A Chicago Crusader Special Report
By Erick Johnson
In New Jersey, they call them “number 2s,” but in Chicago, Blacks seeking temp jobs are called “guapos.”
For years they were codes that were used as part of a covert system of discrimination among temp staffing agencies and their corporate clients. In recent years many of them have been sued for secretly working hand in hand to keep Blacks from working on its assembly lines, warehouses and packaging plants where they are far outnumbered by Hispanic workers. Here, Black temp workers earn far less money for working fewer hours than their Hispanic counterparts.
It’s a widespread practice that’s happening in Chicago and across the country. From Florida to California to Illinois, hundreds of thousands of Black applicants in desperate need of work are being shut out of companies that pressure temp agencies to discriminate based on race, sex, age and disability. Many of these cases involved racial discrimination, where Blacks all over America have been the biggest victims. For many Black applicants in the temp industry, it’s a double dose of discrimination, first by the client and then by the temp agency.
What was once a longstanding dirty little secret between temp agencies and former employees and managers is now being exposed with an explosion of class-action lawsuits. Angry and fed up with racial discrimination, they are taking action against companies that make millions off the backs of poor workers while marketing themselves as clean firms that hire people from all ethnic backgrounds, including Blacks.
Sadly, many discrimination victims face an uphill battle in taking their employers to court. Instead, many companies that are sued for racial discrimination end up paying relatively small damage amounts and fines. Along with little state and federal oversight, discriminatory practices among temp agencies have continued at an alarming rate at the expense of Black applicants seeking a fresh start in the land of opportunity. With the legal and financial constraints of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), widespread discrimination is growing and forcing Black applicants to lose thousands of jobs to Hispanics in Chicago and other cities. It’s a reality that’s fueling racial tensions between successful Hispanics and Blacks who still lag behind in the workforce.
In Chicago, the problem is rampant, thanks to State Rep. Luis Arroyo, a powerful Hispanic politician who last year helped kill a legislative bill along with Dan Shomon, a lobbyist and executive director of the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, an organization that represents 25 temp agencies that provide some 250,000 in the state a year.
FIGHTING BACK WITH LAWSUITS
In the past three years, Chicago attorney Christopher Williams and the Chicago Workers Collaborative have sued six temp agencies and companies who they believe discriminated against Blacks by not sending them on assignments in which they were qualified. These firms included Elite Staffing, Vee Pak, Inc. Personnel Staffing (also known as Most Valuable Personnel or MVP), Alternative Staffing (ASL), Labor Power and Remedial Environment Manpower (REM).
In some of the cases, the client allegedly told the temp agency to not hire Black workers, according to the lawsuits. Most of the temp staff agency members who placed workers at job sites were Hispanic. Over time they allegedly developed and used a code to identify Black applicants as well as those who were female and applicants who had a disability.
According to lawsuits, Hispanics– particularly Mexicans–were highly preferred because they were usually illegal immigrants who could easily be exploited and won’t challenge pay issues or other abuses. According to complaints, Blacks were more outspoken, but were also called lazy workers who didn’t want to get dirty. When companies called temp agencies asking for help, on many occasions, they requested no “guapos,” which means pretty boys, according to lawsuits that include former dispatchers who took the calls.
At one of Illinois’ largest temp agencies, Elite Staffing, Gregg Mann, 55 alleged the firm used the code “DNR.” It means “Do Not Return” when it comes to Black applicants seeking temp jobs. In October 2015, Mann said he was working for one of Elite Staffing’s clients, Pactiv, a plant at 7207 S. Mason Avenue. After several weeks, Mann said he received a call telling him that the assignment was over.
“They didn’t give any reason,” Mann told the Crusader. “It was over just like that. With few Blacks on the job site, we were all pulled suddenly out of the facility.”
Mann is among several Black temp workers who are suing Elite Staffing for racial discrimination. He now works for the Chicago Workers Collaborative fighting for workers rights. As an alleged victim of discrimination, he understands the plight of Black temp workers.
“Even though you’ve been let go by the host company, you’re still employed with the temp agency that sends you out, but you don’t get any jobs so there’s no opportunity to make any money,” Mann said. “Most Black workers I know have been DNR’s for a while. It’s really sad.
Residents in Bronzeville, Woodlawn, Englewood or any predominately Black neighborhood won’t see any of these temp agencies in their areas. Most are located in predominately Hispanic communities like Little Village where they heavily recruit Hispanic workers. In most instances, they pick them up in a van and take them to the job site.
This is where Derell Pruitt’s racial discrimination lawsuit began. In 2015, MVP sent him out to a packaging plant for a job assignment. According to his suit, the supervisor picked all the Hispanics and sent all the Black workers home. Pruitt’s complaint is now part of a class-action lawsuit claiming that MVP discriminated against Black workers and didn’t pay him for his time. In court filings, MVP claimed that Pruitt never worked for the company.
In his lawsuit, Pruitt said the experience left him angry against Hispanics and forced him to get counseling.
The Crusader was unable to reach Pruitt to comment for this story.
“It’s really, really sad,” Rosa Ceja told the media. A former dispatcher with MVP who worked on site at a packaging plant, Ceja said that she was advised that “guapos” were to be avoided when she was employed with MVP.
Another former dispatcher, Andriana Hernandez said the same thing happened to her when she worked at MVP.
“They would tell me, ‘Remember, the supervisor doesn’t want any older ladies, and she doesn’t want any Black people, Hernandez told the press.
MVP was a major supplier of workers to Gold Standard Baking (GSB), located at 3700 S. Kedzie Avenue. GSB is a huge gourmet bakery that churns out croissants, butterflake rolls, English muffins, and other signature breads.
According to court documents, something else was rising at GSB: racial discrimination. Of some 5,000 temps provided to the bakery by MVP over several years, 98 percent had Latino surnames, according to the suit, but MVP reportedly disputes those numbers.
In one court declaration, former bakery supervisor Maria Carretero said bakery managers called Black workers “lazy” and “worthless” and told MVP not to send them.
“Quitan esos negros,” a plant manager yelled angrily in Spanish, Carretero said. “Get rid of those Blacks.
Another former MVP dispatcher, Pamela Sanchez who worked on-site at GSB for several months, once testified at a hearing in Springfield. She also said that GSB didn’t want Black workers. She said those who were employed were assigned to work weekends so GSB didn’t have to pay Latino workers overtime or were hired from graveyard shifts that were harder to fill. Even then, Sanchez said the bakery told her to “DNR” (Do Not Reply) those Black workers after her shift.
Sanchez complained about the practice and sued MVP and the bakery for retaliating against her after she complained about the discrimination.
As for Ceja, MVP filed a $50,000 defamation suit against her in 2015, claiming she damaged the company’s reputation after she testified at a hearing in Springfield. Last summer a judge dismissed MVP’s suit, saying Ceja’s post was opinion protected by the first amendment. The EEOC and the National Labor Relations Board found that MVP’s lawsuit was a form of retaliation of Ceja’s civil rights.
BLACKS SHUT OUT OF OPPORTUNITIES
The Crusader obtained a copy of a court declaration that shows how bad the problem is at MVP. As it turns out, a study of MVP’s employee referrals to one company revealed that out of 2,591 temp workers who were temps between 2009 and 2013, just 12 of them were Black.
The dramatic findings were based on subpoenaed records that were analyzed by Dr. Marc Bendick, a Washington D.C. economist who submitted a declaration to the courts last December as part of William’s lawsuit against MVP. The findings came from MVP on Roosevelt Road in the West Loop.
Dr. Bendick has documented racial discrimination by about two out of three staffing agencies, which he says seriously limits temporary or permanent job opportunities in manufacturing plants, warehouses, retail stores, and offices across the country.
“Discrimination based on race and other personal characteristics is a widespread, persistent problem in the staffing agency industry nation-wide,” Dr. Bendick said in statement to the Crusader. “In most circumstances, the problem starts with the companies that hire the agencies to refer job candidates to them. Some employers explicitly instruct the agencies to send them only certain types of workers. Like other businesses, staffing agencies are in business to make money, and to do that, ultimately they must please their customers.”
According to Bendick’s findings presented in court filings, the 12 Blacks employed by MVP “worked an average of 19.2 hours (less than four days) at Vee Pak, while the 2,158 of all other races and ethnicities (predominately Hispanic) averaged 320.3 hours (more than 40). Accordingly, the hours worked by non-Hispanic Afri- can Americans accounted for 0.0% — three-tenths of one percent – of the 691,1331 worked at Vee Pak under MVP referrals.
Chicago is not alone. In other cities across America, temp agencies and their clients are using a variety of codes to discriminate against thousands of Black applicants. In Baton Rouge, Lousiana, Chattanooga, TN and Huntsville, Alabama, former staff members and dispatchers have accused Automation Personnel Services of following its client’s orders of not sending Blacks on job assignments. The temp agency has 32 branches across the South, from Texas to Florida. It employs some 30,000 temp workers a year and generated $180 million in revenue in 2014, according to the firm.
At Automation’s branch in Chattanooga, a request for white men was common and was known as an order for “country boys,” according to three former employees. According to former employees at Automation branches in six states, Blacks who were fortunate enough to get assignments were placed in inferior positions.
One Black woman, Nakia Sanford, filed a lawsuit against Automation in 2014 after she showed up early at a branch in Memphis seeking to get a position at a FedEx distribution center. But the temp agency supervisor prefilled the sign in list with Latino names and sent out Hispanic workers who arrived after Sanford.
Last June, after years of complaints, the Birmingham, AL office filed a lawsuit against Automation after a branch manager called an employee a “nig— bit—“ for complaining about a string of racial slurs used in the workplace.
In Oklahoma, two Black women sued a Tulsa Temp agency after job orders surfaced revealing specific requests that read ‘Good ol’boy’ and ‘No B PPL’. It was also alleged that applications were marked with a black dot for Black workers, a circle for Hispanics and an X for Indian.
