Interfaith Worker Justice

This is what religion looks like.

Search
Death, discrimination and despair in N.J.'s temp industry

Death, discrimination and despair in N.J.'s temp industry

1 Comment(s) | Posted |

Andre Malok | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

From NJ.com:

by Kelly Heyboer

As the sun begins to rise, Rafael Sanchez emerges from the unheated garage that serves as his home and joins the other temporary workers hustling toward French Street.

He becomes part of a small crowd gathering outside of one of several storefront temporary employment agencies that line the busy street. While the rest of the city is waking up, this immigrant neighborhood in the heart of Middlesex County is bustling.

At 6 a.m., a gray van rumbles up to the agency Sanchez and about a dozen people silently climb inside. The van travels 30 miles south to a factory near Trenton.

For the next eight hours, Sanchez, 65, will stand at a packaging machine on an assembly line. Though he is a temp — short for  temporary worker — he has worked in this same factory for six years.

The Mexico native earns $10 an hour with no paid vacation days, few benefits and little hope of ever getting a raise. After his temp agency takes out taxes, the cost of the van ride and other fees, Sanchez will take home $295 at the end of the week, according to his pay stubs.

"Not enough," Sanchez says, in Spanish, with a weary smile. As an immigrant living in the country illegally, he says this is the best job he can find.

The business of providing blue-collar temps to factories and warehouses is booming in New Jersey, which now has one of the largest concentrations of temp workers in the nation, according to federal statistics. The increasing demand has helped spawn what researchers call "temp towns." They are places like Union City, Elizabeth and, especially, New Brunswick, with dozens of small temp agencies and neighborhoods full of temp workers.

But New Jersey's "temp towns" have a dark side. Workers and activists say the sector of the temporary employment industry supplying blue-collar workers to warehouses and factories is rife with mistreatment. They complain about low pay or not being paid at all, rampant racial and sexual discrimination, unsafe working conditions and a system that seems to exploit them at every turn.

Many temps, including Sanchez, are immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. They say the storefront temp agencies in Hispanic neighborhoods routinely overlook their illegal status and provide them with a vital link to paying jobs in New Jersey's growing network of warehouses and factories.

Because few temps are willing to risk deportation by reporting mistreatment to authorities, workers say they often endure working conditions reminiscent of the troubled countries they fled.

With assistance by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting -- a nonprofit news organization based in California -- NJ Advance Media spoke to dozens of temp workers, temp agency recruiters, labor activists, government officials and experts over several months about the industry in New Jersey. Among the findings, which reflect a national investigation by Reveal:

  • Racial discrimination is widespread in temp agencies supplying blue-collar workers. In New Jersey, agencies sending workers to warehouses and factories in Central and North Jersey are overwhelmingly located in Hispanic neighborhoods, according to one study. Workers allege companies prefer, and often request, Hispanic temps, who are less likely to complain about low pay or poor conditions because many of these workers are new immigrants or are living in the country illegally.
  • Gender discrimination is rampant in the employment agencies. Women are often paid less than men in blue-collar jobs. Photos taken by New Labor, a local activist organization, show some temp agencies advertise "women's jobs" and "men's jobs," in what a Rutgers University report calls a blatant violation of federal law.
  • Many warehouses and factories offer little, if any, safety training to temps. At least three workers have died in recent years, including a temp who was crushed while sorting packages at an Amazon fulfillment center in Woodbridge in 2013, according to U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports. Other New Jersey companies have been fined for exposing temp workers to hazardous chemicals, excessive noise and other dangerous conditions.
  • Several prominent temp agencies in New Brunswick and surrounding towns appear to be operating without a license, in violation of state law, according to a check of a state database of licensed firms. When questioned about the unlicensed firms, the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees licensing of temp agencies, said it would investigate. However, a department spokeswoman admitted Consumer Affairs has not investigated any temp agencies in years.

While parts of the U.S. economy have struggled to recover from the recession, the temp industry is thriving. Last year, there were nearly 3 million temps employed nationwide, an all-time record, according to data from the federal Department of Labor Statistics. Other studies conducted by the temp industry say the numbers are much higher and as many as one in 10 workers nationwide is temporary.

"There are more temp industry offices in the U.S. than (restaurants of) the big three burger companies —  McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's — combined," said George Gonos, a labor studies professor at Florida International University.

Middlesex County alone averaged between 18,000 and 23,000 temp workers a month last year, according to federal statistics. Temp workers made up more than 6 percent of the county's workforce, nearly triple the national average. Passaic and Burlington counties also have some of the highest percentages of temp workers in the nation.

While temps may bring to mind the image of the "Kelly Girl" office worker who is hired to do a few days of filing or reception work, the industry has changed. About half of temp workers nationwide work in transportation or "light industrial" jobs in warehouses and factories, according to government statistics.

