Worker Advocates Say More Temp Worker Protections Are Needed – City Bureau

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More than two decades ago, as companies increasingly turned to temp agencies to fill once well-paid blue-collar jobs, Illinois became one of the first states to regulate how staffing agencies may treat workers.

It wasn’t enough. 

Workers have since complained about systemic racial and gender discrimination by staffing agencies and the companies that contract them. In response, worker advocates have pushed lawmakers to add protections for temp workers, failing at times and winning at others.  

Some companies, they said, use temp agencies to hire workers so they can shield themselves from liability over working conditions, worker compensation or legal problems for employing undocumented immigrants.

“Workers are deemed to be exploitable,” said Kevin Herrera, legal director at Raise the Floor Alliance, a coalition of Chicago-area worker centers. “They are temporary in nature, there’s no consequence for having a worker not work for you anymore because the idea is: there’s this never-ending cycle of exploitable workers.”  

After experiencing setbacks during the pandemic, the industry is once again booming, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. As the industry grows, worker advocates said it is ever more important to fix some of the issues they have been fighting against, including racial discrimination, wage theft and permatemping. 

“The richest and most powerful companies in the entire economy completely depend on staffing agency workers,” said Roberto Clack, the executive director of Temp Worker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for and supports temp workers.

HISTORY

The Day and Temporary Labor Services Act was created to protect workers from exploitation over two decades ago. The law, then known as the Day Labor Services Act, required day labor agencies to clearly explain to workers the terms of employment, including the wages offered, the location where laborers would work and whether a meal or equipment would be provided.

Lawmakers have updated the law several times since to further regulate the industry on issues ranging from allowable wage deductions to transportation regulations to pay stub requirements. 

In 2015, worker advocates proposed amendments to the law, including a requirement that staffing agencies keep records of the race, ethnicity and gender of workers applying for temp jobs. The proposal, which was opposed by the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, was killed by a then-powerful Latinx lawmaker, who argued the proposal hurt people in his community. 

Experts said the employment of Latinx and Black workers in the industry is not a coincidence. Companies, they said, prey on undocumented immigrants and people with a criminal record because they can be desperate for work and usually take any job they can get. 

“When we’re talking about vulnerable communities, a lot of these employers understand that people have a hard time getting jobs elsewhere because of a criminal background, immigration status, and they exploit that,” said Clack of Temp Worker Justice. “It’s wrong and it’s racist.”

In 2017, worker advocates tried again to get agencies to report the race and gender of workers seeking jobs, not only those hired, as is the current requirement. While that effort failed, they won the passage of an amendment that prohibited temp agencies from charging workers for criminal background checks, credit reports or drug tests. The amendments also included language requiring agencies to “attempt” to place workers into permanent positions. 

Despite the expanded protections in the state law, worker advocates said many of the issues they set out to address persist.

WAGE THEFT

A report published earlier this year by the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, revealed poverty wages, wage theft and pay inequity between temp workers and permanent employees for the same work. Nearly a quarter of temp workers interviewed for the report said they experienced wage theft, meaning they were paid less than the minimum wage, not paid overtime rates or not paid for all the hours worked. 

Amy Sanchez, a program director for Warehouse Workers for Justice, which helped with the report, said that when she worked as an agency recruiter between 2017 and 2020, she often noticed a discrepancy between the amount paid and the amount owed to workers. Sanchez said workers would wait on reporting missing wages and eventually disregard them. Once a worker moved to another temp agency, she said recovering lost wages was nearly impossible. When she could, Sanchez said she tried to correct the errors, but wage theft and other issues she observed were so pervasive that she quit.

 “You don’t play with people’s money. That’s their livelihood and how they feed their families.” Sanchez said.

The law requires employers to pay workers full wages and benefits in a timely manner. Part of the problem, worker advocates said, is that the law isn’t enforced as effectively as it should be.

Jason Keller, the assistant director at the Illinois Department of Labor, said part of the issue is limited capacity. The department, he said, has six compliance officers in charge of enforcing the Day and Temporary Labor Services Act and eight other laws. Though the department has increased enforcement, it still relies on workers and advocates to make complaints, Keller said.

“While the department regularly initiates proactive compliance efforts, these investigations are time intensive and given the sheer number of known agencies and their branches, the department is only able to capture a fraction of issues,” Keller said.

There are 319 staffing agencies in the state with 798 branches, according to staffing agency registration data from September released under a public records request. 

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION

Racial discrimination in the industrial staffing industry has long been an issue. A prominent case in Chicago is documented in a nearly decade-long battle between temp workers, a staffing agency and a Southwest Side food manufacturer.

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December 9, 2022 at 04:36PM

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