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Hard Labor

Janusz Kapusta

"I know Clinton's created 14 million jobs. My brother's got four of them."

--Al Franken

It's quarter to 6 on a dark winter morning along University Avenue. A crowd is gathering at a sparse storefront office. Smokers huddle outside, blowing and stamping in the cold. Inside, two dozen people bunch up on five bare benches in a waiting room that faces a 7-foot plaster wall.

The 16A stops at the corner. A half dozen people get off, nod to the smokers, and head inside the storefront. They take a clipboard from the top of the wall, sign in on a tally sheet, and put the clipboard back on the wall; then they either find a place on the benches, stand along the side walls, or join the smokers outside.

The clipboard disappears behind the wall. Mary peers over the wall into the room and spots some of the newcomers.

"Where were you yesterday, Willie?"

"I had business."

"Don't we all."

Mary puts the clipboard down and sinks out of sight at her desk on a platform behind the wall. Conversation and catnaps resume on the benches among men and women in four or five colors, three or so languages, and all ages between 18 and 63. Some are skilled workers, some could be, others never will be. Some have habits or attitudes that don't wear well. Some are poverty veterans, others novices. All have come for work this morning. This is a day-labor hiring hall.

You won't read people's real names in this story and race is pretty much a side issue; being from Louisiana or Detroit carries as much, sometimes more weight, as the color of your skin. And it doesn't make much difference who you think you are. You walked into the same door as everybody else, and it wasn't because you just won the lottery.

All the same, nobody takes disrespect lightly. If you know somebody you make contact, otherwise you keep to yourself. Men who do rough work on the barges or scrap yards tend to cluster. So do women who share some history, or anybody who shares a language. Chicago people always seem to find some mutual link.

Behind the wall, Mary juggles the day's job list and her knowledge of who's made an appearance today. The phone rings. "What's the matter with you, for chrissake. You're late. Don't bother coming in." Bang goes the phone.

Mary looms again like a demon preacher. "Okay, listen up." She calls out five names. "You're riding with Charlie to Ajax Manufacturing. Now get going." The pit shuffles and sorts itself out. That crew leaves. Another crew is named. Then another. The good job tickets are leaving. Everybody knows it.

All the jobs so far are for light manual labor. Now comes manhandling 100-pound bags of granulated sugar that coat you until you become a sweaty bonbon. Or making pallets in noise that turns you into a stunned robot that smells like a soggy basswood log. Or tearing gas tanks off cars to be crushed and coming home a toxic mud ball.

Mary holds off the worst jobs until the end, when those remaining shout their need and willingness. That's when jobs call for cleaning out acid-coated barrels with work gloves already full of holes.

Then it's over. Those left in the pit are simply unlucky. Either that or newcomers who haven't served enough time on the benches, or old-timers who have earned too many DNRs--notations on job tickets that stand for "Do Not Return." Some of the losers rage and storm out into the streets. Others remain on the benches hoping for a last-minute call. A few stare empty-eyed at the wall.

Today I'm working second shift, 4:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. I will drive five people 38 miles north to an aluminum-sided warehouse that shares a freeway exit with a trailer park, a gas station, and a grocery. We've been working here all week, standing at conveyor belts packing Barbie dolls, Beanie Baby knockoffs, or Mr. Potato Heads made in China to send to Americans who mailed box tops to General Mills.

As a packager, wherever you are sent or whatever you handle, you can count on three things. You will be fully trained in two minutes, tops. The job will usually involve taking items from big boxes and putting combinations of them into little boxes. And nearly all the items will have been made in China, elsewhere in Asia, or in Mexico.

Four people will have handled each item during its global journey. The first assembled the item. The second packed it into cartons that went into containers to be transported around the globe by sea and rail. At the destination warehouse I open a carton, grab the item, and pack it into a mailing box. Finally, you or somebody else who spotted the item on, say, a cereal box, closes the cycle.  

Today our packing line begins with Alonzo and two others who grab pieces of die-cut cardboard from a pallet. They bend the folds into a box, tape the bottom, and place the result on a conveyor belt. Alice and Leo stand on either side of the conveyor with piles of stuffed honeybees and put one in each empty box. Then come Ivor and Willie who cram stuffed baker dolls into the boxes.

Willie says, "Man, you got to fucking move faster." Ivor is affronted and replies, "Vot, may I ask, do you suggest?" James and I grab stuffed owls and jam them in the boxes. James's T-shirt reads: "BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Oatmeal. Fry Bread. Bacon Grease."

