Trudy jokes with a friend about another unproductive morning spent waiting for work at the LSI day-labor employment agency. The University of Memphis education major is undeterred. She doesn't have to be here -- the day assignments are just something to do until the fall semester begins in a few weeks.
"See, they can laugh about not having a job because they have homes and families and food on the table to go home to," says Sarah (not her real name). "Everybody is not that lucky. People like me don't have anywhere to go."
Sarah sits in the drab women's waiting area at LSI with seven other women listening for the attendant's intercom announcement of a work ticket with available positions. Dressed in jeans and a multicolored blouse, Sarah is actually one of the lucky ones. She's clean, is staying in temporary housing, and still has hope. "My daughter is in the military," she explains to the room. "Her and her husband are moving here next month, and she said I can move in with them. She's going to take care of me and help me get myself together. I just have to hold out one more month." The other women in the room nod knowingly. In the world of day labor, one month can seem like a year.
While the conversation in the room is usually light -- comments are made about the wardrobes of passersby, advice is given on where to find the best mustard greens, pictures of family members are passed around -- the dire situations of most of the women are never far from the surface. A businesswoman's pantsuit leads one woman in the room to comment on an old outfit of her own. A delivery truck parked on the street reminds the women that it delivered to the same location yesterday and reminds them that they too were here yesterday, in this same waiting room, listening for the call and watching life pass them by.
"The [day-labor] companies take advantage of us because they see we have nothing and need to work," says a small Asian woman, 43, with a thick accent. "This kind of place is not fair, they don't treat us right, and something should be done about it." It's 8 a.m. Her day started four hours earlier with the hour walk downtown to the labor-company office. Layoffs at a Mississippi clothing store forced her to Memphis six months ago, where she and her husband have been looking for permanent employment ever since.
"This is a nightmare," she says. "I came yesterday and the [attendant] promised me work today. I walk here in the dark to be on time and still no work. This is a very tough place." But complaining doesn't pay the bills or buy food, so the determined worker heads out. There's talk of work at a warehouse across town.
"Do you know how to get there?" asks Sarah.
"No," replies the woman. "But it's work and I'll find it."
While finding work may be difficult, finding day-laborers is not. In most major cities, local companies like LSI Temporary Services can be found in the phonebook -- alongside national day-labor companies such as Manpower and Labor Ready -- under "Employment Contractors and Employment Services." The companies specialize in providing temporary employees, usually for unskilled positions lasting from one day to a few weeks. Jobs range from basic construction and cleanup to warehouse assembly lines and unloading freight.
According to the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support (NCJIS), in 2000, Manpower surpassed General Motors as the largest employer in the country. Welfare reform, the worsening economy, and an increase in the immigrant population have all been blamed for the increase in the day-labor population. The employees that these jobs attract make it impossible to provide an accurate number of laborers, but NCJIS says the industry has grown 30 percent in the past 10 years.
For workers, the appeal lies in the daily payment system. Workers at the agency make at least the minimum hourly wage of $5.15 and usually work an eight-hour shift. Pay can be higher depending on the type of work and skill level required. Checks are distributed at the end of each work shift. But the money doesn't go far. In addition to taxes, other company-imposed costs eat away at the net pay. For example, LSI charges a $1.25 transportation fee to and from job sites. Labor Ready doesn't provide transportation, but it requires employees who give rides to other workers to collect a $2 fee each way. LSI workers say the company also charges an equipment fee. Labor Ready makes a $15 drug test the responsibility of the employee. With check-cashing fees added, day-laborers can lose more than $8 each day from their checks.
To company clients, the appeal lies in the hands-off approach they can take with day-labor employees. For a contracted price, labor companies are responsible for check preparation, deducting all employee taxes, insurance, and even child-support payments. "We provide a service," says Labor Ready customer service representative James Pegues. He operates the company's Jackson Avenue location in North Memphis, one of four Labor Ready offices in the city. "We give companies able-bodied workers, and we give people who want to work jobs."
But many workers say the employment agencies take advantage of them. NCJIS statistics list Labor Ready workers as having a one-in-four chance of workplace injury. One out of every two workers is homeless.
"I worked for LSI several times from 1986 to 2000, and they ain't right," says Darrell. Although the 38-year-old former Navy man is currently unemployed, he refuses to return to day-labor work. "[The company] wouldn't give me my separation papers to get my unemployment. And all the jobs are going to the Mexicans. They don't even have to sign in in the mornings. They go through a side door, and then you see them loading buses to go to work."
Raymond, 58, takes a break from sitting in the men's waiting room to stretch his legs outside. A welder by trade, he has been coming to LSI for 90 days and has only gotten one assignment. A little over six feet tall, he looks distinguished and is proud of his craft. "I was a welder for 31 years and got laid off. The one time I got sent out here I unloaded a truck for $6 an hour," he says. "I haven't seen them use the [sign-in] list yet. It's not fair, but I'm four months behind on my rent so I have to keep trying."
The owner of the LSI downtown location at Second and Monroe refused to release any information about his company or even his last name. His first name is Bill. "I had a bad experience with television and newspaper, and I'm not doing it again. I don't have anything to say. I'm not interested," he says, before slamming shut the receptionist's window.
"[The company] ain't gonna say anything about the problems. They don't care and really don't have to," says Darrell as he rides away on his bicycle.
Complaints of racial and gender discrimination, low wages, inadequate hours, and dangerous working conditions are not new to the day-labor business, but in an industry known for catering to drug-dependent or homeless people, these concerns have seldom garnered enough attention to bring about change. In recent years, however, Atlanta, Chicago, and Philadelphia have enacted laws that regulate the practices of day-labor companies.
