By Christopher Walker The "Temporary Workers Deserve a Permanent Voice at Work" campaign waged by the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO, since April 2000 has led to a host of legal battles in several states for Labor Ready, the country's largest employer of temporary workers in the construction trades.

At the request of the union, Ohio and Washington audited Tacoma, Wash.-based Labor Ready's workers' compensation payments, and both found the agency had underpaid premiums due to misclassification of workers. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries (LI) ordered the company to pay $734,000 for underpaid premiums, interest, and late penalties for the years 1998 and 1999. Labor Ready is appealing the decision, and LI spokesperson Robert T. Nelson said the temp agency has refused to turn over records for audits of other years.

Questions over Labor Ready's wage and hour policies also loom. The New Hampshire Superior Court upheld a finding by that state's Labor Department last August that the agency was illegally deducting transportation fees from workers' pay. And in California, the company is fighting a $300 million class action lawsuit that charges they undercounted the number of hours worked.

"A lot of companies, particularly smaller contractors, need to know that they're not transferring legal responsibility to Labor Ready as Labor Ready would have them believe," says Will Collette, Senior Strategic Researcher for the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO. "The customer could be held as liable as Labor Ready for the wage and hour violation." Collette also stated that contractors who sign Labor Ready job tickets that contain incorrect workers' compensation codes make themselves "complicit in the misclassification."

Labor Ready requested an e-mail rather than phone interview for this story, but failed to respond. A Labor Ready press release states that the Washington workers' compensation audit was inaccurate because "it did not consider sufficient information needed to reclassify hours." Another release states that the California suit is "without merit" and quotes Ron Junck, executive vice president and general counsel of Labor Ready, as saying the plaintiffs' interpretation of California law "ignores long established legal and economic realities."

Collette says the goal of the union's campaign is to organize temporary workers. He predicts a national temporary worker union will form within the next five years.