ELGIN, Ill. — Their complaints are endless but so is their hunger for work.
They think they are being cheated out of money owed them, because the staffing agencies don’t let them see the daily work sheets from the companies.
But they are sure they are being cheated in some instances, since they are told to start their machines five or ten minutes before their time clocks start running. And then they are told they can’t leave their machines until someone replaces them — a wait that can last up to a half an hour.
But they are not paid for all the minutes off the clock.
“If they do that to 200 workers every day the money adds up,” suggests Tim Bell, an organizer for the Chicago Workers Collaborative, and a veteran worker with Chicago-area immigrants. “That might also be part of a deal between the company and the agency,”
Bell’s group helps workers hired through staffing agencies at hundreds of factories and restaurants and other low-paying places in the Chicago area. And there are more than 300,000 of these temporary workers in the Chicago area, making it, he says, the nation’s capital for such kind of jobs.
The handful of Latinas he is visiting in a northern Chicago suburb are typical, he says, of these workers who usually earn just 25 cents above minimum wage, who get no benefits and may work months and sometimes years next to regular staff who earn several dollars an hour more for the same work.
So too, he says their complaints are quite common.
There’s the woman in her fifties who says factory bosses belittle her because she is older, and push her to work harder as well as shove her from one dirty job to another.
There’s a younger woman who says the dispatchers give double-shift jobs to favorites while denying work to others. And rather than paying over-time, these workers use fake names for their second shifts, she says.
And then there’s a woman who says she never complains because anyone who does won’t be hired again. The woman next to her says that’s what happened to her.
She griped about a factory and hasn’t been sent out on a job in six months even though she shows up, hope against hope, at 3 a.m. daily at the staffing agency.
Bell tells them about a case he has just begun to look into. A female worker several months pregnant was working for an abusive boss, who had her lifting hefty objects one day until she aborted on the line in the factory and was rushed to the hospital. She is in the hospital days later.
As he tells her story, his eyes briefly water up, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.
There’s a silence and the women shake their heads. Then they slowly recall stories of people hurt on the job, some of whom were fired the same day so they wouldn’t get medical coverage.
Asked about the complaints raised by the workers in Elgin, Jeff Kubas, head of the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, says his group tries to deal with such complaints and also tries “to avoid such situations.”
But Kubas quickly explains that his 25-member group represents less than half of the Chicago area staffing agencies that provide so-called light industrial help. “With the large number of agencies that are out there, some of these complaints could be bona fide,” he adds.
So why do they do this work?
One woman says it is because most of them do not speak English, most were let go from other jobs recently because they are undocumented immigrants and companies have been cracking down more then before on people without papers.
And, she adds, there’s nothing else for them to do even though finding this kind of work is very hard today.
“You need to be stronger and stronger now,” says a woman in her mid-20s, who started in the factories when she was 16 years old. “You may feel humiliated and abused, but there is no work.”
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.