Every time a consumer picks up something at Wal-Mart or orders something on Amazon, chances are good a temp worker has handled the merchandise. The low cost of these workers helps keep down the price of products and helps companies offer cheap, fast shipping.

In New Jersey, the temp industry has been fueled by the surge of container ships bringing foreign-made goods into the Port of Newark, the second-busiest port in the nation after the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

To handle the goods, companies have built giant warehouses and distribution centers near the New Jersey Turnpike.

Many companies and retail chains also save money by hiring third-party logistics firms to run the warehouses, according to researchers who study the industry. The logistics firms often hire temp agencies to supply staff for the warehouses to easily increase or decrease the number of workers during busy or slow seasons.

Some workers become "perma-temps," working in the same warehouse for years without getting hired as permanent employees with benefits.

Temp workers in New Jersey warehouses and factories typically earn between $8.38 (minimum wage) and $12 an hour, and have no guarantee of work every day, according to workers.

In many New Jersey warehouses and factories, the temp workforce is entirely Hispanic, Gonos said.

In a 2011 study, Gonos and a Rutgers researcher mapped dozens of blue-collar temp agencies in New Brunswick, Union City, Elizabeth, Paterson, Passaic, Plainfield, Trenton and other cities. Nearly all the agencies were located in or bordering on neighborhoods with the highest percentage of Hispanic residents.

Warehouse supervisors and employers want Hispanic workers, due in part to the fact that they are likely to accept low pay and difficult conditions because they are either new immigrants or are living here illegally, Gonos said.

"The reason they do that is they are the most vulnerable workforce and hardworking," Gonos said. "And the temp agencies exploit them to the hilt."

The New Jersey Staffing Alliance, the industry group that represents the state's temp agencies, disputes any allegations of widespread mistreatment of temporary workers.

Temp firms are closely watched by several state and federal agencies and undergo regular audits by their workers' compensation insurance providers, said Elaine Balady, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Staffing Alliance and a 30-year industry veteran.

"We have to meet the standards, and I think as an industry we do," said Balady, president of the Assurance Group, a Bergen County-based temp agency, executive search and consulting firm.

But Balady said there may be some temp agencies that are mistreating workers.

"Like every industry, there are some people who don't follow the rules," Balady said. "NJSA doesn't support that."

It is unclear how many temp workers in New Jersey are immigrants living here illegally.

Louis Kimmel, executive director of the New Brunswick-based worker activist group New Labor, says a large percentage of temp workers in immigrant neighborhoods turn to agencies because they are not authorized to work in the U.S.

"Temp agencies set up shop basically wherever there are Latino neighborhoods in New Jersey," said Kimmel, who has spent more than 15 years advocating for temp workers. "So that's New Brunswick, Perth Amboy, Paterson, Union City, Passaic, Plainfield."

Workers say it is easy to purchase forged Social Security cards or simply share stolen or fake Social Security numbers to fill out temp agency applications.

"That's the way everyone does it. You're able to find papers," said Carmelo Hernandez, 56, a temp worker who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico and says he has had the same $10.25-an-hour assignment unloading trucks at a clothing company warehouse for nine years.

Balady, the spokeswoman for the New Jersey Staffing Alliance, said her employment agency is among those that use E-Verify, the government's online system to check if a potential employee's name matches the Social Security number on his or her application.

Some states, including Arizona, Mississippi, South Carolina and Alabama, require employers to check E-Verify before hiring someone. New Jersey is among the states that don't require employers to use E-Verify.

Lyneer Staffing Solutions, a national temp agency with an office in New Brunswick, uses E-Verify and tries to confirm all its temps are in the country legally, said Bryan Smith, president of the Lawrenceville-based firm.

But the process is not foolproof, he said.

"All of our employees go through the full compliance and verification process," Smith said. "If people are presenting documents that are not theirs, we can't police everybody."

In a 2013 lawsuit, the former director of human resources at Lyneer accused the temp agency of intentionally using and hiring "illegal and/or undocumented employees." The lawsuit was settled out of court and neither side would comment on the case.

At Delta Personnel Services, president and chief executive officer Stan Lyskowski said his temp agency uses E-Verify to confirm temps are in the country legally only if a company requests it.

Delta places as many as 600 temps a week out of its offices in New Brunswick, Bound Brook and Somerset, said Lyskowski, a 30-year veteran of the temp industry. Under New Jersey law, temp agencies are not required to investigate whether the social security cards and immigration documents handed over by employees are legitimate.

"We certainly don't knowingly employ any illegal aliens," said Lyskowski. "If the documents presented to us look legitimate ... we process the person."

