The Warehouse Archipelago pt. 2

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As many as four million workers labor in clusters of warehouses scattered across the United States. Many are mislabeled as ‘temps’; all are poorly paid, and on-the-job injuries are high.

In the article “The Warehouse Archipelago”, John Lippert and Stephen Franklin investigate the current state of staffing in the warehouse industry.

Part Two of the weekly Chicago Reporter series introduces Irma Mosqueda, a warehouse worker in her mid-fifties, a single parent, afraid to speak about the dangerous working conditions for fear of getting fired. Then, a workplace accident took one of her legs.

“Focusing on Amazon is OK, but it distracts from the other warehouses,” says Gutelius. “There are also the people who make Weber grills, who brew beer, who sell cosmetics. All of them need warehouses, and because of e-commerce, what’s doing inside them didn’t exist before.” Nearly 1.5 million people work full-time in U.S. warehouses, a figure that’s more than doubled in the past ten years. But no one knows for sure how many temporary and even full-time workers should be added to this number, because they’re scattered in dozens of other occupational codes the government tracks for retail, packing, and manufacturing. Gutelius estimates the actual number is closer to four million. Despite all the job growth, inflation-adjusted earnings actually fell in the warehouse industry during the 18 years ending in 2019, Gutelius says. To this insult is added injury: Warehouse workers, she adds, are twice as likely as other workers to get injured on the job.

Irma Mosqueda is one of those casualties. She’d heard plenty of grumbling about unsafe conditions at her suburban Chicago warehouse, but she never saw her bosses address them as they pressed workers to keep the machines going. She never heard any workers complain to the bosses and didn’t speak up herself.

“I was scared they would fire me,” she says. She was in her mid-fifties, a single parent, and needed the job that paid her $12.40 an hour after five years.

Then one day, her machine had a problem, and she started to move to another. She didn’t see the forklift coming, nor, apparently, did the forklift’s driver see her. The forklift plowed into her, forcing the amputation of her left leg from the hip downward. Three months in the hospital and a changed life followed.

Mosqueda no longer works, nor gets around by herself.

Jose Rivero, her attorney, who won a settlement for Mosqueda in 2019, two years after her accident, cites a video of the accident to explain what happened. “You’ll see forklifts zipping around the place where people are working,” he says. “I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an accident every second.”

By shifting the burden of compensating injured workers to staffing companies, Rivero says warehouse operators have diminished incentive to fix dangerous conditions.

“We remain incredibly saddened by the unfortunate workplace accident involving Ms. Mosqueda and have taken several additional measures to further enhance our strong safety protocols and underscore the role each associate must play in keeping themselves and their coworkers safe,” said an e-mail reply from LSC Communications, which was taken over by Atlas Holdings in 2020.

The rise of temporary staffing companies began several decades ago when major employers like Walmart started contracting with them to provide workers for their warehouses, even as they hired logistics companies to run those warehouses. This kind of “fissured workplace” reduced labor costs, made the prospect of unionization even more remote, and enabled companies like Walmart to deny responsibility for injuries, for which they’d otherwise be liable.

In Part Three of the “The Warehouse Archipelago” series, Lippert and Franklin explore how staffing companies exploited the 9/11 terror attacks to get workers at lower pay rates.

“The Warehouse Archipelago” was first published in The American Prospect.

About the writers:

JOHN LIPPERT
John Lippert was a line worker for eight years at General Motors before becoming a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and then Bloomberg, where he was a senior writer.

STEPHEN FRANKLIN
Stephen Franklin is a former labor reporter for the Chicago Tribune and author of ‘Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans.’