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Caught in the Machinery

For industry, temporary labor means cheap efficient production with no strings attached. For workers it means low pay, no benefits, and no future.



The names of all temporary workers in this story have been changed.

By Nadia Oehlsen

In the series of murals that runs above what was once a long counter of teller windows in the Uptown Federal Savings and Loan, a cream-faced, roundheaded boy delivers newspapers, deposits his pay in a piggy bank, then trots off to football practice. Below him are the words MAKE ALL YOU CAN--SAVE ALL YOU CAN--GIVE ALL YOU CAN. An angular college student behind a desk piled with books looks toward his future selves: a graduate in cap and gown, flanked by proud parents; a dapper executive seated at a large desk, a company plane outside his window. ALL MEN ARE THE ARCHITECTS OF THEIR OWN FUTURES.

The next maxim, SAVE AND TEACH ALL YOU ARE-- , is cut short by the wall that defines this room as the women's section of the Ready-Men daily-pay hiring hall at 4543 N. Broadway. (Last year, while this story was being researched, Ready-Men was taken over by a company called Staffing Network, but at the Broadway site some of the office staff and several of the clients mentioned in this story remain the same.) On an autumn morning, some 60 women have gathered for the 5:30 job call. They sit in plastic patio chairs or stand in the doorway, chatting or reading or staring at the dingy carpet. About half of them appear to be Hispanic, a quarter black, and a quarter white. On the other side of the wall are about 150 more people, men and women, all waiting for work. The lucky ones will ride the agency's buses to production, assembly, packing, and maintenance jobs, most of them in the north and northwest suburbs. They'll return to Uptown after 12 hours--including one hour of lunch and bathroom breaks and three to four hours of transportation and waiting time--to be paid eight hours' minimum wage, minus a small transportation fee charged by the temp agency. Workers with prized assignments might earn a little more, maybe $5 per hour, or rack up some overtime by the end of the week.

A white woman--like me--with gray hair, wearing a Granny Smith-green shirt and matching bauble earrings, smiles and beckons me to the newly emptied chair beside her. She begins to talk the moment I sit down, noting that I'm new, and explaining that she's been working through Ready-Men for a few months. A dispatcher behind a service counter calls out a series of names of people assigned to a day of work. Some women cluster around to grab their papers, or "tickets," from him and then shuffle out the door, laughing quietly and chatting in Spanish. My neighbor leans toward me and mutters, "They go out every day--even the new ones. It's not fair. They don't belong in this country."

The dispatcher calls out more names and I look up at him after he repeats one a few times. He's looking at a woman who is staring blankly at the floor. "Sanchez... Sanchez...SAN-chez," he says, louder each time. She looks up at him, then starts from her seat to receive her work ticket. "She didn't answer 'cause that's not her real name," the woman in green comments.

Meanwhile, a young white woman in jeans and a sweatshirt stands beneath the service counter helping a Hispanic woman fill out her application and translating the agent's questions. "Name?" the dispatcher asks. The applicant looks from the man to her identification card to the translator, who explains something in Spanish and points to a line on the card. "Maria Mojada," the woman in green calls out. The applicant laughs, and the Latina seated to my left chuckles. "I said Maria Wetback," my neighbor says, grinning at her own joke. "I'm glad the Republicans are in. They're going to hurt us all, but they're going to change things."

Employment in the temporary-help industry has grown much faster than in the rest of the economy in the postrecession 1990s, according to the most recent figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics: overall employment increased about 5 percent between 1989 and 1994, while the number of blue-collar workers hired by temporary agencies shot up nearly 100 percent. (Manpower, the Milwaukee-based temporary-jobs empire, logged 750,000 employees in 1994, making it the largest private employer in the United States.) A 1995 report estimated that as many as six million people in the U.S. worked on a contingent basis--that is, without "an implicit or explicit contract for ongoing employment." The report also gave statistics about temporary work in 21 cities, but Chicago wasn't one of them. It was dropped from the study because too few of the randomly selected temp agencies--there are about 200 in the city--agreed to answer researchers' questions.

Some Americans have gladly chosen the flexibility of temp work over the demands of salaried positions with limited time off, and many are paid well for it. But at least 150,000 part-time and temporary laborers in the Chicago area are members of working poor families--that is, families whose members work a total of 26 weeks or more in a year but whose combined income is less than 150 percent of the official poverty cutoff figure. That's according to a 1995 report by the Chicago Urban League, the Latino Institute, and Northern Illinois University. The report also confirms that a disproportionate number of contingent workers are African-American and Latino. "Corporate downsizing, a decline in high-paying manufacturing jobs, and the explosion of low-paying service jobs--these things are familiar to everybody. What has come along with that are ways for employers to shift some of the uncertainty in their business practices onto the labor force," says Nikolas Theodore, the Urban League researcher who wrote the report.

For example, the practice of "just in time" inventory replacement has gained popularity with mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart, increasing the demand for a fluctuating work force. Under this system, a store stocks only the merchandise displayed on its shelves and tracks sales with bar codes that signal regional headquarters to reorder products just before they sell out. The practice has profoundly affected production of consumer goods, Theodore says. "They tell their suppliers, 'We're not sure exactly how much we're going to need, but when we decide, we're gonna need the stuff right away.' Then that firm doesn't know exactly how much it's gonna produce, so it doesn't know how many people it's gonna need, so it says to its work force, 'We're not sure how many hours we're gonna need you.'"

The demand for higher profit margins by number crunchers in the manufacturing and service sectors is also increasing demand for temporary labor. "Some firms pursue a low-wage strategy, where their efforts to cut costs are on the labor side. One way to do that is to routinize your operations--make them so that the skills required are less and less. That will open them up to a wider band of possible employees at the low end, because unemployment levels for low-skilled jobs are super, super high," Theodore says. "They don't plan to have an employee for more than a year. That way the wages don't progress up.