The temp agencies in New Brunswick are easy to spot. They are the businesses lit before dawn year-round. Inside, there are rows of men and women sitting in folding chairs. Some look anxious. All look weary.

They are waiting for their names to be called for a job for the day. The stakes are high. If their names are not called, they don't get paid. If they don't get paid too many days in a row, they can't pay their rent and they can't buy food.

Some are lucky to score "perma-temp" positions, assigned to the same warehouse or factory every day for years. Others sit in the agencies daily, waiting for short-term assignments.

Reynalda Cruz said she spent nearly two decades working on and off for On Target, Delta, Olympus and a long list of other local temp agencies in her New Brunswick neighborhood.

Over the years, she packed flowers, boxed up candies, sorted packages, worked on an assembly line at a pharmaceutical company and did other jobs at a series of warehouses across Central Jersey.

If she complained that the agency vans were overcrowded or the warehouses were unheated, or questioned whether the chemicals she was breathing were dangerous, Cruz said she usually heard the same answer.

"All the jobs are the same. They say, 'You don't want it? There's someone else,'" said Cruz. Frustrated with the treatment she received daily, she left temp work a few years ago to become a community organizer with New Labor, the worker advocacy organization in New Brunswick.

Some of Cruz's former employers, including On Target, did not respond to requests to comment on how they handle complaints from workers. Olympus is no longer in business.

The owner of Delta Personnel Services disputed Cruz's claim that his temp agency fails to respond to workers' complaints about safety and working conditions.

The agency has an extensive screening process to inspect worksites and check the safety record of companies before placing temps in warehouses and factories, said Lyskowski, Delta's owner.

Delta pays more than $700,000 for worker's comp insurance each year in the event someone is injured, he said. It would be bad business to ignore the safety of temp workers and risk driving up the cost of that insurance, he added.

"We pride ourselves on that," Lyskowski said. "We're going to get bit by having an inordinate amount of injuries."

There is little Delta can do about worker complaints about excessive hot or cold conditions in warehouses, which are often unheated and unairconditioned, company officials said. But the agency has pulled workers out of some jobs, including a warehouse where temps complained they were required to work in a freezer without insulated suits.

Delta has also removed temps from warehouses where they were asked to perform duties outside of their job descriptions, including driving forklifts, company officials added.

"We've actually walked away from companies because (temps) were doing things that weren't reported to us," said Maritza Hernandez, Delta's operations manager.

It is a complicated process to get workers from the street to the factory in the temp industry.

Under the system, companies or logistics firms call in orders to the temp agencies for a certain number of workers. It is up to the agency to select workers. The agencies usually are paid a certain amount per worker. After paying the worker, the agencies keep the rest of the fee for expenses and profits.

Because agencies do not need to explain why they choose one worker over another for an assignment, temps say discrimination often goes unchecked.

Several logistics firms declined to comment on hiring practices in the industry.


'Culture of flirting'

Last year, Rutgers University researchers released a study on the conditions female temp workers face in New Jersey warehouses. The study, based on interviews with dozens of temps in New Brunswick, found widespread gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

New Jersey women working as temps described a "culture of flirting" in which temps who respond favorably to sexual comments or inappropriate touching from warehouse or factory supervisors are rewarded with better jobs or easier work, according to the report by Rutgers' Center for Women and Work.

The women who complain about harassment risk not getting called back for assignments. So most stay silent, the study found.

"They don't have other options, really. I don't think that they are willing to endure it — they have to," said Danielle Lindemann, one of the Rutgers researchers, now working as an assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University.

Women temps also were routinely paid less than men for the same assembly line work and were rarely given higher-paying forklift operator jobs, the study found.

The report included photos of signs in Spanish in New Brunswick temp agencies advertising work "for men only" and lower-paying jobs "for women." 

"They are doing things that are blatantly and patently illegal," Lindemann said.

Activists with New Labor, the New Brunswick-based workers group, said they took the report to several agencies, including Lyneer Staffing Solutions and On Target, late last year to show managers. Some agencies let New Labor activists remove the signs, said Kimmel, the group's executive director.

Representatives of On Target did not respond to requests for comment.

Bryan Smith, the president of Lyneer, said he was unaware there were signs advertising men's and women's jobs in his New Brunswick branch.

"That is absolutely not our policy," Smith said.

Germania Hernandez, a longtime temp now working as a community organizer in New Brunswick, said it is unlikely conditions have improved for female temps since the 2015 Rutgers report highlighted the alleged abuses.

Hernandez, 43, said she spent years going to assignments where she had no opportunity to ask about getting one of the better-paying "men's" positions at the warehouses.

"Simply, I was told to sit there. Go over here or go over there," Hernandez said through a translator. "Sometimes they didn't tell us what they were going to pay us or how many hours we were going to work. ... It was as if we were sent like a doll or something."