Next along the conveyor are Sarah and a regular employee, who add stuffed parrots to the mix. Another regular checks the boxes, closes and tapes them. Charlene sticks on a mailing label and Gilbert stacks the boxes on a pallet. Two temps race up and down the line replenishing everybody's supply of stuffed creatures.

Just simple global-economy stuff. Except you have to go like hell at your one simple task because the supervisor has a target of 35 pallets with 100 boxes apiece. And she's got specific ideas about how you're supposed to pick up the items and place them in the boxes. If there is a paper insert to go along with your item, you should pick up the item and the insert with one hand and sweep them into the box in one motion. Even here there is professional technique.

So you have maybe two dozen people who've never met and wouldn't be standing next to each other under any other circumstances, but are now being asked to work smoothly and cooperatively, repeating a series of mindless motions from midafternoon until well into the next day. Amazingly, some days it actually works. Everybody fits together, a sustainable pace is created, and we reach a transcendental state of equipoise.

Mostly, though, temps will do something like start a conversation across a conveyor belt. A regular worker hisses, "No talking on the line." A temp says, "I'm not talking to you." Regular: "Don't talk, just work." Temp: "Fuck you." And then there's sand in the works all night.

There are two 15-minute breaks and one half-hour dinner break. Smokers gather outside in clusters. Supervisors here, other regulars there. Social temps in this group. Silent temps wandering about bleakly. Some in cars out in the parking lot. Others in the break room with the Formica tables and wobbly chairs, staring into a battered vending machine half-filled with colorful bags containing two ounces each of salty fodder.

Then it's back to the conveyor for another chance at the elusive perfect tempo, with the knowledge that if you don't work like a piston for your $5.40 an hour, you will be awarded a DNR and not be asked back. And you don't want that to happen, because what's left if you can't even do this job?

The U.S. Department of Labor calls us "handpackers and packagers." According to its figures, half a million Minnesotans in a labor force of 2.5 million worked part-time in 1996. One in 20 of them worked as a handpacker. The category is projected to grow 137.9 percent by 2005, way ahead of any other job that is available to average workers. Packaging is also classified as a low-wage job, with pay between $117 and $367 a week; that earnings group makes up half the new jobs created in Minnesota from 1990 to 1996. And finally, packers are in the group of low- and semi-skilled jobs whose wages have not risen--except for boosts in the minimum wage--for the past 15 years.

So why does the pool of people doing this kind of work seem bottomless? Because the flow of domestic and offshore migrants, downsized workers, and average families inundated by rising expenses, along with an incoming tide from the welfare rolls, are all keeping the low-end labor pool well-stocked.

How does all that jibe with Minnesota's phenomenal 2.7 percent unemployment rate? It's a number. But calculating it is like evaluating a bushel of apples using peculiar rules and ignoring the rotten ones.

Until recently, if you worked for one day during the one week of a given month when the rate is calculated, you were counted as employed. If you worked two jobs for separate companies or temp agencies, you were employed times two. If your spouse did the same and your two teenagers worked a part-time shift each, your family had six jobs.  

On the underside of the boom economy is a workforce willing--so far--to take on six jobs that may provide only two adequate incomes, all with no benefits and even the projected default of Social Security. Surely an achievement right up there with the Pentium chip, the Web, and the new health-care system.

Who are day-work people, anyway? Alice. Came up from Chicago with her two boys to escape from a drug habit and a bad marriage. Got clean and off welfare. Making it. Then here comes her ex-husband. He's not making it, but he hangs around. On one temp job a supervisor starts hitting on her as well.

Yet now and then her spirits lift. "Yesterday my boys come to me while I'm making dinner and say they've been hearing about how when they're men they supposed to be of a certain size. The oldest, he worries a lot 'cause he's afraid he might not measure up. So I said, 'Come over here and look in this pot and tell me what you see.'"

"Green beans, mama."

"And what do they look like?"

"Long and skinny."

"How come you think I get after you to eat your green beans?" Alice cuts loose a long laugh that doesn't happen often enough.

Leo. Was a machinist making good money. Then his wife threw him out, got the state on his case to enforce child-support collection, and made sure he wasn't allowed to come around and see his kids. He says he was left with $100 a week. So he quit his $17-an-hour job. He works for cash, and he does day work. Figures he's making a point. But then Leo also believes F.I.C.A. deductions on his paycheck go to seven wealthy families in England who have special powers over America.

Betty. When she figured her kids were old enough she went to work for a major corporation, stayed 18 years, and was laid off. The union said she'd be called back. That was three years ago. Still has a few years to go before she can draw her own Social Security. Gets by on her late husband's survivor benefit. Day work helps pay the bills and provides travel money to visit her three kids. She's got this whooping kind of laugh that bounces around the warehouse. "You know what gets me?" she says one day. "The whiners."