"As companies are looking for more and more flexibility, you see the emergence of these new forms of employment," he says. "Day labor is one of them. And then you've got these firms that supply the entire work force for a factory other than management. So the people who work for the factory would be this management layer, and all of the production staff would be subcontracted through another firm."

Employers say they like the convenience of paying simple fees to agencies that take the responsibility for cutting checks and figuring payroll taxes and workers' comp. But critics of employers' increased reliance on temps say some companies prefer them because they're paid less and they're less likely to speak up about racial discrimination, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, and other abuses.

As permanent jobs disappear, many workers are now sent by daily-pay agencies into the same industries--sometimes into the same factories--where they once enjoyed good wages, benefits, and pension plans. With no sick leave or personal days, or even a guarantee of work the next morning, these workers are often a daily paycheck away from homelessness, says John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "They lose their permanent jobs, either in a factory or in a small business, and they get stuck on day labor, and when they don't get out then they don't have a place to stay."

The temporary industry does meet some reasonable needs of employers--to fill jobs left vacant by permanent workers on injury or maternity leave, for example. And temporary hiring halls can serve as a port of entry for people joining the American labor force for the first time or after a long absence. "Let's say someone doesn't have great language skills--they're from another country or something," Theodore says. "They don't have a good job-searching network. They go to the day-labor place, now the employer knows how to find them." In theory, they can then prove their mettle and move into permanent, better-paying jobs. But in practice, Theodore says, "for a large segment of the low end of the work force, people are going to be bouncing around from unemployment to temporary work, back to unemployment, to part-time jobs, can't make it, back to unemployment, in and out of this contingent labor."

Olyvia, a 40-year-old African-American woman I meet outside of Ready-Men, says she has only received government assistance once in her life, when her children were young, but that she went to work once they were in school. She says she spent ten years making shampoo and deodorant at a Chicago factory but lost her job and full-time benefits in June 1993 after her department caught fire. "We were making this chemical with alcohol, and that burns. It was a leak and somehow it spread, real fast," she says. "I had worked myself up and become a machine officer, making $13 per hour plus benefits. That really hurt me, when you reach a standard and you have to come back. I went to two years of college. I could get a certified nurse's assistant job, but those are in the suburbs. You gotta have a car for those jobs."

After working a series of temporary jobs, Olyvia took almost a year off to tend to her grandson while her daughter finished high school. On the morning I meet her, she's ready to come back. Trouble is, the agency has nothing for her, and she fears a spat she's had with a dispatcher isn't going to help. "He hit the counter and turned red," she says. "I said, 'I'm the one who should be mad.' He said, 'Your boyfriend works.' I said, 'That's not my money.' You see, he got an attitude. He has you coming sometimes a month and you don't get nothing."

Olyvia says this dispatcher favors some workers who pick up coffee and newspapers for him, and that he's fond of rubbing the backs and arms of Latinas. "And they laugh and just let him do it!" she says. "I ain't gonna let him rub me on the back to see if I've got a bra on. People do a lot of things they don't have to do to keep their jobs. And they wonder why people get so depressed and go to work and shoot the boss."

She told the dispatcher that if she doesn't get work soon, she'll have no choice but to file for unemployment compensation from a job she held through the agency for a year, then lost shortly before she decided to stay home with her grandson. "They might fight it for a couple months, but you get it," she says. "But then they get real funky with you. They won't send you out, and when the unemployment runs out you're really messed up."

Marvin, a 34-year-old African-American man, walks with us down Broadway, punctuating Olyvia's diatribe with sympathetic murmurs. He joined the military after he graduated from high school in 1981, returned from duty in 1985, and took his first job with Ready-Men two years later, making household cleaners at a factory in Niles. "When I started out at Ready-Men I was making $3.35 an hour, and I thought I was rich then," Marvin says. In 1988, he says, he had been working for more than three months on a Ready-Men ticket making Weber grills in Palatine when the company announced it was planning to hire six or seven Ready-Men workers, including Marvin. "Ready-Men found out and they canceled the whole contract," Marvin claims.

(Joe Moore, human resources manager at Weber-Stephen, said he wouldn't know if anything like that had occurred at the factory in 1988 because he wasn't there, and declined to comment further. Staffing Network, the company that took over Ready-Men in April 1996, has declined repeated requests for an interview. The state still lists Ready-Men as a corporation in good standing, but several messages left at Ready-Men headquarters, listed on Clark Street in Chicago, went unanswered and the phone number is now disconnected.)

Marvin spent 1990 training for a certified nurse's assistant certificate. He worked for a nursing home for the next two years, making a little above minimum wage, then took a job as a dispatcher for a security company, where he worked until 1993. "One night I was running late," Marvin says. "I was supposed to be there at 10, and I called in and told them I would be there at 10:30. So I got written up. My boss kept hounding me and kept shortchanging me of overtime pay. He just said, 'It'll be on your next check, it'll be on your next check,' so one day I up and left."

He sought jobs through newspaper and window ads but couldn't find work on his own, so he came back to Ready-Men, showing up at five every morning to wait for work. His first assignment upon his return was making steel bookcase shelves at the Hirsh Company, a Skokie factory Marvin had heard was owned in part by Ready-Men. Marvin estimates that it employed about 25 permanent workers and 20 to 40 temps. The work was wildly unpredictable, Marvin says. "They'll say, 'We need about 60 guys,' and the next day they cut about 25."

Theodore notes that there would be nothing illegal about a day-labor company holding interest in a business that uses its workers or vice versa. "I've heard other examples of companies in other cities setting up their own temp agencies just to staff themselves," he says.

