‘Seal of approval’ sought to curb abuses at temporary staffing firms

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Fredy Amador said his more than 10 years of getting factory work through temporary staffing agencies has taught him something about a culture of fear.

He said he’s seen numerous abuses, such as agencies charging workers for their own background or credit checks, pay being less than what’s promised and assignments doled out with preferences for race or gender.

An Illinois law passed in 2017, designed to rein in abuses, was widely hailed as one of the toughest in the country aimed at temp agencies. But Amador said conditions for workers “are only getting worse and worse.”

The law’s effect is minimal because, he said: “People are afraid to complain. They don’t want to lose their job.”

So Amador, a Waukegan resident, is helping a coalition of workers’ rights groups start a program to build on the legislation. It would create a voluntary “seal of approval” system, administered by the state Labor Department, to certify temp firms that comply with the law.

It’s a carrot-and-stick approach that would give temp agencies an incentive to be responsible, with fines under the law if they aren’t. Worker advocates said they will ask local governments to mandate that contractors use only those agencies that carry the seal.

From there, they hope companies that use temp agencies extensively will get on board.

Sophia Zaman, executive director of Raise the Floor, a Chicago-based coalition of worker centers, said the odds are stacked against responsible temp agencies. “They are constantly being undercut by the low-road employers whose business model is to cheat workers where they can,” she said.

Still, Tim Bell, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, said the seal-of-approval program “will give workers a lot of say over what conditions are.” The seal has the support of many nonprofits, but also backing from “socially responsible” for-profit temp agencies, Bell said.

“They see this as a game-changer,” he said. “This gives the good agencies a chance to market themselves and get work.”

Not so keen on the idea is the Staffing Services Association of Illinois, representing about 20 independently owned agencies based in the state. Spokesman Dan Shomon said a seal of approval is unneeded given the 2017 law, which passed with the industry’s support.

“Our association is dedicated to helping our workers and making them successful,” Shomon said. Of the critics, he said: “These groups have agendas and they like to litigate. They don’t get anyone jobs.”

John Hess, president of Hess Advantage in McHenry County, said he favors a seal of approval. Hess, who provides back office services to for-profit and nonprofit temp agencies, said, “It does add credibility to a lot of organizations that are mission-driven. And I think there’s no doubt that there are some bad players in the industry.”

Shomon countered that if abuses are still rampant, they aren’t showing up in complaint records of the state Labor Department. “They’ve had fewer than a handful over the last five years,” Shomon said. A spokesman for the agency did not reply to requests for comment.

The fear of reprisal still pervades the temp workforce, said George Rapidis, a former research intern for the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative. While at Roosevelt University, he was involved in a 2018 survey of 120 temp workers in the Chicago area. The survey found that 46 percent feared retaliation.

Most in the survey reported common violations such as not getting the legally required four hours of “show up pay” when they are sent to a job site, only to arrive to find there is no work for them.

“This group of laborers isn’t living paycheck to paycheck. They’re trying to make ends meet day to day,” Rapidis said.

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