Rosa Ramirez waits to be called for a job at the temp agency Staffing Network in Hanover Park, Illinois, on January 21, 2013. (Sally Ryan for ProPublica)
First published by ProPublica and republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Updated July 1 with new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s 4:18 am and the strip mall is deserted. But tucked in back, next to a closed-down video store, an employment agency is already filling up. Rosa Ramirez walks in, as she has done nearly every morning for the past six months. She signs in and sits down in one of the 100 or so blue plastic chairs that fill the office. Over the next three hours, dispatchers will bark out the names of who will work today. Rosa waits, wondering if she will make her rent.
In cities all across the country, workers stand on street corners, line up in alleys or wait in a neon-lit beauty salon for rickety vans to whisk them off to warehouses miles away. Some vans are so packed that to get to work, people must squat on milk crates, sit on the laps of passengers they do not know or sometimes lie on the floor, the other workers’ feet on top of them.
This is not Mexico. It is not Guatemala or Honduras. This is Chicago, New Jersey, Boston.
The people here are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies—Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.
Many get by on minimum wage, renting rooms in rundown houses, eating dinners of beans and potatoes, and surviving on food banks and taxpayer-funded health care. They almost never get benefits and have little opportunity for advancement.
Across America, temporary work has become a mainstay of the economy, leading to the proliferation of what researchers have begun to call “temp towns.” They are often dense Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they are cities where it has become nearly impossible even for whites and African-Americans with vocational training to find factory and warehouse work without first being directed to a temp firm.