Archive for April 2010
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Alleged mistreatment of workers investigated by group, will county officials
By CINDY WOJDYLA CAIN
JOLIET — Warehouse Workers for Justice, a group that has come to fight for worker rights in Will County, says some warehouse workers aren’t being paid fair wages and their working conditions violate state and federal labor laws.
But it’s not clear how widespread the problem is.
“We don’t know,” said John Greuling, CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, a group that has touted growth in the logistics industry, including warehouses, in recent years.
“Some of it is anecdotal, some of it these interest groups put together,” Greuling said of the complaints.
And it isn’t clear if the workers are being treated unfairly or illegally, he added.
“I think there’s a fine line there,” he said.
Even so, Greuling said he’s concerned enough about the charges of worker mistreatment to investigate the issue.
“If they are breaking the labor laws, they have to be punished,” he said of the companies that staff and operate area warehouses. ” … If there are things that are not being done properly by these operators let’s expose it.”
‘We are concerned’
Greuling and elected officials from Will County have asked for a meeting with state labor department officials and union representatives to explore the concerns raised in recent months by Chicago-based WWJ.
“We are concerned,” said state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi. “That’s why we’re going to bring in the director of the Department of Labor.”
Wilhelmi, D-Joliet, said businesses that own and operate warehouses will be invited to the meeting, which could take place as soon as mid-April. Also, area ministers, including the Revs. Herbert Brooks and Raymond Lescher, will attend.
“We’re going to come together and figure out exactly how we can get to the bottom of it, understand exactly what is going on there and how we can find a creative solution,” Wilhelmi said.
Greuling said warehouse operators may be more likely to treat employees fairly if they know the labor department is looking at their operations.
And that may be what it takes to make sure alleged abuses stop, he added, because workers are often afraid to complain.
“There are probably people who are concerned about coming out and saying anything for fear of retribution, primarily losing the job that they have.”
Greuling said the warehouse industry in Will County has many types of staffing models. Some companies hire their own employees directly. That’s the case with DollarTree in Joliet.
A second model is illustrated by BMW in Grundy County. It hired Manpower, a temp agency, to staff its warehouse. But rather than just rotate in a pool of temp workers, Manpower is hiring full-time employees to work at the warehouse, Greuling explained.
Finally, there are companies that turn their buildings over to what is known in the industry as 3PL or third-party logistics companies that run the warehouse. Walmart and Bissell in Elwood are examples of that staffing model. The 3PLs sign contracts with temp agencies to staff varying portions of the workforce with temps.
WWJ has targeted the Walmart and Bissell situations because they say the staffing agencies are not treating the workers fairly.
Neither Walmart nor Bissell received tax abatement incentives to locate in Elwood, Greuling said. Also, when the CED surveys a business to see if qualifies for a tax abatement, “We don’t count temporary jobs,” Greuling said. “They don’t get credit for that.”
It’s all economics
Angelo Ippolito owns a temp agency called Pridestaff in Joliet. He also is chairman of the Will County Center for Economic Development’s Logistics Council. He said many big companies hire third-party logistics providers to run and staff their warehouses. The companies aren’t in the business of running warehouses, so they contract with someone who is, he explained.
The 3PL companies contract with temp agencies to staff the warehouses so employees can be cut when business is slow or added when it’s busy, Ippolito said.
“It’s all based on economics,” he said. “Temp labor is a way to smooth over the highs and lows of the business.”
Greuling agreed. He cited the Hickory Farms warehouse in the Cherry Hill Business Park.
“Year-round their base full-time employment is 150 jobs,” he said. “But from July to December, they probably go up to 400 or 500 jobs. They’re temporary but they’re working full-time hours.”
Some workers prefer the temp arrangement because of family or other considerations, Greuling added.
“It’s not like these people are being forced into slavery of some sort,” he said. “I think there is a good part of these workers that take these temporary jobs. They see it as a very positive thing.”
Also, the temp arrangement allows the employee and the company to “try each other out,” Ippolito said.
The use of temp agencies by warehouse-managing companies has increased a lot since Ippolito opened his Pridestaff franchise.
“And it’s very competitive between temp companies,” he said.
Ippolito said some of the problems area warehouses are having are no different than other similar businesses encounter.
“You go to work in a manufacturing place and you can come across the same problems,” he said. “By and large, these (warehouses) have to be good or they’d be out of business. The places I know, overall, they care about their employees and they value their employees.”
By CINDY WOJDYLA CAIN
The Joliet Herald-News
Two men who helped organize the December 2008 employee sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago have come to Will County to help warehouse workers here fight for better working conditions.
