Illinois Issues: The Trouble With Temp Work

Legislation aims to improve working conditions for temporary workers as the need for them increases.

Isaura Martinez was working at a Bolingbrook factory when she felt a pull in her left wrist as she was attaching a metal hook to the back of a Christmas card holder. Four years have passed, but the Cicero woman still feels pain, after surgery to correct the issue. 

She was a temporary worker hired out by a staffing agency at the time of the injury. Every worker, she says, was required to do a variety of tasks, such as packaging coffee and tobacco and assembling cardboard boxes for toothpaste. Because she was employed through a staffing agency, it was unclear to her who was responsible for overseeing training and other working conditions.

She says the staffing agency had her work with an injured wrist for three months without restrictions, until she sued the firm.

Speaking before an Illinois House committee in March, she detailed some of the hardships endured by temporary workers. “Most of the times we don’t get equipment like gloves, hats or different equipment to open pallets … all we want is for us to be given the tools that we need to work.”

Temporary workers find themselves at the intersection of a growing manufacturing and e-commerce industry in which companies increasingly enlist third-party agencies to do hiring on their behalf.  It is an issue particularly for Illinois, which Mark Meinster, executive director of the Joliet-based Warehouse Workers for Justice, described “as the warehousing capital of the western hemisphere.”

This concentration of  the industry in Illinois is “due to the fact that Chicago is the only place in the world where six Class 1 railroads meet” along with seven interstate highways where products are hauled by truck throughout the United States, a 2014 study by the National Employment Law Project concluded.

“Because you have a lot of warehouses you have a lot of temp workers,’ Meinster says. “And so, Illinois really needs to be cutting edge when it comes to legislation protecting those workers.”

In Chicago alone, 63 percent of warehouse workers are temporary workers. According to EMSI, a private labor market research firm, between 2009 and 2013, Chicago saw a gain of 45,000 temporary jobs, which accounts for 40 percent of the positions added to the economy during that time. 

This is a competitive business where the lines are blurred between a staffing agency and the “client” company where the final product is being assembled or packaged. The resulting model is one where responsibilities are divided and shared.

Some call this a “shell game.”  The staffing agency may handle paycheck issues but not the working conditions in a factory or warehouse. The agency screens temporary workers and pairs them to available work but can only guarantee work at the client company’s discretion on a day-to-day basis. As a…

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