African Americans accusing temp agencies of discrimination

Oct 15, 2014

The number of U.S. temporary workers is now almost 3 million. That’s the most ever. In Illinois, tens of thousands of temps are working everywhere from offices to warehouses, from hotels to factories.

But some African Americans say they’re not getting a fair shot at the work. They’re accusing the staffing companies of discrimination. And their claims are getting attention from federal regulators and some Illinois lawmakers.

You might think of temps as clerical workers. But nowadays most are blue collar. Folks like Kenny Flowers, a 38-year-old father of four here on the West Side.

"I haven’t had a full-time job in about 9 or 10 years. I’ve been working all part-time, two jobs at a time and, now, since I just lost one of my jobs I’ve been trying to come to MVP to pick up a second job to work and just get some honest money," said Flowers.

MVP is short for Most Valuable Personnel. It’s part of a temp-work chain based in Northbrook. Flowers takes me to an MVP office in Cicero. He says he’s been there at least four times since spring, and has spent hours and hours in the waiting room. But MVP has yet to give Flowers any work.

When I ask the company why, a spokesman says Flowers calls MVP a lot but doesn’t actually come in to be assigned to go out to a job. Flowers says that’s baloney. He thinks something else is going on.

"I see more Latinos going out than I do African Americans or any other race," said Flowers.

Chip Mitchell: "Why would that be?"

"Because they’re not documented," said Flowers.

Not documented, as in, living in this country illegally. Those folks, Flowers says, are less likely to raise a stink when they’re shorted out of pay or assigned to dangerous work.

At the MVP office, I can’t help but notice that, of the dozens of workers waiting to be assigned work, nearly all are black. They’re not on the clock. Some say they’ve been there for hours. An MVP staffer tells Flowers and me to leave and we do. A few minutes later, though, a Cicero police car pulls up, then another.

OFFICER: "I’m going to need to see IDs from both you gentlemen."

We hand over our driver’s licenses.

MITCHELL: "Um . . . Who called?"

OFFICER: "They did."

MITCHELL: "The temp agency?"

OFFICER: "Yeah."

OFFICER: "Last name of Mitchell. M-Mary. I-Ida. T-Tom. C-Charles..."

The officers eventually return our licenses and leave. But I’m learning how touchy MVP is these days. The company’s a defendant in two class-action lawsuits that claim employment discrimination against African Americans.

Temp-worker advocates have been handing out flyers at the Cicero office about wage theft. MVP claims the goal is to coerce the company into settling the suits. But Christopher Williams says MVP has only itself to blame. He’s the attorney who filed the suits.

"Where there’s a staffing agency within two miles of zip codes that have 97-98 percent African American population, why were no African Americans, almost none, sent to work these jobs at Gold Standard Baking?" asked Williams.

Gold Standard is a Southwest Side industrial baking company and a co-defendant in one of the suits.Williams says the company wanted immigrant temps instead of African American. He says MVP granted the request.

"Over a four-year period when 5,000 workers, approximately, were sent to Gold Standard Baking, only 85 of those were African American. These are low-skilled jobs that people on the West Side of Chicago need to have access to," said Williams.

At the same time, Williams says, MVP recruiting targeted Spanish-speaking workers, and the company sent out vans to pick them up in neighborhoods like Little Village. 

MVP argues in court that the reason its workforce is mostly Latino is because of the office’s location. Parts of Chicago nearby may be black, but Cicero is mostly Latino.

"MVP does not discriminate against African Americans," said Elliot Richardson, an attorney for the temp agency. MVP sends out the very best employees for the positions that fit what those employees can do. There are plenty of job offerings at MVP right now. They’re looking for workers. Regardless of their race, we welcome people to come in and to apply."

Last week MVP filed a suit of its own. It’s a defamation claim against the temp-worker advocates and their group, the Chicago Workers Collaborative.

"Their goal is to destroy the temporary employment agencies in the city," said Richardson.

If there are temp agencies that discriminate against blacks, it’s hard to know how many. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not tally complaints against staffing firms. The commission has sued a few of the agencies in recent years. Jean Kamp is a top attorney in the EEOC’s Chicago office.

"There have always been staffing agencies willing to steer employees based on race and other illegal factors, and that’s certainly ongoing. And, as more people are working through staffing agencies, it’s more of a problem," said Kamp.

U.S. Labor Department data show temp work makes up about 2 percent of the nation’s employment. That may not sound like much but it’s double the 1990 level. 

Staffing agencies registered in Illinois now list 933 offices around the state. In Chicago, the ones handling blue-collar workers tend to locate in Latino areas. Almost none are in black neighborhoods. Still, it’s no easy task for temp-worker advocates to prove discrimination.

MVP claims it doesn’t keep records on job seekers. So there isn’t much information about their race.

"This issue is about to be resolved," said State Representative Ken Dunkin. Last week, he came out with a draft bill that would tighten up record-keeping requirements. The idea’s to make hiring based on race or gender easier to spot.

"Hopefully we’ll get to the bottom line in resolving this open and blatant discrimination and particularly, right now, against African Americans, where the unemployment rate is just as high as our Latino brothers and sisters," said Dunkin.

I brought the discrimination allegations and the proposed bill to the two main trade groups representing Illinois temp firms. Both declined to comment.

Dunkin says he’ll introduce the bill this fall or winter. In the meantime, Kenny Flowers, he’s that frustrated West Sider. He still needs more income.

"Holidays are coming up and it’s real rough on me with the bills. It’s going to be winter and the heat and gas bills are going to go up even more. I would like my kids to have a nice Christmas like everybody else," said Flowers.

He might be eligible to file a claim under one of the class-action suits, but MVP isn’t showing much interest in settling. So Flowers says he’ll keep showing up at the temp agency. He hopes it’ll send him out to work one day.