Daily bread 

When Missoula’s hard-up workers need same-day cash, they turn to Labor Ready. How much do they pay for the privilege?

Monday, Dec. 5, early afternoon outside the Poverello Center. A man in a red jacket is waiting for the center to open. He peers in the window, tries the door and sits on the porch bench, rolls a cigarette. Someone asks the man if there’s a temporary work program around here.

“Labor Ready,” he answers. He says it’s the only place in town where you get paid the same day. “You got I.D. and all that?”

“Yeah. Do you work there?”

He has, in various cities, but not right now—lately he’s been “getting high,” he says.

Missoula’s yellow pages list eight employment agencies, plus the Missoula Job Service. One of them pays in cash, every day if you want it: Labor Ready, at 2025 S. Higgins Ave.

Tuesday, Dec. 6, 5:03 a.m. 12 degrees outside. Downtown’s streets are empty except for plowed ridges of snow between the silent lanes. South on Higgins, past the frozen Dairy Queen, the blue-and-white Labor Ready sign advertises “Temporary Labor On Demand.” At 5:15 a woman walks out of the darkness and places a few bags by the front door, first in line. At 5:30—opening time—there are three more would-be workers outside, fewer than average due to the cold weather. Workers say that in summertime, the first ones line up at 4:30 a.m.

Jeannette Guest has safety goggles strapped to her hat. She wears green snow pants and a friendly demeanor. She’s sure there’ll be work for the four early birds, especially since two of them have cars. She walked from downtown. She says she stays in the library until it closes at 9 p.m. Says she’s been sleeping “behind the generators” of a nearby building.

Inside the office, the workers sign in in order of arrival. One starts the coffee pot. The morning office manager goes behind the desk and shuffles some papers. Guest, 56, puts her sleeping bag on one of the tables and rolls it up neatly. She has a few extra bags of salad from the food bank and offers them around. She took the day off yesterday in order to wash her clothes and take a shower at the Salvation Army. She’s from Pennsylvania and Florida, been here about three weeks. She was kicked out of the Poverello Center, she says, after missing her chores in order to work a night shift through Labor Ready. By 6:08, seven people are signed in. The manager says there’s work, but no one has yet been dispatched.

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 1 p.m. Lunch is served from noon to 2 p.m. at the Poverello Center, 535 Ryman St. Sign in, leave your backpack at the door, grab a tray. The two-room dining area is sparsely populated. There’s no line for the chicken noodle soup or chocolate cake. People are eating quietly, many sitting alone. A man in the corner with a few days of reddish-gray beard wears Carhartt overalls and a green ball cap: Tom Anderson, a journeyman welder.

“Ever worked at Labor Ready?”

Yes, he has, here and in a handful of other cities—Boise, Salt Lake, Ogden, maybe Denver. He has another name for the employment agency, one that begins with a swear word.

Whatever hourly rate an employer pays an agency like Labor Ready, the temporary worker gets about half. It’s easy for a giant like Labor Ready to entice employers by covering Workers’ Compensation and insurance costs, he says.

Employers get risk-free temporary workers, Labor Ready gets a nice profit to leverage on the New York Stock Exchange, and hard-up workers get little more than minimum wage and no benefits.

Workers are better off registering with the state-run Job Service, Anderson says. Missoula Job Service (539 S. 3rd St. West) does much of the same work as private employment agencies: promoting its service with employers, registering potential workers, trying to match workers’ skills with job requirements. Funded by businesses under the Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA), the job service doesn’t charge for its services and doesn’t enter contracts with employers. Assistant Manager Fred Frei says in November the Job Service placed 143 workers in full or part-time positions.

Labor Ready Manager Travis Munden says his agency lined up about 800 to 1,000 Missoula day jobs in November. The agency is technically an employer itself and takes a cut out of its workers’ hourly wages. The amount varies according to a risk-based Workers’ Compensation code. In other words, Labor Ready takes more out of worker paychecks for construction jobs like roofing than for vacuuming offices.

Bill rates (what Labor Ready charges customers) and pay rates (what workers get) also vary by state, but a general breakdown might be $7.50 per hour for workers if Labor Ready is charging customers $13, Tacoma, Wash.-based spokeswoman Stacey Burke says.

