Taxpayers Subsidize Low-Paid Warehouse Jobs
Developers are transforming a windswept plain southwest of Chicago into a gargantuan freight and distribution hub. The project will add to about 300 warehouses already built in Will County. This industry is getting government subsidies in the name of creating new jobs. But there are plenty of people who say the jobs should be better.
Someone who isn't thrilled about Will County's warehouse jobs is a 48-year-old mom named Adrienne.
ADRIENNE: You're in a big gray box, picking freight.
She doesn't want to use her last name because she doesn't want to lose her job. That is, her latest job. Adrienne's worked in a half dozen warehouses over the years. None has paid more than a few bucks above minimum. But Adrienne says that's not the worst of it.
ADRIENNE: My hand is looking like the Elephant Man.
Adrienne's telling a story about an accident she had at work in 2008. A 52-inch TV fell on her hand. She was working in the warehouse for a Georgia-based staffing agency called Simos Insourcing Solutions. She says Simos sent her to its own doctor.
ADRIENNE: She takes an X-ray but she does just one X-ray and it's like, ‘I didn't see anything but I need you take these pills.' OK, I pop the pill and I'm sitting here about an hour and I'm still in all this pain. So I take a second pill. And I'm looking at it. I said, ‘This is regular damn Tylenol!'
Adrienne found another doctor and had wrist surgery. Ever since, she's been struggling to get Simos to settle up. The company didn't return our calls about the case.
Adrienne says her employer was unresponsive. And she resents doing temp work, especially for low wages.
You might think Adrienne's predicament is unusual. But there are a lot of Will County warehouse workers in her situation.
GUTELIUS: 62 percent of them were making poverty-level wages.
Beth Gutelius is an economic-development researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She worked with a union-backed group to survey more than 300 warehouse workers in Will County. When Gutelius crunched the numbers, she found that fewer than a third of those injured on the job received workers compensation. And that's not all.
GUTELIUS: One in four warehouse workers had to rely on government assistance to make ends meet.
There's even more. Gutelius says nearly every worker surveyed wanted a permanent position, but nearly two-thirds were temps.
As you might suspect, there are union organizers making hay out of the quality of jobs the warehouse industry is providing.
But the work has its defenders. One of them is John Greuling. He heads a pro-business group called the Will County Center for Economic Development. Greuling says warehouse employers still pay more than fast-food restaurants.
GREULING: Saying that we're creating this permanent lower class of distribution workers is flat-out false. I think the opportunities for a warehouse worker to better themselves are no different than for the guy flipping burgers at McDonald's.
But there is a difference. McDonald's isn't reaping taxpayer subsidies.
Enormous companies have spent billions of dollars to build rail terminals and warehouses in Will County. At the same time, municipalities and the state of Illinois have chipped in hundreds of millions. Most of the public aid has consisted of tax breaks and help with roads and bridges.
Now the industry is set to get more government help. State Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi sponsored an Illinois law that'll give the biggest warehouse developer as much as $21 million over the next few years.
WILHELMI: We're taking a public-private partnership concept and turning that into thousands of jobs in this tremendous economic-development opportunity.
Worker advocates can't dispute that these warehouses are creating jobs. Estimates run as high as 30,000 to date. But they say lawmakers should link taxpayer money to permanent positions and living wages, not the temp work that's common.
Wilhelmi says he's open to that idea but warns that strict conditions might scare employers away.
WILHELMI: If they don't come to build their warehouse, if they don't want to locate in Will County, then we don't have any jobs to talk about.
The warehouse jobs owe their existence at least partly to government subsidies. The question now is whether politicians will insist on better jobs.