Increasingly, our economy depends on staffing agencies to recruit and place candidates in jobs at a broad range of employers.   Charged with the critical responsibility of identifying, recruiting, and screening candidates, staffing agencies function as the gate keepers for workers’ access to many jobs.  At the same time, staffing agencies serve the employers to which they refer candidates for employment by applying the employers’ preferences and criteria for candidates to fill the open jobs.  As there are many staffing agencies competing for the same referral business, the pressures are great to implement any and all preferences employers express for candidates that are referred. 

A number of leading civil rights and labor experts believe that racial discrimination has become rampant in the temporary staffing industry, where placements are at an all-time high of nearly three millions workers per month (up from 1 million in 1990), according to the U.S. Department of Labor.  Investigation into this industry has in fact revealed that some employers, and the staffing agencies recruiting candidates for them, have clandestinely declined qualified African American candidates for vacant jobs.  Cohen Milstein, along with the Workers’ Law Office of Chicago, has brought several significant cases challenging the racially discriminatory recruiting and assignment practices in which the employers and staffing agencies have jointly engaged.   

If you have information about discrimination of any kind at a staffing agency, please contact the Workers’ Law Office at 708-586-9529 or Cohen Milstein at 1-800-262-8077 (toll free).

HUNT v. MVP

On December 6, 2016, several African-American workers filed a class action lawsuit against one of the nation’s leading job placement agencies, alleging a pattern of discrimination in which African-American workers were either denied employment specifically because of their race or subjected to more difficult working conditions than employees of other races.  The lawsuit accuses hiring supervisors of using code words to differentiate between African-American and Hispanic laborers, conducting criminal background checks on only black workers, and suggesting that African-Americans were less desirable employees because they were more likely to complain about poor workplace conditions.  As one MVP worker said in a signed statement, “MVP’s clients preferred immigrant workers because they are less likely to complain about things like being injured on the job or being underpaid.”  These allegations mirror what leading employment experts believe is an industry-wide pattern of race-based discrimination.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the lawsuit charges MVP Staffing, which operates over 60 job placement offices in nearly 40 states, with eight counts of race-based discrimination stemming from operations at its facility in Cicero, IL, a suburb of Chicago.  Plaintiffs allege that at least seven of MVP’s clients—including a plastics manufacturer, an auto-parts maker, a commercial printing and marketing firm, and two large-scale food processors—made it known that they did not want African-American workers assigned to temporary jobs in their company, and MVP routinely instructed placement supervisors to comply with these requests.  

The class action suit details a calculated effort by MVP to recruit Latino workers over African-American workers through targeted advertising, transportation, and Spanish-language-only training materials.  African-American applicants regularly saw Hispanic workers who arrived after them sent out on work assignments, while the African-American individuals continued to wait for work day after day, often arriving at 4am in hopes of a daily assignment.  In the rare instances that MVP did assign African-Americans to work, it was often to fill less-desirable jobs in more difficult conditions (including extreme temperatures) and for less pay.  Often, these individuals were marked “DNR” (for “Do Not Return”) during or at the end of their first shift.

“The allegations in this case demonstrate a clear and disturbing pattern of race-based discrimination, denying low- and middle-income employment opportunities to people because they are African-American,” said Joseph Sellers, Chair of the Civil Rights and Employment Practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC and co-counsel for the plaintiffs.  “These companies are violating the civil rights of individuals who are trying to earn a decent living wage.”

“It’s difficult to imagine a more blatant example of racism than refusing to hire African-Americans based entirely on the color of their skin,” said Chris Williams, of Workers’ Law Office in Chicago, who is also representing the plaintiffs.  “These discriminatory practices are not only illegal but also emotionally and financially devastating to individuals, families, and communities.” 

“Discrimination in hiring and placement is egregious and difficult to stop, as employer decisions occur behind closed doors.  But this case shows that bias is out in the open in some sectors, where companies use staffing agencies to launder their overt discrimination,” said Catherine Ruckelshaus, General Counsel of the National Employment Law Project.  “Companies cannot outsource their discriminatory hiring to staffing companies, and then hide behind those agencies -- both actors must be held accountable in order to stop this illegal and offensive job screening.”

PRUITT v. MVP

Several African-American workers who sought work in the Waukegan, Illinois area have also filed a class action suit against MVP and six of its client companies for racial discrimination arising out of MVP’s Waukegan office.  Also pending in the U.S. District for the Northern District of Illinois, this case parallels the Hunt case and asserts a pattern of discrimination against African Americans, where African Americans were denied employment due to their race, in favor of Hispanic workers whom the client companies believed would acquiesce more readily to the poor pay and substandard working conditions.  As with Hunt, Plaintiffs allege that staff at MVP’s Waukegan office discriminated against them based on their race, in compliance with directives from MVP’s client companies.  Plaintiffs intend to seek certification this year of a class of African-American workers who sought work out of MVP’s Waukegan office, but were not assigned to certain client companies based on their race.

OTHER STAFFING AGENCY CASES

Cohen Milstein is also involved in several additional cases arising out of the Cicero area of Illinois:  Lucas v. Gold Standard Baking, Lucas v. Vee Pak, and Lucas v. Ferrara Candy Company.  Pending in the Northern District of Illinois, these cases provided the foundation for Hunt v. MVP and Pruitt v. MVP and raise the same allegations against MVP, several smaller staffing agencies, and the client companies for whom they provide work.  Plaintiffs in each of these cases—which are in various stages of litigation—are also represented by Cohen Milstein and the Workers’ Law Office in Chicago.

As Chicago laborer Brian Lucas stated about his involvement in these cases, “I just want the opportunity to work; I’m qualified and I need a job.  I just want them to pay attention and do better for the African American community.” 

Lucas v. Ferrara Candy Co.

Plaintiffs filed suit against Remedial Environmental Manpower, Inc. (REM Staffing), Labor Power, Inc., and Ferrara Candy Co.—the maker of lemonheads and several other popular candies—in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in 2013.  On November 29, 2016, the Court approved a settlement in this case, Lucas v. Ferrara Candy Co., for $1,500,000.00.  Potential Class Members should contact Christopher Williams of the Workers’ Law Office at 708-586-9529 with questions about the settlement.

Lucas v. Gold Standard Baking and Lucas v. Vee Pak

Contemporaneously with the Ferrara case, Plaintiffs also filed class action lawsuits against Gold Standard Baking, a prominent bakery in the Chicago area, and Vee Pak, a Johnson & Johnson supplier, in 2013.  Lucas v. Vee Pak, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, included allegations against MVP, Staffing Network, and Alternative Staffing, Inc. (ASI) in addition to MVP.  In 2016, Plaintiffs reached a settlement with ASI, which is pending before the Court.  Litigation against the remaining Defendants is ongoing.  In addition, Plaintiffs intend to seek class certification in Lucas v. Gold Standard Baking, filed in the same court, this year.