque grills near Memorial Day. Workers used to bunk in migrant housing; today, many temporary workers rent rooms in rundown houses.

Today’s temp workers often have to go through “raiteros”—labor brokers working for temp agencies to recruit workers—to get work, often somewhere in the supply chain of some of the largest companies in the U.S. Raiteros also play a part in forcing workers to pay fees for services like check cashing and rides that often cut their pay to below minimum wage, Grabell said.

“Whenever there was a pay problem, the temp agency would say, ‘Work it out with your raitero,’” he continued.

His talk complemented this morning’s General Session on the health and safety implications of the “fissured workplace,” where top Department of Labor administrators discussed how work has changed dramatically in recent years with contract and temporary work becoming increasingly common. And he set the stage for Wednesday’s AIHce movie matinee, “A Day’s Work,” a documentary film that focuses on the issues surrounding the death of 21-year-old temp worker Day Davis, who was killed on his first day on the job at a Bacardi bottling plant when he was crushed beneath a palletizer. Grabell examined the OSHA report for the incident while conducting research for his articles.

“The OSHA report was very revealing in terms of all the problems that were happening at Bacardi,” he said. “You could tell how frustrated the inspectors had gotten.”

The company appeared to try and shift blame for Davis’ death to the temp agency, taking the position that the company isn’t responsible for the safety of employees who don’t “belong to them,” Grabell said.

Toward the end of his lecture, Grabell told attendees that there are 40 countries around the world that provide more rights to temp workers than the U.S. currently does.

“The U.S. has some of the loosest or weakest regulations compared to other countries,” he said, noting that many countries—including Argentina, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Poland, and Russia—ban temps from doing hazardous work.

Grabell hopes to see more behavior changes and awareness surrounding this issue.

“The last time Congress had a hearing about temp work was in 1971,” Grabell said. Until the U.S. has regulations to help protect temp workers, he continued, “It’s important to get out to the community, to people who might work in these places.”

Kay Bechtold is assistant editor of The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce 2015 Highlights page.