Commentary

In New Jersey, essential temp workers deserve respect and dignity

December 16, 2022 1:13 pm

Temporary workers rallied in front of the Statehouse annex Monday and urged lawmakers as they walked in to vote “yes” on the temp workers’ bill of rights. (Photo courtesy of Make the Road New Jersey)

For the last six years I have worked at a temp agency in different warehouses in northern New Jersey. During the pandemic, I risked my life so others could stay home. The work performed at the warehouses I was assigned to was deemed “essential,” so while other industries and companies slowed or stopped, the companies we worked for continued to operate.

Except, as a temp worker, we did that essential work for less pay than the direct-hire workers doing the exact same work, and in the case of a medical issue, lacking the access to health care that direct-hire workers have.

While the direct-hires could reasonably assume on a Wednesday that they would still have a job on Thursday, temp workers like me got up each morning, doubled up our masks, grabbed our hand sanitizer, and headed to the staffing agency offices to wait and see if there would be work for us.

Even during the pandemic, when essential industries needed workers, every day there was a chance we’d be turned away. The only paycheck we could count on was our last one. Even though I had risked my health and safety for weeks, there was no promise of work tomorrow.

I was pregnant while working. Each morning, 20 of us were crammed inside the agency’s vans, meant to hold 15 workers. The agency didn’t give us any protective gear, such as disposable masks and gloves, and in the middle of the pandemic, as cases continued to rise, the vans didn’t get properly cleaned or sanitized. Many of my coworkers got sick during that time. The agencies denied our right to legally required earned sick days. Many of us chose to work while sick for fear of losing our jobs and not being able to provide for our families. And many lost their lives.

These conditions made me afraid I would hurt my baby. I wished I had the privilege to stay home. But I couldn’t. I am the breadwinner, and if I didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to pay for my rent or pay for food. I depend on my work in temp agencies to make ends meet.

Though both the agencies and their clients needed essential workers, it was and still is customary for agencies to charge us for transportation to our work assignments, even if that transportation is overcrowded, unsanitary, unreliable, and unsafe. The temp agency I work for charges us $55 a week for transportation. It doesn’t matter if the warehouse is 10 minutes from the agency or hours away, we all get the $55 taken out of our paychecks. Even if we don’t get work, we are still getting charged.

Sometimes, the driver would drop us off at a job site where a warehouse manager would decide we were no longer needed. Some might think that the agency would send us to another assignment. It doesn’t: We are left at the warehouse waiting for the van driver to come back and pick us up. We are stuck without work and without pay for that day. Imagine making at or near minimum wage, and then having more deductions from your paycheck for transportation to a worksite where there’s no work — and so no pay.

It is hard to support a family as an essential temp worker. Some of us have taken on two to three jobs in order to cover expenses for the month. We work hard, and even as the pandemic changes course, our work remains “essential.” Our work is needed to keep New Jersey’s most critical industries in operation. Yet temp agencies and their clients continue to take advantage of temporary workers to enrich themselves.

This holiday season, tens of thousands of New Jersey temporary warehouse and logistics workers like me will work right alongside our direct-hire counterparts to make sure you get everything you need for your holiday. We’ll do it for less pay and without stability, but we’ll do it. We don’t have a choice. We’ll make sure that the essential work is done for your families, with the hope that change will come for temp workers and our families, so we can count on at least the bare essentials we need to keep our own loved ones fed, clothed, sheltered, and healthy.

I wish all my fellow temp workers and every family that depends on our work a joyful and peaceful holiday. We all deserve it.

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