Journalist Gabriel Thompson’s “Holiday Crush,” first published by the Investigative Fund in conjunction with The Nation, exposes the world of seasonal workers working in California’s Inland Empire — an industrialized area packed with warehouses that hire temporary workers during the holiday season. A temp agency sends Thompson to work for Ingram Micro — a warehouse operation for “big companies” like Walmart and Best Buy that raked in $37.8 billion in profits last year — over Black Friday weekend. Thompson meets and works alongside a variety of characters, from the somewhat enthusiastic Brian to struggling family man Rodriguez, each demonstrating the long-term impact of the recession and the questionable ethics of companies like Ingram Micro that pay their workers barely over minimum wage.
Desperate to provide for their families, temp workers — who are only guaranteed a job between Thanksgiving and Christmas — roll into the warehouse as early as 4am, even if it means waiting hours until they are actually assigned work. They are sometimes told to leave early, resulting in less pay. Still, day after day, the workers show up.
The workers, some of whom made $15 to $25 an hour in previous jobs, have divided feelings on the $9 an hour they make — or $10 an hour, if Ingram Micro trains them to drive a forklift. Some are thankful for the work, but others, as one woman complains, say they “didn’t sign up for this.” Yet, they continue to pack and ship off boxes — dubbed the “pack-fold-tape” routine — striving to work at 100 percent efficiency so they have an opportunity to get a permanent position in the warehouse after the holidays.
The growth of temp work isn’t limited to warehouses, of course. Over the last several decades, cost-cutting companies have transformed many stable blue-collar jobs into temp positions, complete with sporadic hours, low pay and no benefits. Manufacturing has been hit especially hard: only one in forty-three manufacturing positions was temporary in 1989; by 2006, the figure had risen to one in eleven. And alongside the hollowing out of blue-collar jobs has been an explosion of low-wage jobs generally. According to the National Employment Law Project, such low-wage positions are responsible for three-fifths of all new jobs created since the recession.
Early the next morning we shuffle into a small warehouse across the street from the main building. Although many of us have been hired to work in the larger facility, we’re needed right now for what is being called the “Apple project.” We empty our pockets and pass through a security checkpoint, following a supervisor along a path of yellow lines. Men and women zoom past on forklifts and cherry-pickers, beeping incessantly as they carry pallets of boxes to load onto towering metal shelves. On the way, I chat with a blonde woman who previously worked as a security guard for $9 an hour. Covering the graveyard shift, she arrived home just as her husband was heading to work, which left her in charge of their three young children. “Didn’t sleep too much,” she says.
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