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Denver Varley says he made $34,000 last year as a skilled Detroit machinist, but now he was down to his last 50 cents, sleeping under bushes by Labor Ready office in Fresno, waiting for his luck to change, hoping for a day's work, any work.

He gathered with others Friday at the Labor Ready office near Freeway 99 and Olive Avenue northwest of Roeding Park, a meeting place for laborers hunting for a job - and in
Varley's case, hungry period.

Men and an occasional woman come to Labor Ready, a nation wide business that serves as a connection between businesses and blue collar workers .They stand a good shot at getting work.

For $5.75 per hour and higher, they dig ditches, clean construction sites or work in warehouses, among other assignments. If they work hard, they may impress their Labor Ready office manager: Here's a guy who really works. Send him out again.

Good performers may impress the company that pays Labor Ready, and that company may hire that person full-time.

That was a dream for Varley, 35, who began Friday morning at 5 as he had every morning for two weeks. The sound of other Labor Ready candidates' cars woke him up under the bushes. He signed in and waited.

He said he had worked as a computer-assisted lathe operator in Detroit. His girl friend died in Fresno, so he took a Grayhound bus to "pay my respects." He came with $200 in his pocket, and now $199.50 was gone.

"Right now, I'll do just about anything to generate activity," said Varley, a man who attributes his expansive vocabulary to a childhood in England.

He assessed criticism of Labor Ready as exploiting workers: "I would concur with that. The temporary work field is definitely making money off people. We should be compensated a lot more. I'm sure companies pay Labor Ready probably double what Labor Ready pays us."

Labor ready people said that was about right.

But it's a start. It's work.

On Thursday, Varley didn't connect with a job in the morning.

"They say nothing happens on afternoons, but you never know," he says. "It gets that bad, and you think of knocking on doors, asking money to eat. I was the first one here, but people with cars get preferential treatment. ... This is barley enough to put food in your stomach."

Bob Norton, 58, waited, too.

"See if you can use more money," he says. "You can't make it on $5.75. Most of these jobs pay minimum wage."

Norton makes a deliberate sacrifice: lower pay and freedom to work or not each day.

"I don't want a permanent job," he says. "I get bored."

He drove a truck for almost 13 years.But he's been living in his car going on two months.

Eddie McFall, 31, judges himself a hard worker, and sees this as a chance to get a permanent job. He has a girlfriend
and their child, plus another one on the way. His girlfriend has health insurance for her and their child. McFall's health plan is simple:"Stay healthy."

McFall has worked at $26.24 per hour finishing concrete, and thinks that Labor Ready treats him and others fairly. The company assigns the more competent workers first, he says.

Ruben Lopez gets a job almost every day, but sometimes for only four hours. He describes the employment version as the survival of the fittest: "Guys who are slower get less jobs, less hours. You mess up here, you get TV time. You spend all day watching television" in the Labor Ready waiting room, "and they won't send you out."

McFall hopes that Labor Ready leads him to full-time auto wrecking.

At the higher reaches of Labor Ready survival chain, Glenn Welstad, Labor Ready chairman, chief executive and president, gave his company's philosophy by telephone from Canada: The company allows its customers - businesses - to "test drive" workers before deciding whether to make them permanent.

If a business finds a worker unsatisfactory in his first two hours, Labor Ready levies no charge. The worker gets paid "show-up time."

Welstad hears charges of exploitation, but disagrees. Labor is tight. Employers scramble for workers, he says. Workers need jobs, and the average employee works just 90 hours for Labor Ready. Labor Ready doesn't keep track after workers leave, but Welstad believes that half move into permanent jobs.

He calls his company a facilitator, "the connection."

"The best way is to take them out and see if they can work, if they don't cause trouble. Put them on a job for a few days, then hire them."

This is not executive work placement, Welstad says. It's the "bottom end of the employment pole," and deals with "guys who have less discipline in their lives."

Business is booming for the company, based in Tacoma, Wash., which runs 685 offices in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United Kingdom. Labor ready, with 30 offices in Central California, is the country's leading provider of temporary manual labor. Its first-quarter sales ending April 2 rose by 67% to $157 million. Net income was just under $4.7 million.

Company spokeswoman Shannyn Roberts says workers average $6.50 per hour, but $20 an hour "happens all the time."

The company plans to open 586 "stores" around the country by year's end. Labor Ready assumes cost of workers compensation and other liability insurance.

Annette Pasco, office manager at Labor ready's Kings canyon office, says she maintains 1,500 workers' names, 90% of them men.

"The higher the unemployment, the more people we have available," she says. "This is a service to the community. It cuts the need for social services. It's win-win for workers and the employer."

Her office dispatches workers to do yard work and other jobs around homes, and she believes that Labor Ready's insurance coverage offers protection to home owners.

At Hilber's Inc. in Yuba City, superintendent Robert Tull uses Labor Ready to supply workers for restaurant remodeling jobs in Fresno: "We use them all the time, eight to 10 years" in California, Washington,
Arizona, Idaho and Nevada. His company has its own employees working as carpenters. Labor Ready workers clean up, run jackhammers. The workers cause no trouble, because Labor ready "gets rid of the bad apples."

Superintendent Johan Larson of J&G Construction in Chino works on three variety store remodeling projects in Fresno. He finds it easier to hire through Labor Ready for out-of-town jobs than it would be to move crews from city to city.

"We have to test a few to get the ones we want," he says of the workers.

At the Laborers International Union, Local 294, in Fresno, business manager Mike Muesing believes that Labor
Ready means labor exploitation: "It's just another choice, cheap labor with no future."

A worker would do better to save money and pay $578 to join the Laborers, Muesing says. That would cover initiation, three months' dues, health and welfare coverage and good wages. He doesn't consider Labor Ready a threat: "We are signing up more and more contractors. I don't see how Labor ready under the union."

Varley, 35, Ruben Lopez, 30, Bob Norton, 58, and Eddie McFall, 31, were among hopefuls biding time Friday. Some were grateful for a good prospect at work, others resentful at the pay and lack of alternatives. They all waited.

Then luck turned semi-sweet for Varley.

He got the job. Norton had a car. Norton and
Varley headed out in Norton's car for a Madera hospital.

Today is another day.


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