Temp jobs that offer few benefits and poverty wages. Workplace injuries and little chance for advancement. Welcome to the world of Will County's warehouse workers.
Poverty wages and few benefits. Job-related injuries that result in workers getting disciplined or fired. Temporary positions that offer little hope of stability or advancement. Allegations of union busing.
Welcome to the world of workers who staff the hundreds of warehouses clustered near the nation's largest inland dry port, a sprawling inter-model distribution hub for consumer goods located in Will County, southwest of Chicago. In a new report, Warehouse Workers for Justice (WWJ) analyzes the present state of working conditions at these warehouses, some of the few places in the Chicagoland region offering new blue-collar jobs. But those jobs aren't providing for workers or their families, the report finds.
"The proportion of good jobs to low-paying positions, and more strikingly, direct hires to temporary positions reveals that this industry is heavily reliant on a large low-wage labor force," the report, titled "Bad Jobs in Good Movement: Warehouse Work in Will County, IL" says. "Specifically, the report found that the majority of warehouse workers were temps earning wages below the poverty level."
"Bad Jobs in Good Movement" is based largely on a WWJ survey -- conducted in partnership with the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago -- of 319 workers from more than 150 different warehouses in the distribution complex . Among the survey's findings:
The report notes that Bureau of Labor Statistics data counted more than 12,100 people employed in the top five warehousing and storage job categories in 2008. But the BLS numbers don't include temporary employees, hired through outsourcing agencies. "Bad Jobs in Good Movement" estimates more than 30,000 direct hire and temp employees work in Will County warehouses, a number based on the county's 88 million square feet of warehouse space.
This week, both WBEZ (here and here) and the Chicago News Cooperative have covered the story. What they hear from individual workers isn't pretty. Take Raul Chavez. He was working in a Walmart warehouse last August when a box fell on his wrist and broke it. Here's what Chavez said happened next:
Mr. Chavez ... waited almost nine hours before getting in to see a doctor at the clinic to which supervisors had referred him. After that, he was told not to return to work, he said, and he has not received workers compensation or found steady work.
Other workers, like Iraq War veteran Jason Grob, told of becoming afflicted with heel spurs and aggravating a back injury he sustained when he was shot in Iraq while loading trucks all day. Grob quit his job with Bissell Homecare Products, one of WWJ's boycott targets, after facing a cut in his hourly wage, from $12 to $10.50. Grob told the News Cooperative:
They push you beyond the breaking point, and then they expect you to come back and take more of it.
Meanwhile, WBEZ notes that the State of Illinois and various cities in Will County have "chipped in hundreds of millions" in public subsides in the form of tax breaks for infrastructure improvements. And, the radio station reports, State Sen. A.J. Wihelmi (D-Joliet) has sponsored a bill that will provide up to $21 million to another warehouse developer. Is this how we want to use our tax dollars?
Two more things to note about this situation: First, warehouse workers are fighting back. Workers at a Walmart facility hired as temps filed a class-action lawsuit against two temp agencies, the News Cooperative reports, and employees at Bissell have tried to organize a union (an effort that resulted in what they say was retaliatory layoffs of 70 workers). Finally, "Bad Jobs in Good Movement" recommends several fixes. Warehouse operators must create more stable, permanent jobs that pay living wages while regulators need to strengthen and enforce laws that protect workers, including the Day Labor and Temporary Services Act. And policy makers, the report says, should do more to ensure warehouse workers are able to organize unions.