Race-based Hiring Practices Part of Systemic Discrimination in Job Placement Industry across United States
Several African-American workers filed a class action lawsuit today 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 only on black workers and suggesting that African-Americans were less desirable employees because they were more likely to complain about workplace safety. The 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. According to the complaint, 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 the requests. In fact, the complaint references a former MVP employee who reported being disciplines by management for referring African-American laborers to MVP client companies known to not accept African-American workers.
“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 of 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 representing the plaintiffs. “These discriminatory practices are not only illegal but also emotionally and financially devastating to individuals, families and communities.”
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.
“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.”
The class action suit filed today details a calculated effort by MVP to recruit Latino workers over African-American workers: MVP placed paid advertisements only in Spanish-language publications in the Chicago area; free transportation was provided to the Cicero office only from Latino communities; job trainings and instructional videos were frequently made available only in Spanish. MVP and its client companies also allegedly maintained a system to ensure African-American laborers could be easily terminated, marking them “DNR,” for Do Not Return, within hours of their assignments or at the end of their first shift.
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.” Another MVP employee detailed one hiring mechanism for Hispanics and another for African-Americans: Hispanics were immediately given applications, entered into an MVP database and routinely called for work; African-Americans were often denied applications and asked to return to the Cicero location on other days – often as early as 4:00 a.m. – in hopes of finding work.
In the rare instances that MVP did send African-Americans to work for clients, it was often to fill less-desirable jobs. For a Chicago-area bakery that relied on MVP for staffing, “African-American laborers were disproportionately assigned to work in the oven room, where laborers are required to work in excessive heat,” said an MVP Onsite Supervisor last year, noting that several laborers in this position collapsed while working in the heat.
As alleged in the lawsuit, MVP would use code words to communicate with clients about their preference for Hispanic workers over African Americans. It was allegedly common for these conversations to involve code words such as “guapos” (translated as “pretty ones”) to refer to African Americans and “feos” (translated as “dirty or ugly ones”) or “bilingues” (translated as “bilinguals”) to refer to Hispanic individuals. According to one MVP employee, the staffing firm would not assign work to any individuals who “look gang-related.”
Accounts of systemic discrimination similar to MVP have been reported in at least two dozen temp agencies across the country. Researchers, industry insiders and watchdogs recognize that discrimination is a significant and growing problem among temporary staffing agencies nationwide. In fact, one study even found discrimination against black job applicants two-thirds of the time at temp agencies.
Companies are increasingly turning to temp agencies to handle many of their workforce responsibilities, like hiring, wage and benefits management and compliance with health, safety and anti-discrimination laws. Intense competition between staffing agencies forces firms to cut corners and costs, placing downward pressure on wages and working conditions. This is especially true for temporary workers, often a highly vulnerable population.