Labor Ready’s Ethics Questioned By Many

Labor Ready, one of America’s largest providers of temporary employment in the unskilled and construction fields, has been accused of mistreatment and deceptive practices by employees and labor unions and even taken to court.

Now, a former Labor Ready Manager in Houston has come forward with statements consistent with claims of abusive practices on the company’s part.

When “Mike”–who asked his real name be withheld due to a confidentiality agreement signed upon his departure from the company — was hired by a then relatively new company called Labor Ready to start up and manage a branch in the south side of Houston, he thought he would be gaining business experience and, most importantly, helping people find work.

Instead, he says, he soon realized he was being used to exploit workers.

Aside from the fact that almost all jobs assigned by Labor Ready were and still are unskilled positions that pay barely above minimum wage, workers were often dispatched to work in unsafe conditions that required safety equipment and training neither the job site nor the agency provided, says Mike.

Workers were not paid for time at the agency waiting for a referral, nor were they compensated for time spent traveling to and from a job site.

Even worse, employees were and still are charged fees to borrow equipment such as gloves, helmets and vests. According to Mike, workers were even charged a fee for cashing their checks at the end of the day upon receipt.

The fee, according to Labor Ready, is a modest convenience charge of $1.99 charged at the branches’ cash-dispensing machines and paid voluntarily by workers making use of the service.

Today, the Tacoma-based temp-giant claims to put more than a half a million people to work every year in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United Kingdom through its more than 750 agencies. While the company may have grown in size and profitability, questions remain as to the company’s commitment to worker’s rights and safety.

The former manager recounts a time when one of his workers was sent on assignment to work for BFI, a waste disposal company, only to be injured after being hit by the garbage truck in which he was traveling. Mike was then instructed by his superior to have the injured worker sign a document waiving his right to sue BFI and Labor Ready if the latter paid his medical bills. Labor Ready then neglected to assign any new jobs to the worker once he came back to work, in effect running him off, Mike says.

Such accounts of abuse and unsafe working conditions do not surprise to local AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Shaw.

“The steps the employers must take in terms of educating the workers, monitoring their safety do not exist in the temporary setting,” Shaw says.”That in itself, if those are temporary workers, the agency ought to provide the necessary tools to make sure that person is safe. That’s the employer’s responsibility, in our opinion.”

According to a 2002 report by the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, Labor Ready’s rate of injury is three times the national average. Twenty-five out of every 100 Labor Ready employees are hurt on the job each year.

The BCTD and local unions in states like California and Virginia have maintained an aggressive campaign against Labor Ready since 2001.

“The union movement, as a rule, opposes temporary agencies because of what happens to workers. We find that employees are often times cheated, they are not given the same benefits as full-time employees and the minute they want to speak out or want to do something about it — they are fired,” Shaw says.

The report also accuses Labor Ready of potentially underpaying more than $125 million in claims to injured workers since 1994 and misclassifying workers to pay lower worker’s compensation premiums throughout the country. Labor Ready has denied any wrongdoing, labeling the claims as “mischaracterizations and without merit.”

The latest blow to the company came when it settled a complaint filed by the Santa Clara Building Trades Council and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California for $140,000 over failure to pay wages, illegal rebate of wages, breach of contract and deducting a fee for cashing workers’ paychecks.

Shaw contends that although temporary agencies serve a purpose by putting people to work, more has to be done to insure that these workers are treated fairly. The problem, Shaw says, with organizing these workers is the fact that most are unskilled and trade unions cannot dispatch unskilled or unlicensed workers.

But Shaw points out unskilled workers can join the union through apprenticeship programs and get out of the unstable and unsafe temporary environment. He admits that unions must do more to inform these workers of their options.

“We, as a union movement, sometimes fail to organize these workers. Sometimes it’s our fault,” Shaw says. “What the unions can do, and many are doing this today, is they have to make a commitment to organize. And they have to set aside the resources.”

For Mike’s part, he quit Labor Ready after the incident in which his employee was hurt. He says he realized his morals and the company’s were not compatible. Meanwhile, Labor Ready has continued to grow, posting increased profits for the last two years. The company boasts its motto of “Putting people to work,” despite continuing to pay substandard wages and neglecting worker safety as many contend.

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