In fact, there are very few laws that specifically address temporary labor. In 1971, federal legislators failed to pass a Day Labor Protection Act; attempts to regulate daily-pay agencies at the state and city levels also failed in the early 70s. In 1974, a Chicago ordinance sponsored by 46th Ward alderman Chris Cohen outlawed the common practice of paying day laborers with vouchers that could only be cashed at taverns owned by agency bosses or their friends.

State senator Miguel del Valle, a Democrat whose northwest-side Second District includes about a dozen industrial-labor services, sponsored an amendment to the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act that added such agencies to its definition of employer. The change, which went into effect in 1995, allows day laborers the right to request that their wages be paid weekly or every two weeks instead of daily, to minimize fees from currency exchanges--the only places many workers can cash checks.

Del Valle drafted his amendment after a visit from a woman who complained that Elite Labor Service, a few blocks from his office on North Avenue in west Humboldt Park, had stopped sending her to work, though she thought she had been a good employee. "She pulled out what at first glance appeared to be a paycheck for $20, and she showed me she had five of these things, and they were each for $20, and I looked at them and said, 'What is this?'" The documents said "Redeemable only at Kedzie-North Currency Exchange," which charged 50 cents to cash each one. "When I started this process, I thought that I was going to find a state law or something that I would just strengthen," says del Valle, "and then I found, my God, there's nothing on this."

Chicago-area labor advocates are looking for more ways to regulate daily-pay agencies, some of which they say charge temps unreasonable transportation fees, discourage factories from hiring workers permanently, and purposely hire and then refuse to pay undocumented immigrants.

According to the Urban League report, blacks make up 31.9 percent of the low-income contingent workers in the area, almost twice their presence in the total local work force. Latinos account for 23.6 percent, more than twice their percentage of the total. Race seems to influence how the workers are treated by employers and each other, say Olyvia and Marvin. For weeks, Olyvia hounded a Ready-Men dispatcher to send her to a company known to give lots of overtime. One day he responded to her complaints with a confidential apology. "He said, 'The reason I keep looking you over is they said they just want Mexicans,'" Olyvia says. "You had very good workers out there--very good--and they stopped because someone broke something or stole something, and they take it out on a whole nationality.

"They need to start sending immigration out once in a while," Olyvia says. "They work you for three hours and send you home; and then here's the Mexicans goin' at it, because they're glad to be here so they can get money. They come to work sick."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has in fact dealt with both Ready-Men and Hirsh, the shelf company where Marvin worked and which INS spokeswoman Gail Montenegro says was Ready-Men's "main contract." In 1983, the INS arrested 93 undocumented immigrants at Hirsh; most, Montenegro says, had been hired through Ready-Men. And in 1988, the INS fined Ready-Men $308,000, the biggest penalty ever levied against any employer under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which makes it illegal to knowingly hire or continue to employ undocumented immigrants. Most of the workers arrested, says Montenegro, were being sent to Hirsh. Ready-Men eventually reached a settlement with the INS and paid $60,000--to date the largest sum collected under the act, says Montenegro.

She also notes that just because a temp agency doesn't have a file going at the INS doesn't mean it's clean. Investigators do encounter day laborers from a variety of companies during their operations, but the files are opened on the places where the undocumented immigrants are found, not on the agencies that provided them.

The Uptown hiring hall now run by Staffing Network employs some of the same dispatchers, who send some of the same workers to some of the same companies Ready-Men did, including Hirsh and a DCFS children's emergency home where Marvin also worked, Columbus Maryville. There's no evidence that either is using undocumented immigrants, but discarded papers seem to suggest that Latinos sometimes get a disproportionate share of the work at Hirsh: Three lists of names faxed from "Ready-Men Division North" to Hirsh on November 18, 19, and 20, 1996, log between 63 and 86 workers, about three-quarters of whom have Hispanic surnames. And two separate notes on Staffing Network stationery say, "Columbus Merriville [sic], 2 Spanish Men at 7 AM, Report to Mr. Ortiz tomorrow."

Two messages left for Hirsh plant manager Jack Frigo were not returned. But Robert Navarro, the maintenance director of Columbus Maryville, explains that Idelfonzo Ortiz, who oversees janitorial temps, doesn't speak much English. "If he has a hard time, which he has in the past, speaking English, I tell him, 'Well, here, get a couple of Spanish guys and then you can deal with them in Spanish,'" he says. "But we take in all kinds that come here. I mean, if the person does not work out, we send them back. We get another and another."

Juan Antonio, a 39-year-old Quichean Mayan man, is a political refugee who works legally in the United States. He fled Guatemala, where he was a full-time musician, ten years ago, after government soldiers killed several members of his family and threatened to kill him. For the last three years he has lived in Chicago, where he volunteers for a cultural program, teaching traditional Mayan music to teenagers, but has found paid work here only through a series of low-wage temporary jobs.

Juan Antonio says the street wisdom is that some industrial temp agencies exploit recent immigrants because they are less likely than other workers to complain. "The majority don't have their papers or they don't speak English," he says in Spanish as his wife translates. "Commonly, they give the more difficult jobs to Latinos, like carrying heavy things and cleaning machines, where we're working with toxic chemicals, where we're working in danger. Everyone knows that they give us the hardest work and they pay us the least."

He says his worst assignment was through Ryan Industrial Temporary Service, an agency on the 4700 block of Milwaukee Avenue. He had worked through Ryan for about three weeks when the agency sent him to a printing plant near O'Hare. On the third day Juan Antonio worked there, he got out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, arrived at the hiring hall at 5, and returned to the area near Ryan at 8 PM. "We entered the plant at 7 in the morning. We took out the garbage and brought in papers the manager wanted. We started at one to do production. We left there at 7 at night," he says. When he received his check from Ryan, he discovered that he had been paid for only four hours.