So why go through Labor Ready? “Employers use us as a working interview,” Munden says. If an employer hires a worker on a Job Service recommendation, that employer also takes on extra paperwork, expenses and suitability testing. “It’s a crapshoot,” Munden says. Rather than commit to an unknown quantity, some businesses prefer to rent a worker through Labor Ready and avoid the hassle of hiring someone inappropriate. Munden says about 75 percent of Labor Ready jobs eventually turn into full-time positions, and the agency steps aside. Employers appreciate that Labor Ready doesn’t charge a contract cancellation fee, “unlike every other place in town,” Munden says.

But Munden also says about half his workers are surfing from one Labor Ready job to another, and of those, about 40 percent have been coming back for more for several years. People come for the same-day pay, he says, and many come from the Poverello Center.

“We should be attached to the same building,” Munden says. Many Labor Ready workers are just passing through Missoula and need a place to stay and some cash to keep traveling, he says.

The Poverello Center, which offers free lodging for up to 100 people for up to 30 days, refers residents to a list of several Missoula employment agencies. Labor Ready and the Job Service are both on the list, says David Smith, until recently the shelter’s social worker. He thinks many Poverello residents appreciate Labor Ready, mainly for the quick money. Residents are encouraged to work, but they need to tell the shelter if their schedule conflicts with an assigned chore, Smith says.

Several years ago, the Job Service ran a “casual labor” program—Frei says that people who needed a truck unloaded or construction site cleaned up could access a Job Service pool of temporary workers. But the program was too casual; it was never clear who the employer was and who, if anyone, would pay for things like Workers’ Compensation. Frei speculates that in terms of temporary workers, when Labor Ready set up shop in Missoula five years ago, “they probably picked up what we were letting go.”

Another option for Missoula laborers is Local 1686: Laborers’ International Union of North America (208 E. Main St.). “I’d like to see everybody become a member of our union,” says field representative Mickey Mulholland. General laborers pay $20 a month and list their qualifications on a skills card. If the union lines them up with a construction company, workers can expect $9 to $20 per hour, plus a $5.50 health and welfare package, a pension contribution and a vacation plan. Years ago, workers would come to the union hall and wait for a day job, but those days are long gone, Mulholland says.

Today, day laborers waiting for a break line up at Labor Ready.

Monday afternoon, Dec. 5. The white, cement-block building at Higgins and Kent still bears testimony to its former life as a bicycle shop; a “Schwinn” clock graces a wall under fluorescent lights, along with the Labor Ready slogan—Work today, Paid today—and pictures of smiling workers in hard hats. The room is empty except for some folding tables. The pop machine hums. A few people walk in. A middle-aged gentleman in a football team jacket stands at the counter and chats with the afternoon manager. A neatly dressed young man fills out an application at one of the folding tables.

The application requires 11 signatures and 18 minutes, longer if you read what you’re signing. Applicants have to provide a picture I.D., Social Security number and answers to 20 safety questions, including “When are illegal drugs or alcohol permitted at a job site?” and “What are the hazards of working in confined spaces?”

A man in his mid-30s with a southern accent talks quietly with the people at the counter about where to get a meal and a place to stay. He’s from Louisiana, came up to Billings “between the hurricanes” and has been in Missoula three days. Jeff Hansen, the guy with the football jacket, tells him how to get to the Poverello Center.

Hansen, 52, is a Labor Ready fan and three-year veteran, working out of Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Missoula. He can work every day or not at all; he rides his bike to the office from a “cheap hotel” downtown, drinks coffee while waiting to be dispatched, does his work, gets some cash in the afternoon. Today he left early from a $7 per hour call-center survey job because he wasn’t much for typing.

He says his worst Labor Ready job was in Spokane at Pacific Hide and Fur, “buckin’ all those cow hides, buffalo hides—60 to a pallet”; it took two guys to stack the freshly-skinned and salted hides for about $8 per hour.

Best job? In Missoula, probably at Southgate Mall, setting up new stores, Hansen says. He figures he averages $7 per hour at the Missoula Labor Ready. He wouldn’t want to work for less than $6 per hour, but some Labor Ready jobs come in as low as $5.62 per hour, like at the local golf bag manufacturer Sun Mountain Sports.

It’s about 4:30 p.m. and folks are starting to come in to trade their work slips for checks or PIN numbers at the Labor Ready cash machine. About 30 workers went out today. One woman who’s worked often at Sun Mountain Sports says it’s not too bad.

“I wouldn’t work there,” Hansen says.

Then the phone rings: Sun Mountain needs a few workers for the night shift. Hansen is getting his bicycle ready for the ride home. Corey Martell, the afternoon office manager, asks him if he wants to work…

“When?”

“Right now.” She holds the phone away from her ear.

“Yeah, okay,” Hansen says.

Tuesday, Dec. 13, 5:35 a.m. Four people are signed in at Labor Ready. One of them is Jeanette Guest, still wearing the green snow pants. One of them is me. Another is Dan Lopez, a soft-spoken man who lives on South 3rd Street West, near the Missoula Job Service. He’s been bicycling over to Labor Ready for about four months because, he says, it’s his best option with no car and no driver’s license. Before Missoula, he lived in Colorado where he worked in the fields—he picked “almost everything,” he says. Here, his best Labor Ready job was a government-funded project that had him cleaning dirt off sidewalks for $10.50 per hour. He says that $7 to $8 is usually the most you can get for unskilled labor. Lopez would prefer a steady job, and not to have to show up each day at 5 a.m.

“At one time I had great potential to be a good artist,” Lopez says. But he learns things and then forgets them, he says. “It’s kind of a bad habit, or the way circumstances evolve.”

Today, Lopez is sent to help unload a truck on the west side of town. He leaves the office on his bicycle about 7:15.

At 7:18, Jimmy Stiffarm and I are lined up with an 8 a.m. job with Maurer Construction, stripping forms from poured concrete walls at a future office on Expressway Boulevard for $5.95 per hour.

Out at the jobsite, insulated black tarps are strewn about, partially covering the still-curing concrete walls. The walls are breathing warmth after spending the night in the fiery blast of enormous propane heaters. Two others direct the work of dismantling the plywood-and-2-by-4 forms; We spend six and a quarter hours (minus a half-hour lunch) gathering materials in the snow, wrestling with dozens of 3/4-inch sheets of plywood and wiring together hundreds of metal form-connecting devices.

At one point a non-Labor Ready worker hears how much we’re making as temporary workers: “That sucks!” he says. “I wouldn’t get out of bed for that.”

On the other hand, Labor Ready provides each of us with a new pair of leather gloves, Workers’ Compensation insurance, coffee in the morning and an ATM code at the end of the day. Five and three-quarter hours amounts to $34.21, minus $3.62 for Medicare, Social Security and state taxes. Workers can opt for a check, but Stiffarm and I go back to the office for cash vouchers, rounded down to the nearest dollar, with a $1 surcharge for the ATM. Having signed in at 5:30 a.m., I walked out of the Labor Ready office at 2:30 p.m. with $29 in cash—and a ripped-up pair of wet leather gloves.

Jeanette Guest did not get work today—she’ll go back tomorrow morning at 5:15. She did get the Labor Ready coffee, and an afternoon bag of groceries from a downtown drop-in center. She also found a temporary place to stay in someone’s camper. But if work opportunities don’t improve, she says she’ll head up to Whitefish, then maybe west into Idaho, Washington or Oregon.

Monday, Jan. 30, Labor Ready shares (LRW) close at $22.77 on the New York Stock Exchange. The company’s website boasts a second-quarter income (through June of 2005) of $15.4 million, or 30 cents per share, up from 21 cents per share for the same period last year. And the company is growing—in 2004 Labor Ready bought out Spartan Staffing, and last year it purchased CLP Resources. According to the website, 890 Labor Ready branches in the United States, Canada and the U.K. place 600,000 temporary workers with 300,000 clients per year.

At headquarters, spokeswoman Burke says Labor Ready sets the employment industry standard for “care, concern and respect for workers’ safety.” Labor Ready’s goal is for workers to eventually move on to permanent employment with better wages and benefits, Burke says.

In the meantime, many people are content to work a flexible day-to-day schedule, as long as they get a check at the end of the day, Burke says. Even workers who say they’ll be back at 5:30 the next morning may just as easily change their minds. No one is under any obligation.

“Our relationship ends,” Burke says, “at the end of the day.”

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