New Jersey temp workers have become a crucial source of cheap labor, constituting a quarter of the state’s warehouse workforce.

But as Gothamist/WNYC reported last year, the temp industry remains largely unregulated, subjecting workers to unsafe conditions, murky agreements with staffing agencies and paychecks that don’t meet minimum-wage standards, worker advocates say.

“It’s been a bit of the Wild West,” state Senator Joe Cryan, D-Union, said in an interview.

Cryan introduced a bill in the state Legislature this month designed to protect the workers and bring the burgeoning temp industry in line with standard workplace practices. The measure would also empower state officials to impose stricter fines on temporary staffing agencies and the third-party companies that hire them.

“This is an industry that many folks in New Jersey a few years ago would have thought was simply like clerical work,” Cryan said. “That's just not what it is today. Today it's industrial. These are the folks that are moving goods, they're in the warehouses. These are the folks that are part of the supply chain. And quite frankly, their work environment is not acceptable to the majority of New Jerseyans.”

There are nearly 130,000 temp workers in New Jersey, Cryan said. More than 300 known temp agency locations are registered with the state Department of Labor, which oversees them, records show. But many more such agencies exist, employing hundreds of workers without a state license.

The 25-page bill, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Dist. 19, would require temp agencies to be more transparent with their workers, such as telling them the name of the agency, keeping a record of the hours they worked and itemizing deductions on pay stubs. Temp agencies sometimes operate out of nondescript buildings and workers receive paychecks that don’t include the name of the staffing agency.

“For too long, workers have been unable to find out basic information like their pay rate, their employer's name, the address of the location where they're taken to work, deductions from their paychecks for transportation,” said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy group.

“This bill will remedy that,” she said. “First by allowing workers to actually have the right to know where they're going to work, what they're being paid and to hold their employer accountable.”

During the worst days of the pandemic last year, WNYC reported temp workers were crammed into vans, sometimes more than could fit, and shuttled to their worksites even as state officials urged social distancing to stop COVID-19. While Governor Phil Murphy limited public transit to 50% capacity, that didn’t apply to private vehicles transporting temp workers — illustrating how protections for these workers often fall through the cracks.

In one case, a temp worker who rode in a stuffed van to work came down with COVID-like symptoms but was never able to get tested, she told WNYC. One of her fellow temp workers on her shift later died from COVID, according to his family.

Under the bill, temp agencies would be required to ensure each worker has a seat in any agency-provided transport vehicle and is not charged for the ride. Temp workers often say the rides to and from work are also deducted from their paychecks, in some cases depressing their earnings below the minimum wage.

The bill would also impose $500 daily fines on companies that hire unlicensed temp agencies. WNYC found at least two staffing agencies weren’t registered with the state as required and one was eventually fined.

“We need the right to know things like how much we're getting paid, where we're being sent, and about earned sick time that we accrue as guaranteed by law in New Jersey,” temp worker Diana Gaitan said in a statement. “We shouldn't have to pay for agency-provided transportation where we are often packed like sardines.”

JM Staffing on French Street in New Brunswick

Temp agencies sprouted along New Jersey’s old industrial corridor over the last few decades in response to growing imports from Port Newark. Labor experts said these agencies set up shop in densely-populated immigrant-heavy cities like New Brunswick, Elizabeth and Passaic creating so-called "temp towns,” and capitalizing on a ready-made cheap labor force.

“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,” Carmen Martino, a labor history professor at Rutgers University, previously told WNYC.

Many temp workers are immigrants or formerly incarcerated people who can’t find full-time work with benefits. But the word temp has become a misnomer as these days, many temp workers spend years bouncing between staffing agencies or sometimes work years in the same warehouse, earning less than permanent workers on site.

At least 25% of warehouse work is performed by temp workers in New Jersey, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 16% nationally. But the pandemic has only accelerated the growth of the logistics and warehouse industry in the state, economists say.

“This is a really key moment to regulate an industry that for too long has been left untouched and where really exploitative practices have flourished,” Cullinane said.

Cryan said the bill likely won’t move until the next legislative session, which begins in January.