Now, the nearby interstates—the I and the I—are swollen with semis at all hours of the day, while cataracts of trucks have spilled onto local highways and country roads. Potholes abound, and serpentine traffic jams have roiled residents. Trucks have backed over gravestones at the local cemetery after taking wrong turns. In , a train derailed and hit a semi, throwing debris across the grounds of an elementary school, which was subsequently shuttered permanently for safety reasons. On the day I arrived, there were three accidents alone on I The inconvenience of a gridlocked infrastructure pales in comparison to the horror of increasingly commonplace traffic fatalities.
In recent years, a pregnant mother was killed on I, and an eight-year-old girl was killed off highway In , a truck driver fell asleep at the wheel and killed five people on I After a fatal accident outside the two newest Amazon fulfillment centers, cops had to take over traffic control during the afternoon shift change.
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Buss is responsible for the country and local roads around highway 53, a ribbon of four narrow lanes that connects the interstates with Elwood. The facilities run 24 hours a day, and the three shift changes—morning, afternoon, and just before midnight—are particularly harried. Backups of hundreds of cars and semis are frequent.
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Municipalities have struggled to maintain the roads—one stretch of 53 was repaved three times last summer alone. The turmoil has only been exacerbated by changes in the trucking industry, which has pivoted to an owner-operator model, relying on independent contractors over full-time employees. For independent contractors, responsible for their own gas and operating costs, speed is tantamount to profitability.
A traffic jam can turn the trip from profit to loss. So truckers often take shortcuts down small residential roads, unequipped for weight and traffic, to shave valuable minutes off their commute. Buss flipped his lights on and sped to overtake the truck, swinging his pickup in front of it to bring it to a stop. Sure enough, the escape proved challenging.
As the driver pulled forward to line up a three-point turn, the truck teetered dangerously on the edge of the road. Buss had to get out and wave the driver through the process. Ten minutes later, the truck finally made its exit.
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The county is home to 99 in all—one of the highest concentrations of staffing agencies in the country. They share lofty, aspirational monikers, like Paramount, Accurate, and Elite. Amazon has its own preferred staffing agency: Integrity. Temp agencies existed before the Intermodal came along—they played a crucial role in breaking the union stranglehold on labor in the Joliet Caterpillar plant.
But the arrival of the logistics industry created a whole new market for temporary work.
On the day I arrived, my hotel in Joliet was hosting a job fair for a staffing company called Geodis, which was looking for seasonal workers to help box Legos. Antonio Suarez drove 45 minutes from the suburbs of Chicago for the opportunity to interview with Geodis.
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He was hired right away. Suarez told me he was expecting to work 30 hours a week for Geodis, which would complement the 30 hours he was working as a special needs caregiver. He expected he would soon be brought on full-time by Geodis. A full 63 percent of the warehouse workforce in Will County is temp labor or provided by staffing agencies. At a recent hearing in Joliet to deliberate the establishment of two new companies, one group claimed that only 23 of their workers had been placed in permanent full-time jobs.
In Will County, alternative work is gained haphazardly and with great effort. Prospective workers use shuttle buses to skip from warehouse to warehouse because the cost of maintaining a car is often prohibitively expensive for temp laborers. The first shuttle from Elite Staffing in Joliet leaves at a.
When I first stopped by Elite, there was a line of hopeful workers out front. Charles Lovett worked for Elite Staffing for years, across multiple different facilities, often spreading condiments on sandwich bread or boxing A-1 steak sauce. He got into warehousing at the recommendation of his family—his aunt, cousin, and brother have all worked in warehousing. But it can also be a burden. Sometimes, Lovett mentioned, the shuttle departed before workers had confirmed a shift, leaving them stranded at the facility for hours at a time.
It was only in July that temp agencies became legally required to provide return transportation from warehouses.
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And though recent reforms require them to pay their workers for time spent in transit, collecting that money can be challenging. These frustrations led Lovett to finally quit. Brandin McDonald, a year-old African American with a stocky build and a scar under his left eye, grew up in Joliet, where he got into trouble as a kid. In ninth grade, he was thrown out of Joliet Central High School for fighting. He spent time in juvenile detention as a teenager and did two stints in jail in his twenties, disqualifying him from much full-time work.
In his younger years, McDonald worked construction. But with a booming warehouse industry just down the road, he decided to try his hand at it. Between and , he worked at the Wal-Mart facility in Elwood.
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There, he unloaded trucks and pallets, everything from light inventory, like artificial Christmas trees, to the unwieldy, like trampolines. That distinction was important, because McDonald, like many others, was paid not by the hour, but by the truckload. Small objects could be unloaded in an hour or two, but bulkier items could take three to five hours. The facility is run by Schneider, a third-party logistics firm, which subcontracts further, sometimes to four or five staffing agencies at a time.
That arrangement has chilled any prospects of union organizing. During a stint with one particular agency, he did not receive benefits, sick days, or paid vacation for a whole year. Raises were out of the question. He drove to the warehouse every day just to find out if they had hours for him.
At least he lived in Joliet: Some temp employees come from places as far as Chicago, southern Illinois, and Indiana, and can commute over an hour each direction. With nearly staffing agencies promising access to the same low-wage workforce, offering a competitive cost advantage to warehouses looking to staff up is nearly impossible.
That pressure leads to corner-cutting of all sorts, which often includes wage theft, in the form of paying piece rates, skimping on hours, or having workers pay for their own drug tests, a process that was only recently outlawed. With little money coming in, the village issued bonds to finance the town hall, the gleaming new sidewalks, and the stop signs that are observed only voluntarily. They built all of this capacity and now they have this huge debt. Neighboring towns wanted a piece of the fast-burgeoning industry, and cut their own tax incentive deals with warehouse developers.
Despite research indicating that tax incentives rarely motivate corporate relocation, such deals are being doled out at record rates, tripling since By the time NorthPoint proposed creating what could amount to a third Intermodal, one that would bring a sprawling industrial park of plus warehouses spanning Elwood and the neighboring village of Manhattan, the people of Will County had had more than enough of these development schemes. The developer promised a better deal, offering to make a one-time payment to Elwood to wipe out its towering debt.
It also claimed that this facility would bring the prosperity that the previous development had failed to deliver. Even those promises did not assuage concerns. There were suspicions that the new facility would be hooked up to a rail line, resulting in the creation of a degree perimeter of development around the town.
Frustrated residents began to organize in opposition. Legrett and a group of fellow objectors, none of whom had experience in political activism, founded the group Just Say No to NorthPoint. They started small, ten people in a town hall in Jackson Township. But they quickly made their presence felt. Members showed up in the dozens at village board meetings. They printed yard signs, circulated petitions and group emails.
Their Facebook group swelled to a thousand members, building an explicitly nonpartisan coalition that included both avowed progressives and MAGA-hat wearers. Elwood overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in the election. After the planning and zoning board recommended the project to the Village of Elwood board for final approval, Just Say No to NorthPoint upped its activity.
They teamed up with environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Joliet branch of the worker advocacy group Warehouse Workers for Justice. They orchestrated demonstrations. The group put pressure on local politicians. Each volume is like a dedicated time capsule just waiting to be explored! Lawrence, Massachusetts. Trolleys Under the Hub.
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