"I asked, 'Why was it only for these hours?' They said, 'The factory reported these hours.' I said, 'Well, I worked the 12 hours,' and the woman in the office said, 'Well, probably the manager at the factory only paid you for the hours that you produced something,' not the hours cleaning and repairing the machines," Juan Antonio says.

An office manager for Ryan says each temp is given a four-part time sheet--with different-colored copies--to bring to his supervisor at the beginning of an assignment, and then new forms every week the assignment continues. The supervisor records the employee's hours on the sheet and has him sign it at the end of each shift.

Each worker is supposed to return the yellow copy of his time sheet to Ryan at the end of the week or the end of the assignment, whichever comes first. "You'd be surprised how many of them don't hold on to them," the office manager says. "They're all told during the interview. We have fact sheets telling them how to dress, how long lunch is, what kind of time card to use, directions by public transportation or by car." A Ryan employee gives verbal instructions in Spanish to those who need it, but all written information is in English.

Juan Antonio says during his assignment at the printing plant he and several other workers got rides with a fellow temp. The driver was given his and everyone else's blank time sheets. Before they began to work the first day, a plant supervisor called their names one by one and had them sign the sheets. At the end of the assignment, on the third day, the supervisor gave everyone's time sheets back to the driver, who gave them to Ryan.

He hasn't sought legal help to procure a check for the unpaid hours. "They're not going to pay me if I don't have proof," he says. "It's the boss's word against mine." Employees working in Illinois, including day laborers, can in fact easily file for redress of illegal paycheck deductions or unpaid hours, but few people know about the law, says a representative of the Illinois Labor Department. When the department's wage-claims division steps in, especially for small sums, employers usually cough up the money without a fight.

But Juan Antonio is hesitant, because he doesn't know the name of the plant or even what suburb it was in. "They send us far away and we don't know where we are," he says. "The factory can take advantage of this because you don't know the names." He stopped working for Ryan after the incident, but asks me not to use his real name when I call there because he might need to work through the company again someday.

State senator del Valle says he's heard stories like Juan Antonio's from his constituents, most of whom are of Mexican or Puerto Rican heritage. "Sure, I've heard people say, 'I worked longer than this,'" del Valle says, but many don't hassle their employers about it, even if they're legal residents or U.S. citizens. "People are stuck. They're saying, 'Wait a minute, I need to work. At least I'm getting something, but if I complain and there's a problem they might not send me anywhere else to work, and then I won't have anything.'

"I've gone to bat for undocumented people before, and will continue to do so," the senator says. "But I'm always a little bit reluctant to zero in on something like that, because you can end up hurting the victim more."

Del Valle says industrial employers occasionally compliment him on the quality of the workers from his district. "They've said it to me before: 'I'd like to get set up in this community because, you know, they work hard,'" he says. This doesn't surprise Nikolas Theodore, who is writing a follow-up report the Urban League plans to release this spring. He says he's looking closely at where the agencies set up shop. "In the light-industrial area you find a lot of temp agencies in Latino communities," he says. "There are none, actually, on the south and west sides of Chicago, in the predominantly African-American communities.

"In the Chicago area, we see temp agencies really carving out very specific niches. Sure, some specialize in higher-skilled people and some specialize in hiring paralegal temps, but I think that there is specialization that occurs at another level, and that is what labor pools they're tapping," Theodore says. "Race and geographic location are intimately related in Chicago--we have a high level of segregation. Because there is that connection, these temp agencies can locate in an area and pretty much tap that type of labor."

Twenty-five years ago most of Chicago's daily-pay hiring halls were located along the skid rows of the west Loop and Uptown, long an immigrant neighborhood and then home to a large population of poor, white Americans who had moved to Chicago to escape the unemployment and coal mines of Appalachia. Now just four daily-pay agencies recruit workers in a three-block section of the heart of Uptown, along Broadway between Montrose and Wilson.

"I think what agencies are running into is either they're gonna cater to the needs of the employer or someone else will," Theodore says. "I think there is support out there for this idea that some temp agencies are doing the discriminating for the employers. Let's say a factory has a relationship with XYZ Temps and XYZ Temps sends them ten African-Americans, two whites, and seven Latinos. Well, they will call ABC Temps next time, until they get what they want. There's an oversupply of unskilled men and women that are looking to these temp agencies as a source of employment. So if an employer doesn't like the results they're getting with one temp agency, it's very easy to go get another."

"This isn't Burger King," reads a yellowed photocopy on the wall near the service counter of Uptown's All Help Labor Service, at 1132 W. Wilson. "You don't get it your way. You take it my way, or you don't get the son of a bitch!" There are also official red-white-and-blue posters about equal employment opportunity and workplace safety and hand-lettered notices that only drivers and office staff may enter the inner office to use the bathroom or get coffee or water. In another photocopy, the Tasmanian Devil flips the bird and says, "I can only handle one crisis per day, and today ain't your day, so Fuck Off!"

It's 4:30 on a hot Monday morning in July 1995, and 20 men sit on rows of backless benches waiting for work assignments. The benches face the counter, where two white women in jeans and T-shirts sip coffee, shuffle papers, and occasionally survey the day's candidates. In the front row, a young black man in new work boots and crisp denim and chambray holds a pair of stiff canvas gloves and unscratched safety glasses. A few feet away, a white man hunches in concentration over a newspaper crossword puzzle. He hears his name called with others and heads toward the door, still glancing at the paper. A group of weathered old white men sit in the back row and on a windowsill of the outside wall, talking in faded rural accents, pausing half minutes between subjects.

