The Inland Empire continues to battle one of the highest jobless rates in the nation. There are plenty of $10-an-hour jobs in the region’s thriving warehouse industry. But many of those jobs are temporary or part-time and, according to workers and labor advocates, not what they seem to be.
On a recent weekday morning, two young Latino men in their mid-20s settle into the back seat of a compact car parked on a side street in a warehouse district near Riverside. They’re on a break from their jobs at one of the biggest warehousing firms in the Inland Empire.
They ask that we not use their names because of possible retaliation from their employer, Schneider Logistics. Their job is to load and unload boxes destined for Wal-Mart stores.
The day before this interview, the California labor commissioner fined a pair of temp agencies that supply workers to Schneider. That came after a state inspection uncovered violations that include withholding overtime pay to dozens of workers like these men.
Through a translator one of the men says he’s not really sure how they're paid, that they’re given an estimate. But the estimate doesn’t match up with the pay they’re promised. Both of them pull crumpled paystubs from their pockets.
They say if they complain, the agency says you should be happy you have a job. They worry if they complain too much, they’ll be fired.
“It’s not unusual,” says Guadalupe Palma, regional director of Warehouse Workers United.
Palma says allegations of wage theft, unsafe working conditions and other labor violations at Inland warehouses are increasing.
“Most of the workers we come into contact with, they're hurt [on] the job," she says. "[They're victims of] wage theft, no breaks, no lunches... It's rampant throughout the industry and we estimate about 100,000 workers [are victims of workplace violations] just in the Inland Empire.”
About 118,000 workers, says Inland Empire economist John Husing. This in a place with a disproportionately low rate of college and high school graduates, and a stubborn unemployment rate of around 13 percent.
“You tell me where a person coming out of high school or who didn’t graduate high school can go get a job at $10 to $12 an hour starting," Husing says.
That said, Husing believes the alleged violations uncovered by state inspectors are rare and should not tarnish an otherwise reputable industry.
Jamil Dada, an investment banker who sits on Riverside County’s Workforce Investment Board, says it’d be great if warehouses could hire more full-time permanent employees and didn’t rely on temp agencies.
"[But] we’re asking them, 'Hey, just hire whatever, even if it’s temp, at least you’re hiring,'” he says, adding that companies have to stay nimble in a rough economy. Local government and business leaders are eager to attract and retain warehousing firms that can generate jobs.
“So we’re being a little bit flexible in letting the employers operate the most effectively and efficiently that they can, with the hope that in a couple of years when times are better these employees will become fulltime employees,” says Dada.
But numerous warehouse workers interviewed for this story say the facilities they work in increasingly rely on part-time and temporary help.
Guadalupe Palma of Warehouse Workers United says these are typically jobs with no benefits, part-time wages and no job security.
“These are the most vulnerable workers in the workforce," according to Palma. "Our estimates are they are 80 percent Latino, mostly immigrants, a lot of undocumented immigrants. And that just feeds into the rampant abuse, where these companies think they are disposable workers. In a sense, they are.”
Warehouse workers recently staged numerous rallies outside the Schneider Logistics distribution center to stop about 100 pending layoffs and draw attention to alleged labor violations.
The temp agency that supplies those workers to Schneider, Rogers-Premiere, severed its contract after both firms became the focus of a state labor investigation.
But, just days before the mass terminations were set to take effect, a federal court judge blocked them — a move applauded by worker Daniel Lopez.
“The decision the court made helped us a lot because we have more confidence that when we spoke up for our rights it changed something,” says Lopez. “So we should keep on going and, somebody needs to get in there and make things right for all the co-workers, you know.”
A spokeswoman for Schneider Logistics says it expects all of its contractors to follow state labor laws. Both Schneider and Rogers-Premiere are also now the targets of a class action lawsuit filed by current and former warehouse workers.
But the day could be coming when there are fewer such cases. Not because there will be less work, but because as warehouse technology advances there could be less demand for low-skilled workers.
“If you’re not top of your class from ITT Tech, if you don’t have the ability to work with computers, to work with robotics, you’re not going to be working in that building,” says Paul Granillo of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership.