New Rules Could Turn More Immigrants Into Day Laborers

August 16, 2007

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Temp agencies like Four Boys could get busier.

The Department of Homeland Security last week announced rules requiring companies to fire workers who use false Social Security numbers. The department is promising to enforce those rules by imposing stiff fines on employers and stepping up workplace raids. In the Chicago area, the enforcement could affect hundreds of thousands of people without proper papers to be working in the United States. Many of them could find themselves working for a temporary agency. Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell reports.

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It's 4:30 a.m. in front of Four Boys Labor Service near Fullerton and Cicero. It won't be light out for another hour and a half. But young African American men and Latinos of many ages are already filing in.

WORKER: Nosotros ganamos el mínimo....
 
A 22-year-old from Mexico City says everyone at Four Boys earns minimum wage without benefits. And that's after spending as long as three hours in the waiting room for an assignment each day. Those conditions are not unusual at the 770 agencies the state of Illinois has licensed to provide companies with day laborers. The Mexican man says he started coming here a few months ago after losing a full-time job driving a forklift.

WORKER: En realidad, estuve trabajando bien....

He says that position included health insurance and sick days, but he admits applying for the job using a false Social Security number.

WORKER: Lo único que me dijeron fue de que los papeles no pueden....

All the company told him when it fired him, he says, is that he turned up on a no-match letter. The letters warn employers about workers whose Social Security number doesn't jibe with federal records. This year the Social Security Administration expects to send no-match letters covering 8 million workers. If the employers can't resolve the discrepancies, the new Homeland Security rules require them to terminate the workers. Enforcement could hit hard in Chicago industries ranging from hospitality to manufacturing, from food service to landscaping.

THEODORE: My guess is that they're going to find other ways around the law and that they're going to continue to try to find ways to employ the workers that have been working there..

The University of Illinois at Chicago's Nik Theodore studies the low-wage labor market.

THEODORE: For workers, they need to feed themselves and their families and make ends meet. Some will get pushed further into the shadows, where they're more open to wage-and-hour violations and health-and-safety violations -- basically jobs that do not have solid labor standards. In the Chicago area, we have a very large and vibrant contingent staffing industry. Some segments of that industry are very much above board and follow employment and labor laws and some don't.

The Staffing Services Association of Illinois says the 23 temp agencies comprising its membership are part of the former group.

COLE: In order to be a member of the Staffing Services Association, you must sign a code of ethics.

And Director Harvey Cole says the new no-match rules affect his agencies just like any other company.

COLE: They will follow the rules of Homeland Security and eventually be terminating employees. These people will go to look for jobs in venues that are not as rigorous in following the rules of the land.

Ambi: Dispatch room.

Four Boys is not a member of the association. Steve Kozin, one of the brothers who run the company, says they don't do interviews for broadcast. He assures us Four Boys complies with the law. Yet several signs in the waiting room warn workers they won't get paid for their hours if they fail to submit their application or what's known as the daily ticket. Other signs warn of fines for leaving food behind. And several employees told us they never get pay stubs documenting how many hours they've worked or where.

RODRIGUEZ: That would be a violation of not only the Day and Temporary Labor Services Act but also the Wage Payment and Collection Act.

Bert Rodriguez is the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Labor.

RODRIGUEZ: You know (laughs), with the information you're kind of telling me, I think we would go out and look for those types of issues.

But Rodríguez says his department doesn't generally start an investigation unless a worker files a complaint. And the department says it hasn't received any complaints about Four Boys for six years. Company employees and day-laborer advocates say there's a reason.

GLAZER: Four Boys is known as an agency that pays in cash.

Ariana Glazer directs the San Lucas Workers Center, a group nearby that helps temporary employees defend themselves. She admits there's nothing illegal about paying in cash and that most workers prefer it.

GLAZER: They get paid daily. They don't have to wait a whole week for a paycheck. They don't have to pay any fees to cash their check. And they're not getting their taxes taken out. So when their labor rights are violated, they would probably not say anything. They would just keep quiet and put up with the abuses.

Even if all temporary agencies followed labor laws, scholars like Nik Theodore say pushing more undocumented immigrants toward that kind of employment could drag down wages and safety standards for others.

THEODORE: Whenever we have a situation where workers are not able to aggressively and effectively fight for their rights in the workplace, where you have a group of workers that are living in fear, all workers suffer, especially those on the low end of the labor market.

The Social Security mismatch rules are set to take effect next month.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.