After collaborating on the Republic Windows fight, Mark Meinster, an Electrical Workers Union organizer, and Abraham Mwaura, an Electrical Workers Union field organizer, decided to take the spark that formed during the sit-in and use it to ignite a new workers battle somewhere else.
“It (the sit-in) really inspired a lot of people,” Mwaura said. “It was led by the workers and it was very democratic.”
Republic workers organized the sit-in after their company closed suddenly. Workers feared they wouldn’t receive severance and vacation pay.
After the workers received a settlement from the company, Meinster and Mwaura looked around the area to see where else workers needed help. They said they quickly realized warehouse workers in Will County were the most in need of help, and so they formed Warehouse Workers for Justice.
Research on the warehouse industry showed “extremely poor” working conditions for employees, Mwaura said. That’s why the group decided to target logistics.
“The need is really great because the economy is sliding and working conditions are getting worse,” he said.
Will County was chosen as ground zero because of the high concentration of warehouse workers in the Bolingbrook/Romeoville and Joliet/Elwood areas, he explained. WWJ estimates there are 300 warehouses in Will County.
The county also has a lot of temp agencies that have sprung up to serve the warehousing industry, he added.
A 2006 survey showed 69 percent of trucking and warehouse businesses in Will and Grundy counties said they use temp agencies to staff their facilities.
The survey was performed by Joliet Junior College, Will County Center for Economic Development and Grundy Economic Development Council. Twenty-seven businesses responded to the survey.
“Out of the companies that do use temp services, on average 15 percent of their employees are temps,” the report said. “Sixteen percent are temp to hires, and close to 10 percent are temps that are permanently at their location.”
The warehousing industry has a huge reliance on temporary workers, Mwaura said. And many employees get raises only when the minimum wage increases.
About a year ago, WWJ started holding “Know Your Rights” seminars at area churches and libraries.
“People can’t enforce their rights if they don’t know what they are,” Mwaura said. “… Just knowing you’re protected by law can be a very empowering thing.”
As a result of those workshops, Bissell and Walmart warehouse workers came forward to complain about conditions at their work sites.
Bissell and Walmart
Former Bissell warehouse employees allege they were paid below minimum wage, women were paid less than men, a pregnant worker was assigned heavy lifting and employees who complained were threatened with retaliation.
Seventy workers were fired in November after they joined the electrical workers union. WWJ filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The two sides reached a settlement and the labor relations board recently ordered Roadlink to post notices about worker’s rights to join a union in all of the companies where it does business.
In December, former employees of Select Remedy, the agency that staffs the Walmart warehouse in Elwood, filed a class action lawsuit in Cook County court for allegedly not paying employees for all the hours they worked and for overtime. That case is pending, but employees who worked for Select Remedy can still join the class action lawsuit by calling 888-344-6432.
WWJ and local clergy also are calling for consumers to boycott Bissell products. Last month the group picketed Bissell in front of McCormick Place during the International Housewares Show.
Full compliance with laws
In previous Herald-News stories, all of the companies involved in the dispute deny that workers were mistreated or underpaid.
In a press release, Bissell officials said the company “… expects full compliance with all appropriate legal and safety standards in the workplace.” Bissell had no workers in the facility and had hired Maersk Distribution Services to run the building. Maersk hired Roadlink.
Workers lost their jobs when the contract with Roadlink ended, not when they joined the union, a Bissell company spokesman said.
Walmart spokeswoman Michelle Bradford said Walmart hired Select Remedy to manage its warehouse. That company hired the temp agency.
“We work to comply with all labor laws and regulations,” she said. “And we rely on our third-party vendors to do the same.”
The use of temp agencies and the hiring of illegal aliens has created a fearful workforce, Mwaura said.
“This industry has evolved as a way to help major big-box companies make more money,” he said. “The more efficient they can move these goods, the more money they can make.”
Regardless of whether or not employees are illegal aliens, companies have to pay them and treat them fairly, Mwaura said.
“The laws protect everyone, regardless of status,” he said.
But it isn’t only illegal aliens who have to fear losing their jobs on any given day, that holds true for all of the workers who are hired by temp agencies, Mwaura said.
“There are white workers and black workers and Latino workers facing the very same conditions,” he said.
Pregnant workers in some warehouses have been treated unfairly, Mwaura said. In two cases, companies declined to make accommodations that could have helped the women continue in their jobs.
“Do you fire them,” Mwaura said. “Is it now an offense to become pregnant?”
The exception to the rule isn’t the warehouse abusing workers, it’s the ones that are paying people well, he added.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, Mwaura said.
