It’s 5:30 in the morning. And Reynalda Cruz is sitting in her car outside a pharmaceutical warehouse in East Brunswick. She’s counting how many workers spill out of vans that pull up to the facility, one after the other.
“Look, even that tiny van is packed,” she says. Cruz counts 16 people in a vehicle meant to hold 15.
“It’s like there’s no pandemic,” she says.
Cruz says being stuffed into vans is a known nightmare for temp workers in New Jersey. But as recently as last week WNYC observed that practice continuing — even as state officials urge people to socially distance to halt the spread of COVID-19.
A former temp worker turned immigrant organizer with New Labor, Cruz says she’s hearing more workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic are turning to blue-collar temp agencies.
She says a lot of these agencies, which feed warehouse demand for cheap labor to distribute clothes, food and medical supplies, never closed.
WNYC spoke to six workers who took rides in temp agency vans or from a third party during the outbreak. All of them said the vehicles were always at or near capacity. Four of them said they eventually came down with COVID-like symptoms.
Damian Silva works at JM Staffing Solutions in New Brunswick. He’s 60 and worried he’ll get sick. With no car, he relies on the agency for transportation. That’s $9 dollars a day deducted from his check.
The vans are dirty and littered with discarded masks and gloves, he says.
Gov. Phil Murphy has capped capacity on public transit at 50% and mandated new cleaning protocols during the pandemic. But the Division of Consumer Affairs — which oversees temp agencies — says that order does not apply to private vehicles provided by temp firms.
Carmen Martino is a professor at Rutgers University. He says the temp industry is largely unregulated. When you add a pandemic to the mix, “then you really do have the makings for a new version of the Wild, Wild West.”
State records show there are 330 licensed agencies in the state though not all of them specialize in blue-collar jobs. While numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show activity in many industries has dropped, a lot of warehouse work has kept going. Martino says that makes these agencies an appealing employment option for low-wage undocumented immigrants.
‘The only safety net’ for undocumented workers
“Because there’s no safety net, because there’s no unemployment for undocumented workers, temp agencies sort of become in a very strange way, the only social safety net that undocumented workers have,” he said.
In New Jersey, the blue-collar temp industry popped up to absorb a growing population of cheap labor. Martino says agencies set up shop in cities like New Brunswick, Elizabeth and Passaic that he calls “temp towns.”
“They would recruit right out of the neighborhood because the workers didn’t have driver’s licenses. So it was like a ready-made workforce that you had absolute control over,” he said.
WNYC analyzed the list of state-licensed temp agencies. Companies that workers complained about, like JM Staffing in New Brunswick or Temps4U in Passaic, were not listed. Representative at both agencies did not respond to questions about why they were operating without a license.
Maria is 40 and turned to another agency, Super Staffing, after the restaurant she worked at shut down during the pandemic. She says the temp company name wasn’t on her checks. The agency assigned her to Jimmy’s Cookies, where she packaged baked goods. After working there for a week in March, she says she started getting chills and headaches. A co-worker told her a man on her same overnight shift died from COVID-19. But Maria never got tested. She was afraid she couldn’t afford it.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the federal agency that enforces workplace safety. It has a pending investigation into conditions at Jimmy’s Cookies. One of the owners says the company implemented precautions in mid-March and says it was difficult to buy personal protective equipment because they had to compete against the state government and hospitals for the same supplies.
“Who are the people who are risking their lives and going to work to those factories? To those agencies? It’s us, the immigrants. For what? So people who are citizens and who are getting help have something to eat,” Maria said.
Maria, who did not want us using her last name because she is undocumented, no longer works for the agency. She says even if conditions at the warehouse improved, workers still take the same crowded and dirty vans home.
Sara Cullinane leads the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey. She says lack of state protections and enforcement leaves workers exposed.
“Temp agencies have a long track record of skirting the law; as a result of COVID many have gotten sick and died and gotten their families sick,” she said.
Workers also say the agencies are violating state law by refusing to pay out sick days. One worker told WNYC that JM Staffing required proof of a COVID-positive test. Another said the same agency declined to pay sick days because she didn’t follow the proper procedure to call out.
Cruz, the 47-year-old ex-temp worker turned organizer, went to JM Staffing to ask the office staff why workers weren’t receiving sick pay. She says that puts others at risk.
JM office employees said workers need a doctor’s note and if they can’t afford to get care, a note from a pharmacist when they buy medicine… otherwise anyone who doesn’t feel like working can just claim they’re sick.
Inside temp agencies
New Brunswick’s temp agencies are located just a few blocks from one another. Inside their offices, there are signs everywhere reminding workers to wear masks. Plastic dividers separate the office staff from warehouse workers waiting in spaced-out seats.
Narciso Rodriguez is an employee at On Target.
He says they make sure the buses they hire only operate at half capacity — or they’ll call for a second ride. He says vehicles are cleaned with Clorox and only one person rides in each seat. And he says he personally inspects the buses before they head out.
On a recent Monday, dozens of workers waited for their bus. One arrived with a couple people already inside. Rodriguez told workers to wait. The bus left and a few minutes later two buses arrived.
Cruz, who watched across the street, said the agency called another bus because we were there.
The following week there were nearly two dozen workers waiting for a ride. This time, only one bus arrived to pick them up.