News: All in a Day's Work

An insider's view of how day laborers are treated

Mark Bealer

James Thomas hopes to testify in support of a lawsuit by a group of Cincinnati day laborers.

Teenagers camping overnight on a sidewalk to get concert tickets aren't such a surprising sight. The popularity of Harry Potter books has made kids crowding sidewalks outside a bookstore late at night commonplace.

But getting up at 3 a.m. in order to be in line by 4 a.m. to put your name on a list at 4:30 a.m. for the possibility of getting a job that probably won't begin until 10 a.m. sounds ludicrous. Yet that is exactly what hundreds of unemployed and homeless people do in Cincinnati to earn money.

One of the places they go is Labor Works, a day labor hall in Walnut Hills where temporary workers are hired to do all kind of jobs. Companies contract with day labor halls for cheap, on-demand help with anything from construction to food preparation.

The plight of day laborers or "temps" is getting more attention thanks in part to efforts by groups that advocate for homeless and poor people (see "Job for a Day," issue of July 6, 2005). A lawsuit filed last month accuses Labor Works in Cincinnati and Schwan's Food in Florence of violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (see "Exploitation or Opportunity?," issue of April 25).

Now, after learning of the lawsuit, a former manager at Labor Works has come forward and offered to testify on behalf of the day laborers. James Thomas says he knows well the "mean" treatment the day laborers have to endure.

No free rides
Day laborers regularly deal with unpleasant working conditions because they frequently do the kind of work nobody else wants to do. But there are added indignities and aggravations in being a temporary worker.

Thomas started working for Labor Works as a driver in 2001, responsible for getting crews to and from workplaces. He was the labor hall manager when he left the company in 2003. He says he was so disturbed by the treatment of the day laborers that he quit and decided to be a stay-at-home dad.

"They're exploiting the misfortune for profit," Thomas says. "It's all about the money. It's about the contracts and retaining the business. For them, it's about all the other temp agencies. ... It's a bidding war, and the temps get caught between."

The competition sometimes translated into pressure to cut costs at the expense of workers, according to Thomas. Labor Works had a policy that second-shift workers would be driven to the place of their choosing after work, usually around 12:30 or 1 a.m., he says. The workers had to pay Labor Works $6 a day for a ride in a van to and from a job site.

"When I brought employees home from a job, I took my employees to their doorstep," Thomas says. "Wherever they needed to go, it was, 'Have a nice night. I'm sorry if it took too long to get you home.' It was supposed to be policy."

But the company pressured him to drop workers off in groups at a location convenient for the company, Thomas says.

"When my hours started to go into overtime they did not like it," he says. " 'Oh, can't you drop them off at a centralized location? If you can, get them on the Metro.' I actually had to pull in front of a few Metros to get them to stop so (workers) could spend another 50 to 70 cents to get a ride home."

Starting when the doors open at 4:30 a.m. until 7:30 a.m., workers sign up on a list to indicate that they're ready to work. There can be up to five sheets with up to 50 names on each, meaning 250 people waiting around in "the hall" to find out what jobs are available for the day.

The stated policy is that the first people on the list get matched up with the first available jobs, Thomas says. The temps are told that if they work one day, they're also likely to work the next day if a position is available: If you do a good job and prove yourself reliable, you'll earn another opportunity to work. It doesn't always happen that way, though, Thomas says. Complaints of favoritism are commonplace.

"There were occasional construction jobs that came along ... and those were the moneymakers because you may have a week assignment where you're making $24, $25 an hour," he says. "That's where the selection process was very biased — and it stayed biased. You were told who you were going to take to that job site, and you were not allowed to tell anybody that this was happening."

Furthermore, mistakes on a job could prove very costly for the temps, resulting in a "punishment," Thomas says.

"That's where it goes 'off the list,' where there's no order to it," he says. "If you have someone last week that, say, made a mistake on a job ... they're not going: 'They messed up last week. They're not going out. I'm punishing 'em for couple of weeks.' So you have to ... tell the worker, 'Hey, you know, I can't send you.' This is crushing whoever is in front of you. ... This was their money for the day. This is their life."

'Like they're subhuman'
Thomas says he was criticized for being "too nice" to the temps. He describes the attitude of one of his superiors at Labor Works.

"When it comes to actually handling temps, he's very forceful," Thomas says. "He thinks that aggression is the only way you can get to 'those people' — and I've heard him say that: 'those people.' He's been burned quite a few times as far as money. He's the one who told me, 'You don't give them anything. They're not gonna give it back, and you're dreaming if you think you're gonna get anything for giving them a little bit.' "

When his position was given to someone else, Thomas declined the offer of a different job, he says.

"I never looked at the temps as temps," he says. "They were people trying to make a little bit of money, and the only reason I could relate to 'em was because I've been homeless twice. I've been down with absolutely nothing in my pocket and what seemed to be no future in front of me. I couldn't — and still don't — understand how you could be mean to people who don't have anything, who have nothing to lose and all they have to look forward to is to come in and make a few dollars.

"They've had some bad breaks. A lot of them hit their one strike 20 years ago. They got in trouble one time when they were 18 or 20 years old — just one felony when they were kids, and nobody will help 'em."

Thomas says some of the day laborers' problems were beyond his control. Sometimes drivers would forget to pick up workers, forcing them to spend the night at a job site. Sometimes workers wouldn't get their hours and/or supervisor's signature on their work tickets — that meant they wouldn't get paid.

Temps who didn't work out would sometimes be left to wait all day for a ride.

"Where I would have gone and picked him up and talked to him and said, 'What's going on?,' " Thomas says, "(the superior) had more the mentality: 'Unless they're a danger to the contract that we have with the company, they sit there. They will be picked up when we have the time and urge to pick them up.' "

Thomas says he was earning $33,000 a year when he left his job at Labor Works. He says he valued the opportunity to help people.

"One of the success stories that will be stuck in my head forever is a gentlemen named Andrew," he says. "He was in one of the rehab centers here in Cincinnati. He and his (social) worker actually came in the day he started. She said, 'Listen, he's got drug and alcohol problems and I really want to get him on the right path. This is pretty much the only place we can go. Will you work with him?'

"And I said, 'Sure.' He worked with me for close to six months. He actually graduated the program and contacted his parents out in Minnesota and bought me a book and left it for me before he left to go to Minnesota. He was able to work, get clean and sober."

Thomas still has the book, inscribed, "Thanks for everything — Andrew."

"If there is not a way for them to make honest money, what are they gonna do?" Thomas says. "You can go out and deal drugs right now. There's always somebody willing to give you something to sell. You may pay for it with your life if you can't sell it, but there's always something to do on the streets that's illegal. These people are trying to make a legal, honest living, and places like Labor Works have the tendency to treat 'em like trash, like they're subhuman."

Labor Works ( owns and operates 14 labor halls in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina and Ohio. Sean Fore, CEO of the company, and other company officials didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story. ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.