“We think these could be good jobs.”
In the future, the group would like to work to change work rules that would prohibit temp agencies from permanently staffing warehouses.
“It’s perfectly legal for an employer to keep people on a temporary basis, but we don’t think it’s right,” Meinster said.
Beth Gutelius, a research assistant with the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development, said it is difficult to get exact numbers on what portion of temp workers are being mistreated. But it’s clear there are problems in some areas of the industry, which is touted to the public as a boon to job creation, she said.
“They (the warehouses) are being sold as job-creation machines, but when you really look at the quality of the jobs, you start to see a different picture,” she said.
By CINDY WOJDYLA CAIN
JOLIET — For six years, Susan worked in area warehouses, an experience that has left her bitter.
“The warehouse industry is the new slavery of the millennium,” she said. “This is the slave trade all over again. They don’t want to pay you anything and they’re going to mistreat you no matter what.”
Another warehouse worker, Debbie, agrees. She’s a full-time employee for a warehouse, but seeing how the temp workers are mistreated brings her to tears.
The women told their stories to The Herald-News to shed light on working conditions in some of the warehouses that have risen from area cornfields in recent years.
Their complaints, and the concerns of other warehouse workers, brought the Chicago-based Warehouse Workers for Justice into Will County to fight for workers’ rights.
Walking on eggshells
Susan worked for several warehouses that hired mostly temporary employees to staff long-term jobs.
“As long as their bottom line is black, they don’t give a damn about you,” she said over coffee at a local shop.
Susan is not her real name. She did not want to be identified because she fears she will not be able to get a job if employers know she went public with her complaints.
Because many employees are hired as temps, they never know when the ax will come, she explained.
“They peel you back layer by layer. They want your self respect and dignity until you’re walking on egg shells. It’s like you sell your soul to the devil pretty much.”
Some warehouses have 90-day contracts for temps.
“Ninety-day temps are hired and then guess what, on your 89th day — you’re out of there.”
At one warehouse, Susan was supposed to do clerical work, but bosses would ask her to unload cargo containers on occasion.
“And if you didn’t do it, you don’t have a job,” she said.
Injured and laid off
At another warehouse, Susan was injured when a large box fell on her. After she returned from medical leave, she was laid off along with about other 200 workers.
“Basically, I’m unemployable,” she said. “You injured me, then you laid me off.”
The tenuous nature of many of the warehouse jobs is hurting Will County, Susan said.
“Will County has over 100 employment agencies, temp agencies. It’s time for that to stop.”
She blames the elected officials for approving tax breaks for the companies that build warehouses here without holding their feet to the fire on the types of jobs that will be created.
“The one thing politicians never stop to ask is, ‘Are you going to hire them or are you going to use a temp agency to staff it?’ The politicians never took the time to find out.”
Something has to change, she added.
“It’s time for the county board, the city councils, mayors and economic development officials in Will County to go back to the drawing board,” she said. “They didn’t get their people jobs. They’ve totally sold us out. … Our people need jobs, they don’t need a temporary fix. …
“I understand that temp agencies are businesses, but it’s no good for the working people. They need to pay a living wage and treat people like they need to be treated.”
When she was working for the warehouses, Susan said she earned only slightly more than minimum wage, even though the temp agencies that supplied workers was getting paid more per hour.
“Once I paid the mortgage, there was nothing left,” she said.
People who work in warehouses “can’t buy cars or homes or rent an apartment,” she added.
“These companies need to know somebody is watching them,” she said. “There need to be rules. … You want us to vote for you. You want us to trust you. But you guys messed up.”
Debbie, not her real name, who works as a full-time employee at a Joliet warehouse, said it’s frustrating working with temporary employees. The temps are paid less and mistreated, but they don’t complain because many are illegal aliens, she said.
“There’s no reason to be a temp for three years and that’s what they’re doing,” said Debbie. “They (the temp agency) knows they’re illegal and they have no say and it’s cheap pay. But that hurts all of us because we never get pay raises.
One four-year employee who was an illegal alien was recently instructed to train her replacement. When the woman refused, she was escorted from the building, Debbie said.
“It’s just sad.”
Warehouse Workers for Justice has had numerous meetings in Will County in recent months to educate workers about their rights. At many of the meetings, employees have come forward to complain about working conditions at some warehouses.
In two cases, the complaints have led to action. WWJ have targeted two companies that staff the Walmart and Bissell warehouses in Elwood. They’ve also worked with local clergy on a boycott of Bissell products.
The companies involved deny workers are being mistreated. But WWJ isn’t going away anytime soon.