Occupational Health News Roundup

In “The Invisible Workforce: Death, discrimination and despair in N.J.’s temp industry,” NJ Advance Media reporter Kelly Heyboer investigated conditions facing temp workers in New Jersey, which now has one of the largest concentrations of temp workers in the nation. She reports that growing demand for temp workers has led to the proliferation of “temp towns” — places with dozens of temp agencies and neighborhoods full of temp workers, many of whom report low pay, wage theft, racial and sexual discrimination, and unsafe workplaces.

Heyboer writes:

The temp agencies in New Brunswick are easy to spot. They are the businesses lit before dawn year-round. Inside, there are rows of men and women sitting in folding chairs. Some look anxious. All look weary.

They are waiting for their names to be called for a job for the day. The stakes are high. If their names are not called, they don’t get paid. If they don’t get paid too many days in a row, they can’t pay their rent and they can’t buy food.

Some are lucky to score “perma-temp” positions, assigned to the same warehouse or factory every day for years. Others sit in the agencies daily, waiting for short-term assignments.

Reynalda Cruz said she spent nearly two decades working on and off for On Target, Delta, Olympus and a long list of other local temp agencies in her New Brunswick neighborhood.

Over the years, she packed flowers, boxed up candies, sorted packages, worked on an assembly line at a pharmaceutical company and did other jobs at a series of warehouses across Central Jersey.

If she complained that the agency vans were overcrowded or the warehouses were unheated, or questioned whether the chemicals she was breathing were dangerous, Cruz said she usually heard the same answer.

“All the jobs are the same. They say, ‘You don’t want it? There’s someone else,'” said Cruz. Frustrated with the treatment she received daily, she left temp work a few years ago to become a community organizer with New Labor, the worker advocacy organization in New Brunswick.

Read the entire investigation here.

In other news:

Journal-Patriot: Kaitlin Dunn reports that workers’ rights advocates are calling on officials in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to demand that poultry processor Tyson Foods treat its workers better before the city invests money to facilitate the company’s expansion. Among its recommendations, the Western North Carolina Workers Center called on city council members to require Tyson to comply with all health and safety laws, refrain from punishing employees for taking sick leave, and provide adequate medical care to workers injured on the job. The article noted that OSHA recently fined Tyson more than $250,000 for repeat injury reporting violations.

Sacramento Bee: David Siders and Jeremy White report that earlier this month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation giving farmworkers the same right to overtime pay as other workers in the state. The new law will raise overtime wages for workers incrementally, eventually providing time-and-a-half pay for more than eight hours in a day or more than 40 hours a week. Farmworkers currently have to work more than 10 hours in a day or more than 60 hours a week to earn overtime. Advocates are hailing the signing as historic, while opponents — not surprisingly — are predicting dire consequences for employers and workers. Siders and White write: “The bill’s enactment marked a major victory for the United Farm Workers union – and a setback for industry interests – six years after Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed a similar bill.”

Reuters: David Bailey reports that two former Wells Fargo employees have filed a class-action suit in California on behalf of workers who attempted to meet sales quotes without engaging in fraud and were then demoted or fired. Previously, Wells Fargo fired thousands of workers for opening millions of fraudulent customer accounts to meet aggressive quotes — actions that financially benefited executives at the top. Bailey writes: “Employees with a conscience who tried to meet quotas without engaging in fraud were the biggest victims, losing wages, benefits and suffering anxiety, humiliation and embarrassment, the lawsuit said.”

Reveal: Shoshana Walter reports on sexual exploitation, abuse and trafficking in California’s “Emerald Triangle,” a cluster of remote counties in the northern part of the state that’s home to the country’s largest marijuana-growing industry. The investigative article found dozens of accounts of sexual abuse and assault, with victims’ advocates reporting that the problem is far worse and growing. For example, Walter reports on college students who worked trimming marijuana plants (workers referred to as trimmigrants) who were forced to perform sexual acts on their employers, while one worker was locked in a box with breathing holes after she threatened to run away. She writes: “The number of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state. When an artist from San Francisco disappeared in the Humboldt County town of Garberville last harvest season, her mother and roommate filed a missing persons report. Months later, she resurfaced to tell her family she had been held against her will on a marijuana farm, drugged and sexually abused. She never formally reported her abuse.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.