I'm the only woman waiting for work until another slips onto the bench in front of mine. She sits for a few minutes, then walks up to the counter and waits. She's African-American and looks barely 20, maybe five months pregnant, and tired. She asks the taller dispatcher if she can work today.

"I don't know," the dispatcher says hesitantly, as she pulls out a document and looks it over. ", I'm sorry, but you have an X on your form. They said they don't want you back. You were too slow."

"Oh," she says quietly, as she looks at the form. "Is there anything else?"

"I don't know. We'll see."

The woman returns to her spot on the bench, fidgets for a few minutes, then leaves. I prepare myself for rejection too, then look up to make eye contact with the dispatcher. "You," she says, pointing at me then at a door next to the counter. "Come back here." We walk to a short hallway, where she pulls a chair up to a desk along the wall and looks up at me. "Are you looking for something long-term, or do you just want something for today?"

"Uh...long-term," I respond, surprised by the quick offer.

"OK, I've got a really good ticket for you, if you're interested. Can you pass an eye test?"

"I think so."

"Good," she says, pulling a half-sheet carbon form out of a drawer and inserting it into the typewriter. "You have to pass an eye test. You'll be working with small parts. It's a nice company, and if you do well and show up every day you could eventually get hired full-time."

"Wow. I didn't expect to get a job so soon," I say. Seasoned day laborers in Uptown have told me I'll have to show up at an agency every morning for a week or so before I get an assignment, and then must prove my reliability by never missing a day of work once I'm assigned a ticket.

"Well, you came on the right day. This just came up," she responds with a smile, then asks for a picture identification and an address and telephone number where I can be reached. She hands me part of the completed form. "You're going to Mitutoyo, in Elk Grove Village. Give this to them. We'll tell you when the bus is leaving."

Mitutoyo/MTI Corporation has a nondescript little gauge assembly plant beneath humming power lines in an industrial section of Elk Grove Village. Three All Help men begin working shortly after we arrive, at 6:20 AM, half an hour before Mitutoyo's permanent employees show up. They're hoping to log enough hours to qualify for overtime by the end of the week.

A middle-aged man sits in the empty break room with me as I wait to meet my supervisor. We're both too new to work extra hours, according to Mitutoyo rules. John has worked through All Help off and on for five years. He lives at the Wilson Club in Uptown, one of Chicago's last remaining "cage hotels"--a 300-person, $50-a-week complex of sleeping cubbies divided by partitions and chicken wire, which allows ventilation to the windowless interior rooms.

John says he considers the Wilson Club safer than the nearby Bachelor Hotel, also known as "Mike's Place" because it's run by Mike Siegel, who also runs All Help. Many temp workers do stay there, John says. The $60-a-week hotel is part of a complex that also includes the restaurant, bar, and currency exchange near the corner of Wilson and Clifton, and in 1994 Siegel was written up by the city for 32 building-code violations, including the absence of smoke detectors, rusted fire escapes, improper plumbing and wiring, and roaches; the complaint was later dismissed.

At Mitutoyo, I spend the day in a clean, air-conditioned room, assembling springs and gears on the steel bottom plates of future gauges. The hours pass quickly to the rhythm of hydraulic punch presses, my electric screwdriver, the gossip of other workers, and buzzers that announce the beginnings and ends of breaks. My set of tasks is complex but mindless, and seems safe except for the signs that say safety glasses are required (no one is wearing them). There's a tingling sensation in my hands and wrists by the end of the day. Two men from All Help work in this room with me, and two work on the other side of a window from us. They work steadily and quietly all day, and remain at work 90 minutes after Mitutoyo's permanent employees go home.

By 5:15 I'm back in the rusty van, now driven by a paunchy man in his 50s. The afternoon heat and vehicle exhaust are oppressive at every rush-hour stall, but happy hour is already hopping--most of the passengers pitched in for a six-pack from a liquor store five miles back. Bob and Al dominate the conversation with an endless exchange of off-track betting strategies, notes on beer prices around Uptown, and occasionally racist humor. (The two African-American men who rode to work with us aren't here; they'll make their own way home after several hours of overtime heat-treating metal at a factory in Des Plaines.) Al is a native white Chicagoan, short and thin, who looks younger than his age, in the mid-30s. He has worked at Mitutoyo for about six months and is frustrated that he hasn't been hired permanently. "They keep changing my station. They're playing games with me," he says. "They don't want to hire me till they have to."

We're deposited at Wilson and Racine, where I follow my coworkers into the Wooden Nickel tavern, where Mike Siegel himself, a gray-haired man in his 70s, hands us our paychecks from behind the bar. "Whaddaya want?" he asks each of us as we sign our checks. Bob, a brawny white man in his mid-30s with a heavy south-side accent, has already explained that Siegel will cash my check for a dollar, or for free with a purchase from the bar. I pay the dollar. All Help workers can pick up their checks at the hiring office during business hours and cash them anywhere, but most go to the bar, which is open until 1:30 on weeknights.

The next day, I check in at All Help and wander over to a nearby grill to grab breakfast and coffee. I sit at the counter, next to Sam, a quiet, 38-year-old white man who also has a ticket at Mitutoyo. We nod good morning, then sit in silence as he sips his coffee and I study the menu.

"If you want the best deal, get the Egg Special," Sam says.

I read the entry--$1.99 for two eggs, potatoes, toast, butter, and jelly--and order it just as a heated discussion breaks into shouts between a red-cheeked grill man and a customer who doesn't think he should pay full price for an unsatisfactory breakfast.

"Get the fuck outta here or I'm gonna call the cops," the grill man, now crimson, yells. The customer steps back and spreads his arms. "Oh, I see. You're gonna send me to jail," he says. "You think that's someplace I've never been? Go ahead. Call the cops. Send me to jail." Finally the customer leaves and the restaurant is quiet except for the song of the Cherry Master video slot machines and the murmurs of the people working the grill.

