90 minutes before he was killed on his first day of work as a temporary employee, 21-year-old Day Davis texted a picture of himself to his girlfriend, excited for their future. Now Day's sister, 17-year-old Antonia, searches for answers. An investigation reveals the issues that led to Day's death and how the $100 billion temporary staffing industry is putting millions of American workers at risk.
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On the eve of Workers Memorial Day, Vivid interviewed the film’s Executive Producer Dave DeSario…
What ignited this drive to take on the temp industry?
As a society we’re talking about big issues like inequality and more livable wages—the temp industry is right at the heart of this discussion but has somehow escaped a critical examination.
Every day there are more and more people going to work through a staffing agency. Basically 3 million Americans, or 2% of the entire workforce, is working through a temp agency right now. And temp workers are in almost every occupation. But still, we’re not talking about the issues that affect them and how temp work affects ALL working people. Temps are compensated less, less likely to receive benefits, are at greater risk of injury, and drive down the bargaining power of direct employees in their industry.
My first experience as a temp worker was for a major, national brand at 19 years old making $8/hr unloading tractor trailers that had been baking in the sun into a windowless, unventilated, 90 plus degree warehouse, being screamed at and belittled every time I stopped moving – basically your average warehouse job. And while I found other temp jobs over the years where the circumstances were different (at large companies and small businesses, in offices and manufacturing sites, at not-for-profits and financial institutions) there was a basic commonality to the experience. When people are employed through a temp agency they receive less of the value that their work creates and are less connected to the people they work with.
From concept to final cut, how long did it take to complete the film?
On 11/2/13 the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health held the first ever ‘Temp Workers Forum’ in Boston, with keynote speak Dr. David Michaels. He spoke about temp worker safety issues and numerous cases of temp workers dying on the first day on the job, including Day’s case. That’s where the idea for the film was born. From there it was about 5 months of pre-production planning, 3 weeks of production, and about a year of post-production work. All of which would be considered very quick for a feature-length documentary.
What was the unexpectedly most difficult part of production?
Outside of a few weeks of production where we have a full crew, two people basically did the entire process as a passion project on the side – David M. Garcia and myself. Timing, workload, and most of all pressure was difficult and unexpected – Day’s family rose to the challenge and put themselves through a lot of very public pain in order to raise awareness and prevent what happened to Day to happening to others, and we owed them an enormous effort to do our best to make something of their sacrifice.
Tell us about the amazing Davis family…
I can’t imagine the pain of losing a son or a big brother, in such sudden, preventable, and tragic circumstances. We brought a film crew of 7 into their home and shined the lights on their pain in the most intimate of settings. The first question that comes to mind is ‘why would anyone put themselves through that?’ And the answer comes down to Day’s 17-year-old sister Antonia. She did to keep others safe. She was confused, and searching for answers as to how her brother could have died the way he did, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else. She persuaded her family to open up to us, and in the process, reopen their wounds in front of us, so that they could try to stand up against the injustice that led to Day’s death, and that puts other workers like him at risk. Antonia took the lead, but her Mom and brothers were right behind in supporting her and trying to bring awareness to the issues that led to Day’s death.
Nia was 17 when we filmed, Joseph was 15, and Patrick was 13. And it is true of each to say that I have never met young people so emotionally mature, intelligent, and fearless. They are just like their mom Tonya. I hope that through all of them we can get a sense of the character and potential of Day.
Nia specifically, who is our main character and is AMAZING. While filming she was in high school, getting close to finals and graduation, getting incredible grades, getting ready for her prom the next week, working afternoon, evening, and weekend shifts at the local Walgreen’s, stepping in as the oldest sibling in Day’s absence, helping with errands and so many other family responsibilities with her Mom recently dealing with a serious injury from a car accident, and starring in a documentary about the most emotional difficult subject one could imagine, trying to stand up and make a real difference in the world. Seriously incredible.
How common is Day’s experience and why should Americans be concerned?
The independent research shows that temp workers are about 50% more likely to be injured on the job, and many believe that number is likely higher since temps are often fearful of reporting injuries, or simply don’t know who to report them to. So the story of a temp being put at risk on the job is all too common.
One the issues the film highlights is that we don’t have answers to such basic and important questions like this. The temporary employment arrangement clouds our ability to identify safe or unsafe employers and worksites. There has been a series of high incidents of temp workers dying on the job, many of them on the first day.
And without the ability to accurately track if an injured or killed worker was employed by a staffing agency, we’re left to wonder, “How many more are there?” Not only recently, but how many there must have been over the last several decades in this industry that we never knew about?
Did you reach out to the temp lobby and what was the response, if so?
The American Staffing Association (ASA), the “voice” of the staffing industry, declined to participate when they realized that the take of the film might not present the industry in a good light. The Florida Staffing Association declined as well. And about a dozen of the largest agencies in the US all refused to speak to us or declined to respond to repeated inquiries, including the Select Family of Staffing Companies, the employers of Day Davis.
Richard Wahlquist, President & CEO of the ASA, continues to deny that evidence and publically state that temp workers are at greater risk on the job.
Do you feel that worker safety is an issue that gets ignored?
Coming from outside the safety community, I think it is shocking to most people to learn that 4,500 Americans die every year on the job. The collective lack of awareness or outrage doesn’t match a number like that.
Does the film advance any ideas for reform of this labor sector?
Each of the main experts in the film offers some ideas for reform.
Michael Grabell of ProPublica points to the lack of regulation of the temp industry in the US and compares it to some international laws. Poland, for one, does not allow temps to work inside of machines. So if we had a law like that, what happened to Day never would have happened. Other countries prevent temp workers from having jobs in high hazards industry.
Barbara Rahke, President of the Board of the National Council for Occupation Safety and Health, is outraged by the minimal fines and lack of criminal prosecution for corporations and individuals that knowingly and willingly risk the lives of their employees. She points to the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which was killed by Congress, as a first step toward accountability.
George Gonos, professor at Florida International University’s Center for Labor Research & Studies offers a free market solution. Right now, temp workers have no way of knowing which agencies have the best safety records, the best rates of pay, or offer the best chances of being converted from a temp worker to a direct hire. A free market by definition depends on access to information, and temp workers are left guessing. With transparency, temp workers and businesses could choose the best agencies, and improve safety with a free market approach.
Why should people see this film?
A Day’s Work is a powerful, emotional story of an American family. At the same time, it helps points to some inherent issues in the American workplace, and lays out some ideas for simple, common sense solutions.
We’re living in a very politically polarized time, and it’s important for us to recognize concerns we all have in common, and to work together to fix them. Workplace health and safety does not get the attention it deserves, and is an issue we can all agree on. We all want every worker to come home in the same shape they went to work in. And this film helps us get closer to that ideal.
For more on “A Day’s Work” visit www.tempfilm.com
Every safety and human resources professional needs to understand the scope of this growing problem and what can be done to protect temporary workers and employers.