Groups accuse temp agencies of bias in hiring

Their report found widespread favoritism to applicants based in race; Atty. Gen. Kwame Raoul promised tough enforcement of labor laws.

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Illinois Atty. Gen. Kwame Raoul

AP file photo

Hiring discrimination is pervasive within temporary employment agencies that serve warehouses and factories, Chicago-area workers’ rights organizations said Tuesday in releasing a study documenting practices that allegedly hurt Black or Latino applicants.

The report said that in two-thirds of tests conducted in 2019, temp agencies hired or assisted applicants of one race and declined help for those of another race at roughly the same time. The tests used Black and Latino applicants paired for similar skills and backgrounds.

The findings show the importance of suing employers that violate state laws about fair hiring, said Atty. Gen. Kwame Raoul, speaking at the virtual conference where the report was announced. Noting that his office created a worker protection unit and has had a task force examine employer discrimination and harassment, Raoul said, “Where we find that this is happening, we are committed to putting a stop to it.”

Called “Opening the Door,” the report was compiled by Chicago Workers’ Collaborative and Warehouse Workers for Justice, in partnership with national organizations that have reported similar conclusions about temp agencies in other cities. Commenting that major manufacturers outsource hiring to temp firms, Sheila Maddali, executive director of the National Legal Advocacy Network, said, “Much of the industry operates as a tool for some of the richest companies in the world to continue to discriminate and exploit against working class people.”

She said temp agencies’ motto might be: “We break the law, so you don’t have to.”

Dan Shomon, spokesman for the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, said, “There are hundreds of federal and state laws and regulations on racial discrimination and staffing firms must follow every one of them. Temp staffing firms face the same federal laws on racial discrimination as every other company in America, whether it’s McDonald’s or Target or anyone.” He said Illinois’ Day and Temporary Labor Services Act is among the strictest such measures in the U.S.

Shomon also said, “There is a real shortage of workers right now in Illinois and we urge people to apply at staffing firms.”

The workers’ advocates used trained testers to approach 60 staffing agencies from March to May 2019. Tim Bell, executive director of the workers’ collaborative, said groups delayed releasing the findings last year to concentrate on helping vulnerable workers get protections from COVID-19. The staffing agencies were a representative sample of about 700 such firms in the Chicago area, said the report’s principal writer, Brittany Scott of Partners for Dignity & Rights.

The alleged bias, such as offering employment to one candidate while telling another no jobs were available, primarily favored Latino applicants over Blacks. But advocates said both races are hurt, as Latino workers are often shunted into jobs that are dangerous or pay sub-minimum wage.

The research concentrated on the experiences of Blacks and Latino applicants because, compared to their share of the general population, they are overrepresented in industrial temp work. Most agencies are based in Latino areas, the study found.

Raoul said the widespread use of contractors to provide labor for large companies can create abuses. “Our economy has fostered a fractured employment model,” he said.

Bell’s group has called for a voluntary “seal of approval” program for staffing firms, in which government contractors would agree only to hire those agencies certified as following best practices. The program would be administered by the state. 

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