"You're lucky," Sam pipes up. "This is the best ticket I've ever had."

When I meet Sam again eight months later, he's staying at a shelter in Uptown. He no longer works for Mitutoyo, and now considers the company one of his worst All Help assignments. "It was one I really didn't care for, because of the regimented...the strictness of the Japanese philosophy," he says. "They didn't want any talking between you. You're not supposed to talk until break time, lunchtime, and, you know, it was just ridiculous."

Sam worked a total of three months before Mitutoyo asked All Help to stop sending him. "I fell asleep on a machine," he admits. "I just dozed off a second. I drilled a hole through what's called a fixer, where you drill a hole through metal rods. You've gotta hold it steady, you know. So I just nodded for a second and I went through, and they didn't like that, so they x-ed me." (A representative of Mitutoyo declined to comment for this article.)

"I was dozing for half an hour before that, just off and on. I was really tired, though. I didn't get no sleep the night before. But it's not like it happened every night with me," he says. "Some of these guys come in in the morning where they can hardly hold their heads up. No, that wasn't a routine with me."

Sam is also unhappy with the way things have been going at All Help. Mike Siegel's employees and tenants describe him as a tough boss and softhearted father figure, often in the same conversation. "He's a good guy," Sam says. "If you have a problem or something, he will help you out. It's gotta be a serious problem, with work or, you know, if you had a fight with your wife or your girlfriend, something, and you need a place; or you need a few bucks. He's good with money, but don't ever stiff him, because he'll never loan you again." No-interest loans are Siegel's primary way of helping his workers, Sam says, along with letting workers move into his hotel with the understanding that they'll pay their rent out of their All Help checks.

But Siegel turned over management of All Help to Michele Siegel, his daughter, in May 1995. She had just returned from Mexico, where, she says, she financed loans for builders of resort hotels. Under her management transportation fees have been raised from $3 to $4 per round trip. Sam doesn't like Michele's management style, because he thinks she has cost him jobs. After Mitutoyo, All Help sent Sam to work as a punch-press operator at a Chicago metal fabricator. He says he'd worked there a month when his supervisor offered him a permanent position at the factory. The next morning, Sam told an All Help dispatcher it would be his last ride to the factory in All Help's van, because he would soon be a permanent employee.

"Michele got right on the phone," Sam claims. "When I walked out of the office, she got on the phone, called the guy--I didn't know this was going on, you know--and told him that he couldn't hire me for three months, and told him that's what was in their contract, which is bullshit. He agreed with it, 'cause he's a really easygoing guy, and said OK. I even told him, I said, 'Check your contract.' I told him, 'It's not in there,' and he just said, 'No, I don't want to cause any trouble,'" Sam says. "He said, 'I'll hire you in three months, when the waiting period is over, no problem.'"

A month later, Sam showed up for his daily ride to the factory and was told that the company had canceled its contract with All Help. "I said, 'Michele, what's going on? I'm supposed to get hired there.' She said, 'Oh, I don't know. The boss is crazy,' this and that. 'He's real goofy, doesn't know what he's doing. They don't have the work for you right now.'"

Two weeks after our interview, Sam left the shelter. A couple of residents there had found him unconscious on his bed with a syringe stuck in his leg. The shelter staff asked him to move to a drug-treatment center, but he refused, insisting that he didn't have a drug problem. He's again picking up his temporary paychecks at the Wooden Nickel.

Michele Siegel says All Help's contracts do stipulate a 90-day waiting period before client companies can hire away her employees, but that she's not a stickler about it. "I would like them to work for us for 90 days, at least, because that's what we're in business to do, so we can pay all our help," Siegel says. "But 30 is fine, if it's a guy I know is gonna stay. Now if it's, on the other hand, someone I know who's been on permanent jobs before, I will tell the owner or the one hiring, 'Are you sure you've tested them enough?' Not saying, 'Don't hire him, he's no good,' or any of that."

Siegel says she loves to place capable workers in permanent positions, and that 12 of the 85 people who regularly worked through All Help last year moved into permanent jobs. But many All Help workers are better suited to temporary work, she says. "They walk off the job in three months. They just can't take the pressure. It's better that they come in and they have someone driving them. And they can ride our vans too, if they get permanent, especially on the tickets that we already have," Siegel says. "We have guys that are sometimes lunatics. I've got a couple of them that I keep tabs on and move them every three months, 'cause every three months they have a blowup, and that's due to a psychological disorder."

Others are "rolling stones" who move from job to job to avoid paying back taxes or child support, Siegel says, and adds that even some stable, law-abiding workers turn down permanent positions, such as a man who has been an All Help temporary employee for 15 years. "He just doesn't want the responsibility. It's like we're his family, and going away, he's afraid if he gets off of our ticket and gets on permanent, he'll be on his own," she says. "Wonderful little fella. He's getting close to retirement and he wants a raise. So, Monday morning I'm going to call the factory owner and say, 'This man's been diligent for 15 years. I want to see if you would please give him a raise.' And yes or no, and that's all, and hopefully he will. I mean, there's no breaking arms, there's nothing like that. And if he says no, I'm sure my guy's still going to go to work. But he'll be a little bit upset, or he'll just probably ask for some overtime."

