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Are temp workers in danger? A Philly study says yes

"You've got to sound really desperate." If you sound desperate enough, you might be able to get to know what Javier Garcia Hernandez learned about being a temp worker in Philadelphia.

Javier Garcia Hernandez spoke only Spanish while   applying for a job at Waste Management through a temp agency. The agency, he said, showed him a safety video in English and then asked him to initial a Waste Management document, written in English, showing he had been trained.
Javier Garcia Hernandez spoke only Spanish while applying for a job at Waste Management through a temp agency. The agency, he said, showed him a safety video in English and then asked him to initial a Waste Management document, written in English, showing he had been trained.Read moreJANE M. VON BERGEN / Staff

"You've got to sound really desperate."

Javier Garcia Hernandez pleaded for a job sorting recycling at Waste Management's plant in Northeast Philadelphia, working through a nearby temporary staffing agency. Garcia Hernandez, then an organizer for PhilaPOSH, a worker safety group, wanted to see for himself what temp workers at the plant had told him — how they were getting sick from their work, sneezing black mucus, feeling weak.

What happened next stunned Garcia Hernandez and made him an important resource to a Temple University professor and three Temple law students for what they say is the first baseline report on Pennsylvania's temporary-staffing industry.

In a global economy, "everyone's feeling economic pressure," said assistant professor Jennifer Lee, director of Temple's Social Justice Lawyering Clinic at the Sheller Center for Social Justice, which produced the report scheduled to be released Thursday, titled "Pennsylvania Workers in Jeopardy: The Hidden Problem of Temporary Employment."

"This report finds that the increasing phenomenon of temp work has placed Pennsylvania workers in jeopardy by making them vulnerable to workplace injury and financial harm," the report begins.

Coauthors Rebecca Daily, Tracie Johnson, and Holly Smith say companies use staffing agencies and temps to distance themselves from responsibility for paying workers properly and ensuring safety. Temp workers include high-priced computer consultants and resettled refugees working low-wage jobs placed through "mom-and-pop" agencies that "target vulnerable ethnic minorities," the report says.

When problems arise, the agencies disappear, sprouting elsewhere with a new name, the report said. Sometimes temp workers don't even know who is paying them, especially when they receive their wages in cash.

The rise of temporary workers

In 2001, Pennsylvania had 68,623 temp workers, according to government records. By 2016, the number rose 66 percent to 113,680, with nearly half working in production or transportation, including warehousing, the report said.

What the report's authors see as a dangerous disconnect, the staffing industry sees quite differently.

Temps allow employers to handle busy or slack periods without hiring and firing, concentrating on business rather than recruiting. Temp workers often become permanent, said American Staffing Association spokeswoman Michelle Snyder.

Association members sign an ethics code, she said, and the association recently renewed a safety alliance with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Sometimes there are bad apples, but these are not the staffing companies providing meaningful employment and an important foot in the door for people to improve their lives," she said.

Garcia Hernandez sees desperate workers willing to do anything to survive, exploited by temp agencies willing to let them.

"There's a lot of stuff in front of our own eyes and we don't see it, or we choose to ignore it. We're fighting this big monster. You can call it capitalism. You can call it poverty," he said. "It's overwhelming."

Seeing the problems firsthand

To persuade the temp agency to hire him to sort recycling, Garcia Hernandez knew he had to sound desperate, but it wasn't a stretch. Now a citizen, he had crossed the border from Mexico without papers. He understood desperate, working for cash, picking grapes, grooming horses, and washing dishes, always for less than minimum wage. "We don't know better," he said. "We've always been working with low standards."

Garcia Hernandez eventually landed a union job in construction and a PhilaPOSH job, training construction workers on job safety. He listened as refugees and immigrants complained about working conditions, including at Waste Management.

So, speaking only Spanish, Garcia Hernandez, then a University of Pennsylvania student, pleaded for a temp job and got one. Before he could start at Waste Management, he'd need to watch a safety video, staffing agency officials told him in Spanish. The video was in English. If Garcia Hernandez had been like countless other workers, he wouldn't have understood a word.

The agency gave him a form, in English, to initial. Yes, he understood "respiratory protection" and "electrical safety" and "bloodborne pathogens."

Garcia Hernandez landed the job, was given a mask and visited the plant, although he never actually worked there. No one wore a mask, he said. "They may care about the workers, but it takes time and money" to provide proper safety training — 10 hours, not 10 minutes.

If Garcia Hernandez had actually started working at the plant, he would have received safety training in Spanish because safety is a priority, Waste Management spokesman John Hambrose said. Workers are given masks, he said, but not required to wear them. It's dusty, so people with sensitive sinuses may have problems, and sometimes the conveyor belt's motion causes dizziness, he said.

Waste Management wants to move temp workers into permanent jobs. The company no longer uses the agency that hired Garcia Hernandez, Hambrose said.

Shifting blame

Daily sees a pattern: Neither host employer nor agency is completely responsible for what happens to employees.

If problems arise, each blames the other. "Because, a lot of times friends and families work together, speaking out carries a much higher risk," she said, "because it could come down on your brother or cousin."

Some incidents in the report have been in the news.

Temporary worker Janio Salinas suffocated in sugar in a processing plant in Fairless Hills, shortly after a safety guard had been removed.

In Melrose Park, workers from Indonesia, Vietnam, and China packaged jewelry for Stanley Creations Inc., an importer supplying Kohl's and Target. Minimum wage was $7.25 an hour, but they earned $6. Stanley paid $180,786 to 163 workers and more in damages to settle the 2016 case. Its staffing agency, International Labor, in Northeast Philadelphia, closed. "Stanley did not control International Labor's pay practices and was entirely unaware that its workers were receiving less than the federal minimum wage," chief executive Randy Needles said then.

At Asendia USA in Folcroft, temps processing mail earned $6.69 hourly, payable in cash by Northeast Staffing LLC. To settle, Asendia paid $200,795 in wages to 634 workers, plus $200,795 in damages. "We were paying our temp agency well above the minimum wage," Asendia chief executive Michael Hastings said then.

"We were trying," he said, "to do the right thing."