If temp workers want to complain about agencies, it is often difficult to know where to turn.

Temp agencies are overseen by a complex web of state and federal agencies, including the state Department of Consumer Affairs, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and both the state and federal labor departments.

Under New Jersey law, a temporary agency must put up a $1,000 bond and apply for a license for each office it opens in the state. But an NJ Advance Media check of several large agencies in and around New Brunswick found at least four prominent firms that appeared to be unlicensed, according to the database of 2,200 licensed temp agencies and employment consulting companies available on the state Department of Consumer Affairs' website.

When asked about the locations, a department spokeswoman confirmed the temp agencies appeared be "engaging in unauthorized activities" and would be reviewed.

In 2013, Command Center, an Idaho-based temp agency, paid $27,800 in a settlement with the state after being accused of opening offices in Newark and Paterson without a license. The state began investigating when temp workers hired to do post-Hurricane Sandy cleanup work complained Command Center was not paying them as promised.

In the settlement, Command Center did not admit to doing anything wrong. It has closed its New Jersey offices.

Since that investigation three years ago, there have been no attempts to crack down on illegal temp agencies in New Jersey, said Lisa Coryell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.

"The division has not received complaints about any employment agency or temporary help service firm ... in recent years," Coryell said.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, which investigates complaints about workers not getting properly paid, said it has no statistics on how many investigations it has done into temp agencies because it does not track cases by industry.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees complaints of gender and racial discrimination, has taken temp agencies to court in several high-profile cases in Chicago.

However, the number of investigations the commission has done in New Jersey is so low there are no statistics available for recent years, said Raechel Adams, EEOC's acting regional attorney for the New York district, which includes New Jersey.

All workers, even those living in the country illegally, have the legal right to complain about safety hazards, discrimination or other abuses, federal officials said.

"We are absolutely interested in pursuing these kinds of cases," Adams said. "EEOC does absolutely pursue cases regardless of (immigration) status."


Deaths on the job

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration – known as OSHA-- investigates workplace accidents and safety complaints. The agency started a campaign three years ago to focus on safety for temp workers.

The problem is temp workers often get little or no safety training from their agency, factory or warehouse because it is unclear who is responsible for training the workers.

"The temp workers are often put in the position where no one is taking responsibility," said Steven Kaplan, OSHA's assistant regional administrator for federal enforcement operations.

At least three temp workers from New Jersey died on the job in recent years.

Ronald Smith, of Irvington, was working for the temp agency Abacus when he was crushed in a conveyer belt at an Amazon fulfillment center in the Avenel section of Woodbridge in 2013, according to OSHA reports.

Mark Jefferson, of Trenton, was a Labor Ready temp when he died in 2012 while working in extreme heat as a garbage collector for Waste Management in Hopewell Borough, the reports said.

James Hoyt, a Labor Ready temp from Bogota, was killed in 2012 when he was crushed by a 2,500-pound rack of computers that tipped over while he was loading them into a truck. Hoyt's family was disappointed when OSHA fined the agency and other companies involved in the accident $2,800.

"We thought it was toothless — $2,800? That's not much of a deterrent," said his brother, Mike Hoyt. "It's nobody's job to keep these people safe. It's all put on the workers. These temp workers are kind of cannon fodder."

Labor Ready, Waste Management and Abacus did not respond to requests to comment on the deaths of their temp employees.

Kelly Cheeseman, an Amazon spokeswoman, also declined to comment on the 2013 death of the temp employee in its Avenel warehouse. But she said temp employees make up a small percentage of Amazon's workforce.

"Nearly 90 percent of employees across the company's U.S. fulfillment network are regular, full-time employees. As a way of finding high-quality permanent employees to manage variation in customer demand, we also employ seasonal associates," Cheeseman said.    

In 2015, OSHA conducted 219 inspections of factories and warehouses in New Jersey and handed out $1.9 million in penalties in its effort to focus on temp safety, according to agency records.

In each case, OSHA officials said they fined the company and the temp agency because both are expected to take responsibility for workplace safety.

OSHA is trying to ensure "temp workers aren't falling through the cracks," said Kaplan, OSHA's assistant regional administrator.

Read more from NJ.com.

Comments

We welcome your comments on the IWJ blog and encourage open discussion about important issues around worker justice and the unemployed. Disagreements are fine, but mutual respect is a must. Profanity, slander or abusive language will not be permitted. IWJ reserves the right to delete comments that violate this spirit of respect.

  1. Marien Casillas Pabellon's avatar
    Marien Casillas Pabellon
    | Permalink
    Thank you for sharing the stories of NJ temp workers. We know that many workers in other states are facing the same challenges at work.

Leave a Comment