For years, hourly wages on many All Help tickets have started at $5 an hour, which Siegel says she has long thought should be the federal minimum wage. (This September, she'll get her wish when it goes up to $5.15 an hour.) The $7.60 an hour proposed by the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign is unnecessarily high, she says, especially since many industrial temps get some form of supplemental government income. "Five dollars an hour is $40 a day, and about $32.18 net a day. That's where the government should come in and say, 'The guy makes $5 an hour. Make up the difference in food stamps between that and $7.60,'" Siegel says. "It's incentive. But you don't just give them something. You know, $7.60, these guys--I mean, most of them that have gone down and out and have one depression after another would find a reason to spend that $7.60, and if they take it home, you'd be lucky to see a dollar of it, because they'll spend it all on one good time and not show up the next day. It's sad, but that's true."

Some shelter volunteers and other advocates of Uptown's chronically homeless workers charge that many All Help workers are tempted to find that good time at Siegel's tavern, after they pick up and cash their checks there, then go to Siegel's Bachelor Hotel to catch a few hours of sleep before they again start the daily cycle of working, drinking, and sleeping to the benefit of their boss. Siegel responds to that charge by expressing her disgust for Uptown's "social workers." "Oh, wouldn't they like to think of that operation," she says. "They're jealous 'cause they're not that bright.

"My guys who have problems with alcohol, if they go get a check, they'll get cheese and crackers, they'll get a beef-stick jerky, and they'll walk out. The beer in front of you should not make a difference. Any shrink could tell you that," she says. "There are alcoholics that work for us, and they're what they call teetotalers, or whatever. They have a little sip once in a while, or they would probably go into convulsions and die, 'cause they're too old to quit."

Less offensive to Siegel are the charges of labor advocates who say temp agencies are helping companies across the United States replace their permanent employees with a fluctuating workforce of low-wage temporary workers, even as corporate stocks and executive salaries climb higher than ever.

"It's true," she says, "there are greedy people in the world." But she considers her service a buffer against even higher unemployment. "I was talking to one of my clients about downsizing on the permanent end, and how they have quite a few long-lasting employees who no longer can perform," she says. "So I was trying to convince them, 'Why don't you put them on our payroll, see if they'll take a cut in pay or on a part-time basis?' Not to put it like we're feeling sorry for someone, but they're useful and they have the knowledge to train for the interim, at the time, so you're not spending over and above what you can afford."

In August 1996, Mike Siegel says, he fired Michele; he thinks she's now somewhere on the west coast.

Local labor unions, while lamenting the loss of permanent jobs to temporary agencies, have yet to figure out how to attack the problem. That's partly because rulings by the National Labor Relations Board have been inconsistent in determining who should be considered the employer of a temporary worker. "In some situations the board has ruled that the temporary workers are employed both by the temporary agencies and by the employer that contracts with the temporary agency, and therefore if those employers agree to an election then the temporary workers would be able to vote in the election," says Leanna Noble, who has interviewed temps at Milwaukee-area plastics plants for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers there. "If the temporary agency or the employer who contracted for the work--either one of them--refuses to recognize the workers' right to vote, then the union has very little recourse."

For now, that leaves issues of temporary labor to be addressed by social service and community organizations, who are also grappling with how to serve growing ranks of transient workers.

"You can't organize temps. I mean, not into a union," says Madeline Talbott, director of Chicago ACORN, which leads the Chicago Jobs and Living Wage Campaign. "But you can organize them to support an increase in the minimum wage. That's an area where you can organize temps aggressively and successfully, into a workers' organization that is fighting what's basically a community fight."

In the meantime, ACORN also maintains a hiring registry, which lists members' job skills, availability, addresses, and phone numbers. "It's still a fledgling effort," Talbott admits. "We want signed agreements with businesses that agree to make us the first source for their hiring. That is, for some period of time, two days or two weeks, that they'll go to us first to see if we can provide qualified applicants, and only if we can't will they go outside. Talbott says employers' thrift can draw them to nonprofit job banks. "It's not that cheap to hire through a temp agency," Talbott says. "Some of them are paying 11 or 12 dollars an hour, and the employee is getting minimum wage and no benefits."

That's just one factor members of the Empti-Spoon Job Club hope will attract employers to its year-old hiring hall in Uptown. Most of the club's 50 members work daily-pay jobs off and on, most are homeless or have been recently, and many struggle with substance abuse. "We directly compete with the temporary employment agencies by charging what most of them charge, which is $7 an hour for janitorial service," says Bob Koth, one of the club's founders. The club keeps a dollar an hour, which is split between two volunteer administrators, both of whom are homeless, and gives the other $6 to its workers. "We've developed a reputation for quality work, and the reason we're able to do that is we take people through a career-planning process where we can assess them," he says.

Empti-Spoon (which stands for Employment, Maintenance, and Political Tactics for Indigents--the Street People's Operation Organizing for Needs) also takes pains to ensure that earnings don't feed addictions, patterning its meetings on the 12-step model and paying twice a month rather than every day. "Why a lot of people get stuck on temporary jobs, even though they're ripped off, is they need to be paid that day," Koth says. "That's a form of exploitation of the alcoholics and drug addicts, and we're trying to move people beyond that."

Koth and cofounder Billy Hand Robinson, both of whom say they too have struggled with drugs and alcohol, use their salaries as a career counselor and a schoolteacher to pay small "training stipends" to members for serving as the club's peer counselors, newsletter editors, and job coordinators. The club's members say they appreciate the higher wages and respect that Empti-Spoon offers, along with the camaraderie, career counseling, resume preparation, access to transportation, and other assistance many say have helped them move from shelters into their own apartments. But while they occasionally find permanent positions for themselves and others, more of the jobs are limited to a few hours here and there, cleaning up after concerts at the Riviera, picking trash off bank lawns, sweeping neighborhood sidewalks, or cleaning churches and temples.

