A group of African-American men filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Chicago federal court alleging systematic discrimination by a temporary staffing agency and several of its clients they say passed over black applicants in favor of Hispanic workers.
The lawsuit against Personnel Staffing Group, which does business as MVP Staffing, is seeking class-action status. The clients named as defendants are Blommer Chocolate Co., Segerdahl Graphics, Mercury Plastics, MPS Chicago (which does business as Jet Lithocolor), The Penray Cos., ARI Packaging and Lawrence Foods.
The alleged discrimination took place at MVP Staffing’s Cicero branch office, which the lawsuit claims was directed by clients not to send African-American workers to their companies for assignments.
Those wishes allegedly were communicated using code words, according to testimony from former dispatchers and on-site representatives given in prior cases and attached to the filing as evidence. For example, according to the lawsuit, “guapos,” which translates to pretty boys, would be used to refer to African-Americans to suggest they don’t want to do dirty work. The terms “feos” (translated to mean “dirty ones”),” “bilingues” (bilinguals) and “los que escuchan La Ley” (referring to people who listen to Spanish-language radio station La Ley) were used to refer to Hispanic laborers, the lawsuit alleges.
Christopher Williams of Workers’ Law Office, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said such a model is prevalent in the fast-growing temporary staffing industry, where competition between agencies puts pressure to keep wages low.
An immigrant-dominated workforce, with language barriers and legal status concerns, is less likely to complain about failure to pay overtime, workplace injuries, wage theft or overwork, according to Williams. He described dozens of white vans that pick people up in the Little Village neighborhood, populated mostly by Mexican immigrants, and drive them to the suburbs for jobs, while black applicants will show up early at the agency office and wait all day before being told there’s no work.
“They get up early, they make their way there, they get there on the promise that there might be work for them,” Williams said. “And they watch as it changes from a very mixed room in the morning to mostly African-Americans left in the afternoon.”
Williams, who has filed several federal discrimination lawsuits against individual companies before Tuesday’s class action, said the complaints have spurred some staffing agencies to hire more African-Americans, but cultural issues inside the companies create a revolving door. Because of the emphasis on Hispanic recruiting, often the company plant managers and assembly line leaders are Hispanic as well, and “they didn’t want them there,” Williams said.
A person who answered the phone at MVP Staffing said no one was available to comment. None of the other companies named as defendants in the lawsuit immediately responded to requests for comment.
In Illinois, the unemployment rate among blacks, at about 14 percent, is nearly three times that of whites (5 percent) and nearly twice that of Hispanics (7.8 percent), according to a May report from the Economic Policy Institute, which at the time said Illinois had the highest black unemployment rate in the country.
Williams, who has spent most of his career focused on immigrant workers’ rights, said he sees the devastation of joblessness in black communities where there are already barriers to employment, such as criminal records, that leads to “a level of desperation.”
“These (temp) jobs are the entry level to the entry-level jobs,” Williams said. “They would be perfect for this class of people who make up the extremely large population (of people with criminal records) and they end up being denied these jobs.”
Norman Green, one of the five plaintiffs, said he has felt the discrimination at MVP and other staffing agencies in Chicago.
He described arriving at the agency early, around 4 or 5 a.m., with his steel-toe boots on and ready to work, signing his name at the top of a check-in paper. He said he would sit for hours and wait while Hispanics would arrive and be sent out to work sites right away. But the agencies would tell him to come back, he said, so he would borrow from money from friends and family to make the trip and get there early only to sit and wait again.
“A lot of black people just sitting there mad that they can’t work,” said Green, 33, who lives in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. When he has gotten jobs he feels everyone is talking about him in Spanish, and “it’s just uncomfortable.”
Green said the pattern, based on the perception that blacks don’t want to work, is “clear-as-day racist” and unfairly applied to him even though “every time I walk into a temp agency I work my butt off.”
Green, who has eight kids, seven of whom live with him, said he lost faith in the temp industry and instead supports his family doing construction and other manual work for family members.
In an exhibit attached to the lawsuit, former MVP dispatcher Rosa Ceja testified that she had been yelled at by representatives of client companies when she assigned African-American workers to jobs and was warned by MVP managers and owners not to send blacks because MVP could lose the account if they did.
Another MVP employee, Pamela Sanchez, who worked as an on-site manager at a bakery named in a prior lawsuit, said in an exhibit that she was instructed directly by bakery employees not to send black workers and to “DNR” (Do Not Return) them on the rare occasions she did. She said she would review lists of laborers to be sent to a shift and if a name didn’t sound Hispanic, she would cancel them, even once they had already been assigned, because she knew they would be rejected. She added that she was told to have black applicants complete criminal backgrounds disclosures but not Hispanics.
Williams estimated there could be 8,000 to 10,000 potential class members for Tuesday’s lawsuit.
Andrew Wells, director of workforce development at the Chicago Urban League, said he believes hiring discrimination plays “a fairly big role” in persistently high black unemployment, which he links to high crime rates.
“You see so much chaos and violence in the community, that’s because you’re seeing so many people not working,” said Wells, who is not connected to the complaint.
Wells said spotlighting discriminatory patterns is one step toward starting conversations across sectors — government, nonprofit and private — about how to address the problem. His organization also helps people build workplace skills, buy homes, rebuild credit and start their own businesses that employ people from the community.
“People should be employed based on their ability to do the job, their talent,” Wells said.
The lawsuit comes during a heightened debate over immigrant labor as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office with promises of restoring American jobs.
Williams said there are plenty of jobs for everyone as the temp industry continues to expand, but hiring needs to be fair and better reflect the population that is applying. Currently about 70 percent of the population around the Cicero office is Hispanic and 30 percent is African-American, but 98 percent of job placements go to Hispanics, he said.
“If we can shift the balance, our hope is that the jobs continue to be available to anyone in the community who wants to work,” he said.
Becky Yerak contributed.
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