Roberto. "What got me was standing guard at night. You're alone. It's so quiet. Everybody's sleeping but you. It's scary." A mild-looking guy with a thin, well-trimmed moustache--you wouldn't figure him for a guerrilla fighter. He works two jobs because he's the main financial support for his family back in El Salvador. He pays taxes like a citizen but gets nothing from the system. And he's concerned that when he goes home to visit, he might not be allowed back into the U.S.

Roberto plays soccer for the El Salvador club in the local league at Fort Snelling. This year against Mexico, El Salvador tied the game on a penalty kick with a minute to go. "You should have seen it. When it looked like we were going to win in a shootout, Mexico attacked us. Right away about nine police cars showed up. Fights going on all over. The police wouldn't get out of their cars. They kept saying over a speaker, 'The game is over. Would everybody please get in their cars and go home.' Everybody went home when they were too tired to fight anymore."

Caroline. Spent every day of her Christmas vacation except the actual holidays quietly filling carts with cosmetics for a megastore chain. Then she returned to Iowa State, where she majors in construction engineering.

Sam. Finally got it together after years of troubles. Got himself set up for training as a tool-and-die man. I'm next to him one night when a supervisor tells him to pack a box in a specific sequence. He tenses and says, "That's bullshit," then looks at me and shakes his head and we talk for a while. The next day we are both DNRed.

One morning as Sam is signing in, a guy comes in right behind him and says, "Well, look who's here? The redneck showed up this morning."

"Don't talk to me, man. I already told you I don't like you."

"A little ornery this morning, aren't we?"

Sam gives the man a level stare. "I said don't talk to me." Everybody in the room watches with interest. Nobody intercedes. The moment dissolves.

Grace and Walter. On the benches every morning. Somebody makes sure their six kids get to school. She sleeps on his shoulder while they wait. Sometimes they both go out on jobs together, sometimes not, sometimes only one goes. Why? Because it's better here than in Alabama.  

Leonard. One morning he doesn't make any job ticket. Says he will find himself a corner. His homey says Leonard draws people. Says that when a kid pulls up to the corner, Leonard takes the kid's money and says, "This is your lucky day, man. I am going to save your life. You don't get no drugs. Now get your ass back out to the suburbs and don't come back here anymore, or you're gonna get seriously hurt."

Charlene. Lives with her two kids in a trailer park near the warehouse outside of town. Thirty and built. On probation for knocking the crap out of her ex-husband's girlfriend. Good at fixing cars and running machines. Has no time for temps, but gets into Chicago banter like she was born to it. Leonard says: "You know what, man? That woman has nothing in her life out here. Got these men, all they need is their pickups and rifles, snowmobiles and boats. They don't want a woman around telling them anything. There's some mad-as-hell, lonesome women out here, man."

One night, when about 20 of us are packing, the power goes out. Inside the warehouse you cannot see your hand. The supervisor says, "Everybody stand right where they are and nobody gets hurt." Somebody else says, "Stand still and nobody gets nothing." A flashlight disappears back into the loading area and after about five minutes a forklift with lights on appears and projects eerie shadows of machinery and people around the walls. We are told to follow the lights to the exit door. Work is over for the night.

On the way home several encounters in the dark are detailed. Leonard's yarn is the most colorful, but all accounts get ridiculed. Probably because every story involves the storyteller with the same woman. Thirty and built.

Tran. I don't know her. Somebody says she goes out on her first job at 5:30 a.m. Returns and goes out on her second at 2:30 p.m. Back at 7 and done for the day, except for study time or her classes at Hamline Law School.

Ray. Lived in St. Paul all his life. Went to Vietnam. Doesn't want to talk about it. When he came back he worked in a warehouse for 17 years. One day there was a note on the door. Business had folded. Owner was indicted. No severance, no pension, no paid retraining. Ray's idea about his role in a packing-line conversation is to not look up from his work, but mutter to himself. If you lean over you can hear him say, "Yeah, these bastards think they know everything," or, "Let's keep the line going. What the hell's the matter with you people?"

Michael. Moved out on his stepfamily in the suburbs, works hard. One day a couple looking like Eddie Bauer and wife shows up with Michael. They manage to wind up on the same packing line. She's got a short, tailored jacket on, a blouse with frills at the wrist, lots of gold showing. He wears roughing-it catalog clothes in muted earth tones. Achingly nice people, they say they are doing this to show support for Michael. About the work, she says, "It's interesting, but I wouldn't want to do it every day." He says he's talking to Michael about keeping a budget. Michael's not talking.