ACORN avoids temporary placements altogether, Talbott says, and plans to develop other minimum standards for what jobs it will list for its members. "There's been a lot of conversation among groups that are doing hiring halls right now, about whether or not we should get into the temp business ourselves," she says. "My general feeling is that that's just a no-win proposition in this economy. You're not in a situation where there's few job-seekers and great demand for the work, which is the only situation you could be in where you could really competitively get out there and compete with the temp agencies and use market forces to force their rates up. I think that could be done in the 60s, and a few people tried it, but it can't be done today."

Twenty-six daily-pay agencies thrived in Uptown in 1971 when John Plunkett and a few other Catholic activists set up Just Jobs, a worker-advocate agency that set out to win temporary labor contracts from its more profit-minded neighbors near Broadway and Montrose. The not-for-profit gave rides to workers and wages that were at least 20 percent higher than most daily-pay gigs.

By the mid-80s, Just Jobs was sending 600 to 800 people per day to temp jobs from three Chicago hiring sites. But in 1991 the organization's directors concluded that even temporary jobs with slightly higher wages wouldn't help workers achieve the financial stability of permanent jobs with health insurance, pension plans, and other benefits. So they moved to a site on Kedzie that borders the neighborhoods of Little Village, which is mostly Mexican, and Lawndale, which is mostly African-American, and set up a "Job Oasis" in suburban Bensenville. The group--now funded in part by HUD, the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation--changed its name to Suburban Job-Link, and now provides "job readiness training" and cheap, reliable rides for area residents to both temporary and permanent jobs in the west and northwest suburbs. Plunkett estimates that 450 people have been placed in permanent jobs since 1995.

Plunkett's most vocal critic may be James Lemonides, CEO of the Greater North-Pulaski Development Corp., which tries to attract industrial employers to its northwest-side neighborhood by helping industries negotiate city financial incentives and navigate the rules for setting up shop and by working with high schools and community groups to train future workers in the latest industrial skills.

Lemonides doesn't fault Plunkett's intentions, but he hates that his organization receives city funding to drive mostly nonwhite workers from crumbling Chicago neighborhoods--once supported by thriving industrial corridors--to low-wage jobs in the suburbs. "The most appalling part is the attitude that 'it's OK if the blacks come and work for me, but I'm gonna make sure I put them back on the bus at the end of the day. After all, they're the reason I left the city in the first place.' They're not being paid enough to move out of the ghetto, and these suburban locations are not particularly aggressive about providing affordable housing."

Plunkett says he too would like to see more affordable housing in the suburbs for his workers, but adds that even then many couldn't live within easy walking distance of their workplaces, which are often part of large industrial areas that have no dwellings and few sidewalks or bike-accessible roads.

Reverse commuting also lets economists reevaluate local job markets according to regional, rather than citywide, measures, allowing inner-city unemployment statistics to be diluted by healthier suburban figures, Lemonides says. "Employers go out there and then, too late, they sometimes find, 'Well, there's not affordable labor out here. The workers we need don't live out here, can't afford to get here, and we didn't think of that,'" he explains incredulously. "So you've got the city subsidizing it, and you've got the MacArthur Foundation claiming that it's a model for regional development."

Plunkett stands by his work, but admits he's disappointed that some of his workers have had to settle for jobs that pay minimum wage or well below the $13 per hour the organization has snagged for a few lucky ones. He attributes this to the fact that the temp market has become a buyer's market.

"Workers in the early years would come into our place and we'd give them all pay raises. We always paid well above the industry for every single job," Plunkett says. But as more employers have replaced permanent jobs with temporary positions and more people are available to work for the lowest wages, he says, more temporary agencies have entered the marketplace, and unless they're fudging payroll numbers to save money on taxes and workers' compensation insurance, few are achieving the profit margins they once did.

"The common perception is that these businesses are so lucrative that these people must turn into millionaires overnight," Plunkett says. "That does happen, but not legally. That certainly does not happen out of the margin, 'cause if it did, in a highly competitive market like this, if I heard so-and-so was charging $8 an hour and paying minimum wage, we'd cut their throat. We'd hang them out to dry. They know that."

Plunkett says he once visited a client (whom he had wooed away from Ready-Men) to negotiate a price increase that would cover higher workers' comp and cost-of-living raises for his temps. "He very quietly opened his desk drawer and he pulled out a stack of business cards. He didn't say one word. He just started dealing them, like we were playing cards," Plunkett says. "He probably had 15 competitors' cards right in his desk drawer. He kept them just waiting for the day we tried to put heat on him for anything."

Many advocates of poor Chicagoans predict that as welfare reform again swells the ranks of low-wage temporary workers, those who already struggle to support families by working more than 40 hours per week will have even more trouble staying afloat. "Much of the public policy discussion is on the nonworking poor, ending welfare as we know it and all that kind of stuff," says the Urban League's Theodore. "The working poor, they're not an identifiable group per se, but they're a much larger group than the welfare recipients. It's a very large group of workers, a very large group of families."

As welfare reform forces more people into temporary hiring halls, unions, social workers, activists, and politicians must find new approaches to improving job prospects for poor workers, especially those with the least job security, according to del Valle, who is exploring other ways legislation might improve the lives of day laborers. "If day-labor service is an area that's basically unregulated, unchecked, how are we gonna protect people?" he says. "If some of these places say, 'Well, we don't need to hire these welfare recipients--we'll hire them, but they'll come to us through daily-pay services where we keep the costs down,' then what are we doing? And what do we say to an employer out in Elk Grove Village who says, 'I can't afford to create full-time, permanent jobs with benefits. I have to keep my costs down. Otherwise, I'm forced to move out of the state'?"

"By making this so pervasive, what the opposition has done is give us a clear constituency," ACORN's Talbott insists. "But we don't see this as being an easy, quick fight. We see this as being a very long, very difficult problem that's just not going to go away. It's going to take, really, a huge battle."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Cynthia Howe.

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