A couple of years back, a woman I’ll call Kate contacted me to tell me about her job managing an office providing provided blue-collar workers to enterprises in need of short-term help. She had only worked there a couple of months, Kate said in an initial email, but already she was feeling queasy about how she was earning a paycheck.
“I see a lot of the practices as exploitative,” she wrote—and she saw, too, something inherently “plantation” about the business: “fat white guys living off the sweat of people of color” is the memorable way she put it. The big surprise was that hers was not some fly-by-employer but one of 600 outposts scattered across the country, owned by a publicly-traded company called TrueBlue, Inc. Last year, TrueBlue booked $49 million in pre-tax profits on $1.3 billion in revenues. The CEO took home just under $2 million in pay last year and a quartet of his top executives hauled in at least $800,000 a year.
Kate had already quit by the time we spoke by phone a couple of weeks after our email correspondence had started. “It was a sleazy business,” she told me. Occasionally a business would contact Labor Ready in search of a worker requiring a special skill—a fork-life operator, say—but mainly employers were looking for people to swing a sledgehammer, push a broom, or wash dishes. Her bosses would charge a business as much as $20 an hour per temp, Kate told me, but those same temps were invariably paid the minimum wage: $7.25 in most states. Also troubling were the so-called temps who had been in the same job for years, saving a business the trouble of ponying up its fair share of payroll taxes and standard employee benefits. Business was “booming,” Kate said, but there was also a small matter of living with herself. “I couldn’t morally stay part of this world,” she told me.
Kate’s story stayed with me and it would occasionally bug me that I hadn’t yet jumped on her tip. Sure, the blue-collar temp business is small potatoes when compared to other Poverty, Inc. goliaths that so efficiently exploit the working poor, such as the $40 billion-a-year payday industry or the even larger market for used auto loans carrying interest rates that generally start at 18 percent and often exceed 25 percent a year. But what better story to help us understand life in these hard economic times than one bringing readers deep into a world where people are so desperate for money they’d do practically anything for a minimum wage paycheck? I had written about a wide range of businesses getting obscenely rich off the working poor, but not the blue-collar temp business, Kate added, “You’re the perfect person to write about this.”
It ends up that Kate had given me a good tip but she had at least one fact wrong: writer Gabriel Thompson has proven he was the perfect person for the job, as he demonstrates with this piece funded by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and debuting now on the Mother Jones website. Gabe delivers a well-reported and wonderfully written piece that underscores one of the great pleasures of co-editing, along with Barbara Ehrenreich, this project that provides economic support to reporters willing to do whatever it takes to get a story. In the case of Gabe, he didn’t just vacuum up everything he could about Labor Ready and its parent company, TrueBlue, he laced up his boots, passed the 73-question psyche test administered to every potential employee, and showed up for work at offices in Oakland (where he found 20 people already lined up well before the doors opened at 5:30am) and San Jose and spent time at a third office in nearby Hayward.
There’s a lot to love in Gabe’s vivid undercover account of life working temp, starting with the people he meets on the job. There’s Joseph, a well-built 51-year-old who not that long ago earned $25 an hour as a union laborer. Now he often sits for hours in the hopes that he can pick up a job that pays him less than a third of that wage. Joseph had applied for countless jobs, in hopes of making a decent wage, but by the time Gabe caught up with him, a credit union was preparing to foreclose on his house.
Gabe also puts the spotlight on the issue of wage theft, which nets employers at least $100 billion a year, according to this essay Barbara wrote in May, titled “Preying on the Poor” . Gabe tells of jobs requiring workers to check-in by 7:30 though their employer won’t start paying them until 8:00 AM, and tells, too, of waiting a half hour after a hard day’s work for his paycheck. “None of this is considered wage theft, though it certainly feels like it,” Gabe writes.
With a workforce of more than 400,000—more than either Target or Home Depot, Gabe tells us—Labor Ready is the undisputed king of the blue collar temp world. And like for so many enterprises in the poverty business, hard economic times have proven good times for Labor Ready and its parent company, TrueBlue. TrueBlue’s profits have more than tripled in just a few years, from $9 million in 2009 to $31 million in 2011.
Gabe’s is the third piece funded by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to see print. The first, a teaser for our May launch, was an April piece by David Swanson, “Hunger Striking Striking Students Finally See Some Progress for University of Virginia Workers.” Economic Hardship Reporting Project founder and co-editor, Barbara Ehrenreich, launched the project with her essay, “”Preying on the Poor.” This piece engaged hundreds of thousands of readers, both on the internet and in the mainstream print media. Our second funded piece came out earlier this month, “The Ones We’ve Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides,”written by C. Cryn Johanssen and published two weeks ago by the Huffington Post. For better or worse, two coin of the realms in journalism these days are Facebook likes and the volume of comments, and on both these fronts Cryn successfully hit for the fences. Her piece elicited 1,300 comments, sparking a spirited (if not always civil) debate, and received a combined 7,000 Facebook likes and shares.
And that’s only the start. In the coming weeks, we’ll be showcasing pieces about the criminalization of school truancy and the drug-testing industry’s successful lobbying campaign to convince states to make a urine test a precondition of public assistance programs, along with an in-depth piece taking a skeptical look at government-funded job training programs and another introducing readers to elderly homeless women so frightened of the shelters and the streets that they’ve devised their own a strategy for survival, learning who are the friendly bus drivers who’ll let them ride all night and the 24-hour restaurants that let them park for the night for the cost of a cup of coffee.