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Immigrant Warehouse Workers Are Crammed In Vans Despite Virus Danger

Jun 26, 2020
Originally published on June 27, 2020 7:05 am

Sitting outside a pharmaceutical warehouse in central New Jersey, Reynalda Cruz counted dozens of workers arriving in vans for the early morning shift.

Workers spilled out of packed vehicles that rolled up to the facility, one after the other. Cruz, a labor organizer, counted 16 people in a van built to hold 15 — despite recommendations that everyone stay six feet apart to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"Oh my God, there's more," Cruz, 47, exclaimed in Spanish. "It's like they're not in a pandemic."

These are the temporary workers that help fuel warehouse labor across the state — filling a crucial and often invisible role at the bottom of the supply chain for cheap goods. In New Jersey, at least a quarter of the warehouse work is performed by temp workers, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show. Nationally,data show, 16 percent of warehouse work is performed by temp workers.

Many of these workers — some of whom came to the country illegally — rely on van transportation because they don't have cars or a driver's license. The vehicles are owned by the agencies or by a third party.

"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," said Carmen Martino, co-director of Rutger's University's Occupational Training and Education Consortium.

He said temp agencies popped up in New Jersey's immigrant-heavy cities to capitalize on a workforce with limited mobility, creating so-called "temp towns."

The temp industry employs 3 million workers in the U.S. and 106,000 in New Jersey. In the state, about a third work in warehouses, federal data show.

While riding in stuffed vans is a known nightmare in the temp world, the practice has continued despite the pandemic. Six temp workers told WNYC vehicles remained at or near capacity. Four of them said they eventually came down with COVID-like symptoms.

Maria turned to a temp agency after the restaurant she worked at shut down during the outbreak. After a week working at a cookie factory, she started to get chills and headaches. One of her co-workers died from COVID-19, according to his family.

"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, who did not want us using her last name because she is undocumented, said in Spanish.

New Jersey hasn't issued specific guidelines on how these agencies should operate and some are not registered with the state as required by law. Governor Phil Murphy's office did not return requests for comment.

The state agency that oversees temp firms says it's committed to keeping workers protected but says limits on transportation capacity don't apply to temp vans. An agency spokeswoman said they're aware of the packed vans and are communicating with state and local agencies overseeing transportation to address it.

"Temp agencies have a long track record in New Jersey of skirting the law," said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy group. "As a result, under COVID, [workers] have gotten sick and died and many of them have also gotten their families sick."

Caption: Workers wait for their ride outside On Target, a temp agency in New Brunswick, on a Monday morning in June. Credit: Karen Yi/WNYC

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In New Jersey, many warehouses that process food, fill clothing orders or package medical supplies have continued to operate through the COVID-19 outbreak. At the bottom of that supply chain are temporary workers, who fuel at least a quarter of the warehouse labor across the state. Many of them are immigrants who came to this country illegally and are working in a largely unregulated temp industry made worse by the pandemic. WNYC's Karen Yi reports.

KAREN YI, BYLINE: For temp workers, keeping six feet apart or even an arm's length away is near impossible. And the risk starts before they get to work.

REYNALDA CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: 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.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: That tiny van is full of people, she says. Despite recommendations that people stay six feet apart at all times, Cruz counts 16 people in a vehicle meant to hold 15.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: It's like they're not in a pandemic, she says. State officials are urging businesses to enforce social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. But temp workers who don't have cars or a driver's license have to keep riding on crammed cars to get to work. These stuffed vans are a known nightmare in the temp world, and that practice has continued despite the health risks. Cruz is a former temp worker turned organizer. She says people who lost other jobs are turning to temp work.

CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: She says people turned to temp agencies because they stayed open.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: Six temp workers told WNYC vehicles owned by the agency or a third-party remained at or near capacity. And four of them say they eventually came down with COVID-like symptoms. Maria turned to a temp agency after the restaurant she worked at shut down during the outbreak. After a week working at a cookie factory...

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

YI: ...Maria says she started getting chills and headaches. She didn't want us using her last name because she's undocumented. A man on her same overnight shift, who worked for the same agency, died from COVID-19, his family said.

MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Who are the people who are risking their lives and going to work to those factories, to those agencies? It's us, the immigrants. And for what? So people who are citizens and who are getting help have something to eat.

YI: New Jersey hasn't issued specific guidelines on how these agencies should operate, and not all of them are registered with the state as required by law. The state says it's committed to keeping workers protected but says limits on transportation capacity don't apply to temp vans. Sara Cullinane leads the immigrant advocacy group, Make the Road New Jersey.

SARA CULLINANE: Temp agencies have a long track record in New Jersey of skirting the law. As a result, under COVID, many workers have gotten sick and died, and many of them have also gotten their family members sick.

YI: Temp agencies popped up in immigrant-heavy cities in New Jersey to absorb a ready-made workforce with limited mobility. Carmen Martino is a labor history professor at Rutgers University.

CARMEN MARTINO: Because there's no unemployment for undocumented workers, temp agencies have sort of become, in a very strange way, the only social-safety net that undocumented workers have.

YI: On a recent day, I went to New Brunswick with Cruz, the labor organizer. We saw dozens of workers waiting for their ride to work. A bus arrived partly full. A temp agency employee told workers to wait. The bus left, and a few minutes later, two buses arrived. Cruz says the agency called another bus because we were there. I went back alone the following week. There were nearly two-dozen workers waiting for a ride. This time, only one bus arrived to pick them up. For NPR News, I'm Karen Yi in New Brunswick, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG KAUFMAN'S "IN THE SHADOW OF THE COLOSSI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.