Louis is a man I don't get to know, but Larry's told me the story. It happened Louis's third day on the benches. He hadn't been in town long, worked a 12-hour night shift and was awaiting his check. Mary wasn't in that morning, and a young guy was trying to hold the fort. Louis had asked for his check several times.

The back-and-forth went something like this: "How long do I have to wait for my money? I've got things to do."

"I told you, not until 10."

"Nothing going on now. Why can't you write me my check?"

"If you don't like the rules you can get out of here."

"I am being respectful. You have no right to speak to me like that."

"Tough shit."

Louis rises and pulls himself smoothly up and over the 7-foot wall. His fists are raised as he clears the top, and they rise and fall amid shouting and the screams of a woman. Police arrive within minutes. Louis is cuffed and hauled off and the manager goes to the emergency room.

Larry shakes his head as he relates the story. "Bound to happen. Some of these people are so stupid. Just ask for it. Then they wonder why they get bricks through the window sometimes."  

Larry says in another day-work office "they installed a TV camera so people behind the wall could keep watch. Then one day they screwed around with paychecks and told people if they had a problem they could go to court and try to get their money. In answer, somebody went up the wall, tore the camera down, and sold it. And he still came back for his check the next day."

Anger is no surprise to Larry. He did 27 months. "A long time ago," he says. "Something I had to go through." Now he works a regular job. Sometimes he does a double--a regular shift followed by a day-work shift. His wife works part-time as well. And their family still qualifies for food stamps.

So do one third of the working poor in Minnesota.

If you're an employer, contracting for daily manual labor means a steady supply of workers without any of the annoyances associated with regular employees--payroll, benefits, unemployment insurance, lawsuits. The agency sends out however many workers you need to work under whatever conditions you provide.

But there's a chaotic side to the system. Nobody knows the number or kind of jobs available on a given day, or how many workers will show up each 6 a.m. And so with each dawn a curious bazaar springs to life across the city. Employers bark at the agencies and the agencies badger and cajole the rabble gathered to jockey for the day's job tickets. It is the labor market at its crudest level of supply and demand, a rough exchange between the poorest workers and the most penurious employers.

If a job seems unacceptable, you don't take it. But then, someone will always need the money. On the other hand, employers constantly carp that the people willing to do the worst jobs for the worst pay are often not model workers.

In 1990, a handful of entrepreneurs in Tacoma, Washington, took a long look at the temporary-help market. Others were already serving established markets for clerical, white-collar, high-tech, and specialized blue-collar temps. Daily manual labor, however, seemed to be a disorganized mess.

The Tacoma people decided they could organize that mess with software like the kind they'd used to run a string of Hardee's franchises under a corporate shell called Dick's Hamburgers, Inc. As they saw it, there was no micromanagement distinction between a unit of human labor and a cheeseburger. They set out to become, in their words, "the McDonald's of temporary staffing for the manual-labor market."

When Labor Ready opened its first "store" in Tacoma, it offered the usual arm's-length employment advantages of daily manual-labor agencies along with several twists. For the worker they had safety equipment from steel-toed boots to goggles. You could also purchase soft equipment such as gloves. Good ideas, especially if you know manual labor is sometimes dangerous and lots of money can be lost in workers' compensation claims.

Labor Ready does safety training, has a workers' comp claims expert on board, and is self-insured. Every applicant agrees to preliminary drug and alcohol testing for certain jobs, and further testing in any or every instance of injury on any job.

In the matter of quality control, Labor Ready offers a blanket warranty covering not just performance, but attitude or any other characteristic the employer might consider objectionable. Race? Gender? Age? Nobody need say. If an employer finds any worker unsatisfactory for any reason within the first two hours on the job, the worker will be replaced at no charge.

Before being considered for a Labor Ready job ticket, you must complete a five-page application form requiring six signatures and 17 sets of initials. Among other things, you will agree that at the end of every day, "I will be deemed to have quit unless and until I request and receive a work assignment at a later date." It's another way to tighten any window of mutual obligation or liability. Got a problem with that? You'll also agree that "any disputes arising out of my employment, including any claims of discrimination, harassment, or wrongful termination" will be "resolved by arbitration as my sole remedy." No lawsuits.

And finally, the confidentiality agreement. "Employees and former employees are prohibited from releasing to any other party any information whatsoever about Labor Ready, Inc., which is of a confidential nature or which could be deemed to constitute a 'trade secret.' Employees or former employees are further prohibited from using, in any manner whatsoever, information which is confidential, proprietary, or privileged, whether for their personal benefit or gain, or for that of any other person." Had I completed the application you would never read this.  

Surely all of these stipulations are the result of entrepreneurial overkill, a zealous geek gone mad, or excessive legalese. It would never work in day labor, that last bastion of individualism and a hard day's work for a half day's pay.

Not so. Labor Ready has five dispatch halls in Minnesota, three of them in the metro area. This year the company plans to open 160 new "stores" overall which will bring their total to 476 in the United States and Canada. In 1997, revenues were $335 million, a 106 percent gain over the prior year.

Fed by an abundant supply of workers caught in a wage depression, Labor Ready is one of the nation's bright new companies. It calls its LabPro software a "formidable barrier of entry to potential competitors." In 1996, with "an active customer base of 35,000," Labor Ready processed with this software more than 1.4 million work orders, 2.1 million paychecks, and 190,000 W-2s. Its CEO's salary last year was about $375,000, and the wage levels among its 863 regular employees ranged upward from about $14,000. All because some 180,000 day laborers--when they got a job ticket--pulled in between $6 and $10 an hour, with Labor Ready collecting an hourly premium on every one of them.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. It's another new triumph for computerized micromanagement. Check out Labor Ready with your broker, or at least look up yesterday's close on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

Then puzzle over what happens to people who fall through the Labor Ready strainer. Who can't make it into the high-tech workplace, and who are now going to be screened out of low-skill jobs as well.

Not that Labor Ready is the only creative new day-work agency in town. Employers can also call a number and request "50 of your people" to begin work Monday morning. The workers will be Asian, and if an employer wants the lowest possible price, the mix will include a fair portion of high-school students exempt from the minimum wage.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. It's part of the evolving ethos that when applied creatively, discrimination serves us all.

Another national day-work agency that recently opened has even a simpler way to discourage nagging workers' compensation claims. When you endorse the back of your paycheck, you sign under a statement warning that if you have any work-related problem, return the check to the agency. If you don't, and you endorse the check, you have forfeited claims of any kind. And there you stand with bills to pay and no food in the house.

What's wrong with that? Nothing. After all, don't you have similar conditions attached to your paycheck?

Iam heading south on 35W around 2:30 a.m. My rusty Grand Prix sails like a ghost ship through patches of fog, flurries, and clouds hovering in the soft glow of freeway lights. In the back seat, Sarah hums to herself. Alice and Alonzo sleep. In the front seat, Ivor, certain we will hit a deer, stares grimly through the smeared windshield. Gilbert, wedged next to me, dozes.

"Here comes fog," Ivor says. A new pickup whistles past us and disappears into the wall of mist. Somebody in the backseat mutters, "Stupid mothafucka."

As I near St. Paul, a squad car lights up on my tail. I pull over, stop, and crack the door. As he walks toward my car the officer shouts, "Stay in the car. Stay in the car." A state trooper with lights flashing has pulled in behind the county squad.

I roll down my window. The deputy eyes my passengers. His breath comes in cloudy bursts. Two black women, a black man, a Latino, and two white guys. "You know why I pulled you over?" he says.

The usual procedures ensue. License, proof of insurance, warrant check. We wait in the glare of spotlights. "He come off that ramp back there," Alonzo says. "Looks in here and thinks he hit the jackpot." Gilbert says, "Called for backup before he hit his own lights."

By the time the deputy lets us go it's nearly 3 a.m. No public transportation runs at this hour, so I drive everybody home. On University Avenue a Dodge sedan pulls alongside and some guys look us over. A few blocks later I turn left into Frogtown to drop off one of the women. The Dodge whips around me and stops in the middle of the street. I gun it, cut around him, turn right, left, and right, and let the woman out. Alonzo, my last rider, moves up to the front seat. At University, the Dodge comes up behind and Alonzo gives the driver a level stare.  

A few blocks later I turn again and drop Alonzo. The Dodge is gone. I pull in among three squad cars at the SuperAmerica for a cup of coffee. Inside, the police swap deer stories. They don't give me a second look.

I am home at 3:43 a.m., nearly 14 hours after taking my place on the benches waiting for a second-shift job ticket. I made $5.40 an hour plus $3 per rider and a $2.50 gas allowance for the 70-mile drive, a net of $60.16 for the day. My passengers will each clear around $45.

In less than an hour, on the day's first buses, in battered cars and on foot, the first shift will head toward storefront benches. In about 10 hours the second shift will follow, arranging ourselves on the benches at the 7-foot wall.


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