Cecilia Ceron has worked at the Tracy, California, plant of the world's biggest salad processor Taylor Farms for the past 11 years. But she doesn't work for the company. Instead, she is a long-term temporary employee trying to raise two daughters who has no health insurance. Often, Cecilia is forced to work long hours and sometimes needs to leave her young children at home alone or risk getting fired.
She is an example of why the American workplace is in crisis right now. Fueled by the growth of "perma-temp" workers who toil for years at the same job for low wages, few if any benefits and with no protections, thousands of employees are increasingly being left behind while their companies reap the benefits of their hard work.
Luckily, not everyone is taking the situation lying down. In California, the state Senate is currently considering legislation, AB 1897, that places companies on the hook for serious violations of workers' rights committed by temp agencies they employ who supply on-site workers. The legislation, which won a key committee vote yesterday, would not only make these staffing subcontractors more accountable, it would also level the playing field for businesses that follow the rules.
Right now, there are hundreds of mostly Latino immigrant workers at Taylor Farms who would benefit from the measure. The company employs a good chunk of its 900 workers through temporary staffing agencies that pay minimum wage with no benefits and no guarantee they will have a job the next day. Workers can be fired if they become ill or injured.
What's worse, they toil in dangerous working conditions in near-freezing rooms chilled to 34 degrees. Taylor Farms fails to provide workers with protective gear to shield them from fumes that cause dizziness and gagging and workers have been asked to remove bio-hazards without protective gear. They are denied time to use the bathroom, work on wet floors that are hazardous and have to provide their own gloves and warm clothes used for their jobs.
I've had the pleasure of meeting with a few of these workers and will speak with many more when I attend a rally outside the Tracy plant later today. Their stories are heartbreaking and illustrate the callous disregard that temp agencies have for them.
They are people like Victor Borja, who worked for temp agency Abel Mendoza at Taylor Farms for nine years. In March 2012, he slipped while inspecting machinery at the facility and seriously injured his foot. Eventually, a Taylor Farms doctor allowed him to return to work on light duty, but his supervisor ignored that request and demanded he work at the same level as before.
He told Victor, "I don't care about your pain or how much pain you're in. What we care about around here is production. If you can't produce, I have no use for you here." Two days later, he was fired. Victor is now on permanent disability because of his injury.
The company's low wages, unhealthy working conditions and lack of benefits subsidize a booming corporation. Taylor Farms generated $1.8 billion in revenue in 2012, nearly five times more than its revenue just seven years before. It is just one example of how the U.S. has increasingly become Robin Hood in reverse, where the rich take from the working poor.
Meanwhile, the company's 2,500 workers in nearby Salinas are Teamsters and earn on average $2.50 more an hour than workers in Tracy. Our members there have access to good health care, a 401(k) plan, paid vacation and paid sick days.
Workers at the Tracy plant can see the difference themselves. So they have stood up to their employer and are seeking to organize a union. But they also have gotten involved in advocating for the passage of AB 1897 themselves. They have traveled to Sacramento three separate times to meet with lawmakers and shine a light on the growing abuse of temp workers. Employees have told legislators that companies like Taylor Farms are involved in an employer scheme to avoid accountability to their workers.
A recent report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) identified labor outsourcing to temp agencies as a growing problem nationwide. In California, Taylor Farms has been highlighted as a poster child for this national problem. That's why AB 1897, sponsored by Assemblymember Roger Hernandez, is so important.
Wage theft, worker rights and workplace discrimination should not be swept under the rug. The United States cannot have a functional economy where all the gains go to the corporate class while all the pain goes to regular workers.
California's effort to crack down on companies like Taylor Farms is an important step toward tackling a national growing problem. But it must not be the last. The Teamsters and its allies are picking up the torch. Elected officials across the country need to join the movement.
Follow James P. Hoffa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Teamsters