iOS app Android app More

The New Blue Collar: Temporary Work, Lasting Poverty And The American Warehouse

First Posted: 12/20/2011 8:19 am Updated: 12/21/2011 11:11 am

JOLIET, Ill., and FONTANA, Calif. -- Like nearly everyone else in Joliet without good job prospects, Uylonda Dickerson eventually found herself at the warehouses looking for work.

"I just needed a job," the 38-year-old single mother says.

Dickerson came to the right place. Over the past decade and a half, Joliet and its Will County environs southwest of Chicago have grown into one of the world's largest inland ports, a major hub for dry goods destined for retail stores throughout the Midwest and beyond. With all the new distribution centers have come thousands of jobs at "logistics" companies -- firms that specialize in moving goods for retailers and manufacturers. Many of these jobs are filled by Joliet's African Americans, like Dickerson, and immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

But many bottom-rung workers like Dickerson don't work for the big corporations whose products are in the warehouses, or even the logistics companies that run them. They go to work for labor agencies that supply workers like Dickerson. Last year, she found work as a temp through one of the myriad staffing agencies that serve big-box retailers and their contractors. Thanks largely to the warehousing boom, Will County has developed one of the highest concentrations of temp agencies in the Midwest.

Dickerson, grateful to have even a temp job, was taken on as a "lumper" -- someone who schleps boxes to and from trailers all day long. As unglamorous as her duties were, Dickerson became an essential cog in one of the most sophisticated machines in modern commerce -- the Walmart supply chain. Walmart, the world's largest private-sector employer, had contracted a company called Schneider Logistics to operate the warehouse. And Schneider, in turn, had its own contracts with staffing companies that supplied workers.

The experience would change the way Dickerson saw the retail industry -- particularly during the frenetic run-up to the holidays, when workers are under tremendous pressure to get products out the door and into stores.

"I don't think people know what the people in those warehouses have to go through to get them their stuff in those stores," Dickerson says. "If you don't work in a warehouse, you don't know."

Dickerson quickly discovered that the work wasn't easy, if there was any work at all. Each morning she showed up at her warehouse, she wasn't sure whether she'd be assigned a trailer and earn a day's pay. She says there were days that she and many temps were told simply to go home, without pay, since there wasn't as much product to unload as expected. Sometimes Dickerson was told they didn't have any trailers light enough for a woman, she says.

But on most days the warehouse teemed with lumpers, many of them wearing different colored t-shirts to signify the different agencies they worked for. Dickerson herself would work for two different labor providers within the same warehouse in a little more than a year.

The difficulty of a lumper's day often went according to chance. A lucky lumper might be assigned a container filled with boxes of Kleenex or stuffed animals, while an unlucky lumper might pull a container filled with kiddie swimming pools or 200-pound trampolines. For the heaviest lifts, Dickerson would be assigned a partner, and the two would split the pay for the trailer, moving the massive boxes onto pallets by hand.

The job was fast-paced and stressful. Dickerson says supervisors would walk along the warehouse's bay doors, marking the workers' progress over time. The supervisors, Dickerson and other workers say, often told them to speed it up if they wanted to be invited back. Many of the workers were temps with no job security and no recourse. And the local unemployment rate, then around 11 percent, promised a long line of potential replacements.

"By the end of the day, your body hurts so bad," says Dickerson, who was among a small minority of females working as lumpers at the warehouse. "You tell them you can't do it the next day, ... they'll tell you, 'We've got four more people waiting for your job.'"

For a while, Dickerson worked according to "piece rate" -- she was paid not by the hour but by the trailer -- a stressful pay scheme meant to encourage her and her colleagues to work faster and faster, and one that the labor movement worked hard to abolish in many industries in the 20th century. Each paycheck was different than the last, and most of them were disappointingly low, she says. In her year at the warehouse, Dickerson says she never had health benefits, sick days or vacation days. If she didn't unload containers, she didn't get paid.

"It all depends on how fast you work," she says. "It's like a race. You're racing to get done with the trailer so you can get another one. Otherwise, you won't get enough money."

The warehouse floor wasn't a very welcoming place for a woman, Dickerson says. As one of the relatively few female lumpers, she says she was often fending off crude overtures from male co-workers. And then there were the bathroom issues. While it was piece rate when it benefited the boss, the clock came on for break time. Each day Dickerson had two 15-minute personal breaks in addition to her lunch, but the warehouse was so sprawling -- it covered ground equal to several football fields -- that it could take her five minutes to walk each way to get some air or use the bathroom, leaving her with only five minutes of personal time.

"When I used to go to the bathroom, I literally had somebody counting down the minutes," Dickerson says.

It was particularly difficult when she was having her period and felt she couldn't use the restroom when she needed to. Eventually, she was being reprimanded for too many breaks, she says. Worried about losing her job, she says she tried so hard to avoid using the bathroom that she eventually developed a bladder infection.

Physically and emotionally drained, Dickerson stopped showing up at the warehouse earlier this year.

"My body still is not the same," she says. "I still have aches and I still have pains. I have migraines because of the stress I went through working at that place."

Dickerson says she's now living in a house where the electricity and water have been shut off, sharing a cell phone with some of her neighbors. She's on government-sponsored health care, just as she was while working at the warehouse, and she now relies on food stamps to get by.

The one place she refuses to take her food stamps is Walmart.

* * * * *

Walmart may have been the end beneficiary of Dickerson's sweat, but the big-box retailer wasn't directly responsible for her low pay or her aching body. That's one of the many benefits to an employment arrangement based on outsourcing and subcontracting: The corporation at the top indemnifies itself from any unpleasantness at the bottom, thanks to the smaller corporate players in the middle. Many American companies have woken up to this fact, with broad implications for the future of blue-collar work.

"It seems to be spreading like wildfire," Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of American labor history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says of such outsourcing, particularly as it relates to temp workers like Dickerson. "All of these companies, wherever they possibly can, they want to create a workforce that doesn't work for them. The question is, Why? What is the incentive?"

"They're smart," he says. "They run the numbers."


FOLLOW HUFFPOST BUSINESS