In New Jersey, Blacks who applied to temp agencies were called “number 2s.” A Texas temp agency called whites “blue eyes,” and an Ohio agency called whites “vanilla cupcakes.”
TEMP INDUSTRY A BOOMING BUSINESS
With demand for quick hires and manpower, the temp agencies are a booming industry. In 2015, the industry reached an all-time high of employing 3 million workers a month, up from just over a million in 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employees are sent to work for companies. They are paid directly by temp agencies, which pay hourly wages that usually range from $8 to $13.
Companies like temp agencies because they save the time in interviewing and hiring extra labor. Unlike permanent jobs, temp jobs usually carry no benefits, health insurance or vacation time. Sometimes, companies offer permanent employment to productive temp workers. For Blacks needing work right away, temp jobs are highly sought after.
As the industry increased, so has the number of discrimination lawsuits. In the last decade the EEOC has filed 1,926 lawsuits, but the number of whistleblower lawsuits and complaints are even higher. In Chicago discrimination lawsuits against temp agencies began popping up after three female temp workers complained that a supervisor at a West Chicago Plastics plant sexually harassed them. The government believed them and forced Source One to pay $800,000 in damages.
Last January, Labor Power and REM, agreed to pay $450,000 and $50,000, respectively after they were sued in 2013 for allegedly denying Blacks work in favor of Hispanic workers. Their client, Ferrara Candy Company–which makes Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans and Atomic Fireballs– agreed to pay $1 million as part of the settlement agreement. None of the companies admitted guilt or wrongdoing. The settlement came after a string of protests outside Ferrara Candy’s headquarters in west suburban Oak Brook.
Chris Williams, the attorney who filed the lawsuit against Ferrara Candy and the other four temp agencies, said 1,100 Black workers were eligible for funds from the settlement. Ferrara Candy is currently working on an affirmative action plan to prevent future discrimination.
Williams said since the lawsuit was filed, Labor Power has disbanded.
Other Chicago area temp agencies that have been sued for discrimination are TempsNow (May 2015) and ClearStaff (2014) in Woodridge.
In Atlanta, several Black workers who once worked on an assembly line packaging candy reached a settlement with the temp agency which told them to leave their positions after just two hours on the job. A representative allegedly told them that “the company only hires Mexicans.”
In San Diego, Sedona Staffing paid $920,000 to settle allegations that it systematically discriminated against job applicants.
On September 1, the EEOC announced that Resource Employment Solutions headquartered in largely Hispanic Orlando, Florida agreed to pay $435,000 to settle a class action lawsuit by a group of Black temp workers.
A LOSING BATTLE
The settlements are hardly a loss or penalty for temp agencies that make millions off of big clients. Record high settlements are rare. In addition, there are no federal criminal penalties for employment discrimination. If a person files a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, the case most likely will be settled or dismissed. With budget constraints and staff shortages, the EEOC largely avoids taking a case to court. Less than one percent of all complaints make it to the courtroom, according to Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting, which along with the Chicago Reporter ran their own stories about temp agencies.
In addition, the commission does not disclose what it’s doing to address the complaint. By law, those details and the investigation are secret unless it goes to court. With few penalties and paltry settlement amounts, temp agencies usually walk away with little damage to their coffers, while Black applicants remain scarred with settlement amounts that don’t always compensate for the pain they’ve experienced.
“This is why we have young angry Black men on the streets getting killed or killing other people,” said Mann, the former Elite Staffing temp worker who’s suing his former employer for racial discrimination. They’re angry. People are losing hope. It’s a problem, man.”
Seeking comments for this story, the Crusader emailed Elite Staffing, MVP and ClearStaff temp agencies. None of them responded by Crusader press time.
Illinois had the chance to crackdown on discriminatory agencies with SB47, a bill that died in the Illinois Assembly in May 2015. The legislation would have forced temp agencies to keep track of the race and gender of all its applicants, making it easier to hold them accountable for discriminatory practices. It was the first bill of its kind and Williams, the attorney representing numerous Black workers in class action lawsuits, was hoping it would pass.
Staffing agencies banded together and with lobbyist Dan Shomon, whose organization Staffing Services of America, represented many temp agencies that had paid settlement awards for allegedly discriminating against Blacks.
They all threw their weight behind State Representative Luis Arroyo, whose district is 61 percent Hispanic and four percent Black. The bill’s sponsor, former State Rep. Ken Dunkin represents a district that’s 52 percent Black and 4 percent Latino.
Arroyo said “You’re hurting people in my community. You’re hurting the people that I’m putting to work in my community.”
Arroyo asked Dunkin to not bring the bill to a final vote without the opposition’s approval. Dunkin at the time aimed to compromise, but that’s when State Rep. Mike Tyron, a Republican lawmaker, forced Dunkin to drop the bill altogether. Dunkin agreed and the fight was over. Several days later, the bill was dead.