The Crusader Newspaper Group

Lawsuits expose racial discrimination by temp agencies

By Will Evans,

Temp agencies opposed the bill in part because they worried it would fuel discrimination lawsuits against them.

Indeed, data on the disparity between applicants and hires can form crucial evidence in such cases. And Chicago-area agencies already are facing a few.

Chris Williams has become the attorney to fear. Since 2012, his Workers’ Law Office has sued six temp agencies and many of their clients for excluding black applicants. That’s on top of many other wage-related lawsuits and discrimination complaints filed with federal regulators.

Williams went from teaching English learners for the City Colleges of Chicago to union organizing in the 1990s. In 2000, he helped launch what became the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.

After he was admitted to the Illinois bar in 2004, Williams co-founded and led a legal clinic to help immigrant workers who had been cheated on wages. That’s where he first heard about discrimination against black workers at temp agencies.

It all fit together, Williams said.

“There is a desire to hire workers who are more vulnerable and thus subject to exploitative working conditions … which then reduces labor costs,” he said.

Even permanent workers aren’t immune, he said. “It drives down wages for everybody.”

Temp agencies, he said, are worried that his legal onslaught and the reform legislation is an “attack on their business model.” In December, the candy manufacturer that makes Lemonheads, Red Hots and Jujyfruits, plus two of its temp agency suppliers, agreed to a preliminary settlement of $1.5 million in a racial discrimination lawsuit.

“He is notorious for bringing these cases,” said Scott Polen, whose company, TempsNow, was sued last month.

Polen, a board member of the temp industry association, said Williams brings unfounded lawsuits to milk agencies for settlement money. TempsNow, he says, doesn’t take race into account.

“Quite honestly, because of Chris Williams, I wouldn’t even contemplate doing something like that,” he said, “because it’s just not worth it, not to mention it’s wrong.”

Another lawsuit, filed last year, focuses on the workers Most Valuable Personnel supplied to Gold Standard Baking. The mammoth brick-walled industrial bakery near railroad tracks on the Southwest Side churns out more than 10 million croissants a week for convenience stores and supermarkets around the country.

Of some 5,000 temps provided to the bakery by MVP over several years, 98 percent had Latino surnames, according to the suit. MVP disputes those numbers.

In court filings, company lawyers called the suit “nothing more than a charade, designed to harass Defendants.” The plaintiffs “are throwing metaphoric noodles at the wall, hoping that any allegation will stick.”

Beyond the legal sparring, though, there are the accounts of insiders such as former bakery supervisor Maria Carretero. Bakery managers, she said in a court declaration, called black workers lazy and worthless and told MVP not to send them.

“Quitan esos negros,” a plant manager yelled angrily in Spanish, she said. “Get rid of those blacks.”

“It was common knowledge that GSB (Gold Standard Baking) did not want to have African Americans at the factory,” Carretero’s statement said.

Reached by phone, a bakery executive, Mark Grosshans, said, “I don’t want to discuss this.”

Pamela Sanchez, the former MVP dispatcher who testified at the Springfield hearing, worked on-site at the bakery for several months. Black workers, she said, usually were assigned only on weekends to avoid paying Latino workers overtime or to graveyard shifts that were hard to fill. Even then, Sanchez said the bakery told her to “DNR” (“do not return”) those black workers after their shift.


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