Human rights activist Dexter Cox has heard these workers' complaints and many more like them. The situations are not limited to LSI or Labor Ready but exist throughout the industry. He and other laborers relate stories of men working eight to nine hours repairing roofs for minimum wage, working alongside permanent employees making twice their salary. They also tell of clients requesting women-only, men-only, and even Hispanic-only employees to fulfill assignments.
"It's easy to overlook these people because they are poor and don't make a lot of noise," says Cox. "But everyone deserves to be treated fairly. That's what we're trying to do." Cox is no stranger to activism. He helped get fair-practice day-labor laws passed in Atlanta in 1992 and has worked for fair-housing rights in Philadelphia. He and four other activists are working to get a city ordinance passed in Memphis to regulate the day-labor industry. Cox, members of Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), and Well Operator (another labor activist organization) have held meetings with day-laborers in recent months to review problems and possible solutions.
Organizers hand out bright-yellow fliers to day-laborers advising them to "Organize!" for better rights, health, safety, and wages. "It's a good thing that he's doing," says Sarah. "But it will never happen because [workers] don't want to help each other and do anything." There is even some disagreement as to tactics among the organizers. Marian Butcher of TIRN thinks organizers' efforts should not be limited to work-related items but should include health and housing issues that also affect day-workers.
Cox points to the day-labor laws passed in Atlanta and in Chicago (in 2002) and urges quick reform. Bernard Hansen identifies with Cox's urgency. The former Chicago alderman was instrumental in getting his city's day-labor reform passed last year. The municipal code amendment regulates industry standards on issues such as equipment rental fees, transportation fees, record keeping, and work tickets.
"We have migrant workers from other countries and states that come here and can't get permanent jobs. But they can get jobs that other people just don't want to do on a temporary basis," says Hansen. "We figured the only way you're really going to help people is to see where the [day-labor] industry itself is and analyze the industry."
Complaints by laborers in Chicago included irregular and illegal transportation of workers by companies to and from job sites; management mixing up, losing, or adjusting sign-in lists; and jobs being granted inequitably.
Hansen says day-labor employment companies in Chicago were receptive to some of the proposed changes but objected to other parts of the law because of what they perceived as increased costs. A six-month follow-up after the law was passed revealed a 4 to 5 percent increase in costs but also an 11 percent increase in productivity.
"If you have legislators who go in with the idea of coming up with a solution to the problem, it can work," he says. "And you have to show them how [the new laws] benefit everyone. It's a matter of managing a situation for the overall benefit of the entire process."
Nationally, the movement for better day-labor conditions took a step forward last month when Labor Ready signed a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to enforce the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act.
Locally, a meeting between Cox and the employment agencies is loosely scheduled for sometime in the next few weeks. In the meantime, he has taken the city ordinance proposal to city councilwoman Barbara Swearengen-Holt. "I have not yet done any work to get the ordinance before the council," says Holt. "I told Mr. Cox that usually when it comes to private industry, we usually have no jurisdiction. But I will get with the city's legal office and see what we can do."
Holt is wary about acting hastily because Cox is the only person to bring day-labor grievances to her attention. She says there have been few complaints filed against the companies with the Better Business Bureau. The BBB shows no membership records for LSI, Anytime Labor, or Labor Express. Manpower and Labor Ready are both registered with the BBB. Jim Fleming is listed as Labor Ready's general manager, but other basic information requested by the bureau has not been received, making it impossible for them to issue a customer experience report.
"I feel that in any industry employers should be fair with their employees," says Holt. "But you have to remember that everyone is operating as a free agent in this. The [laborers] are not being made to work at these places."
Councilwoman Holt is not alone in this assessment. Some of the workers are satisfied with the day-labor companies. Corey moved to Memphis six months ago from New York. He has worked through Labor Ready for two months. "I'm in school at Concord Career Institute training to be a patient care assistant," he says. "I've been working here to earn money in the meantime, and [the company] has been very helpful. They help you find jobs and other things that you need. Most of the places like this in New York wouldn't help you like they do here."
A tour of the North Memphis Labor Ready office reveals a different atmosphere than the one at LSI. By 11 a.m., the waiting room is nearly empty. More than 35 workers have been sent out. Only two remain, waiting for work. The room is much cleaner, staff members are easily accessible, and there are no loiterers around the building's entrance. "I think things are better here because this is a corporate-run operation," says Pegues. "You're always going to have employees who complain about low wages and things, but you have to realize that this is a business. Labor Ready provides a service, but it is also trying to make a profit. I always tell people that if they are not happy with the situation here, they need to get themselves together and get a better, permanent job somewhere else. We're not a charity organization."
As for racial-discrimination complaints, Pegues says Labor Ready does not accept requests from clients for women, men, or any race-only work tickets. The company will send out a Hispanic crew if the client requests "bilingual" workers, which seems like an obvious loophole.
Pegues says his company has seen an increase in applications since 9/11 and the attending economic downturn. "Most of the people that we get in here get stuck here," says Ron, an LSI employee. "A lot of them get off the Greyhound after getting this far and running out of money. We do the best we can for them, but we can't guarantee that everyone will go out to work every day they're here."
John and his wife are textbook cases. The couple came from the Gulf Coast on the bus on their way to Kansas City. When money ran out, they were forced to stop in Memphis. He has found occasional work with a private company, but his wife has been waiting unsuccessfully for work from LSI. "We're just trying to get enough money to get out of here," John says. "This is not for us."
"When you look at the situations of some of these people, they need help now," says Cox. "They can't afford to wait. [Day-labor laws] are something that has been done before and we can do it here."