Do Chicago-Area Temp Agencies Discriminate Based On Race? A New Study Says Yes

help wanted sign
In this May 5, 2020 file photo, a help wanted sign in north suburban Lincolnshire is pictured. A new study documents racial discrimination in hiring among a sample of temp staffing agencies in the Chicago area. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
help wanted sign
In this May 5, 2020 file photo, a help wanted sign in north suburban Lincolnshire is pictured. A new study documents racial discrimination in hiring among a sample of temp staffing agencies in the Chicago area. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Do Chicago-Area Temp Agencies Discriminate Based On Race? A New Study Says Yes

Over the two decades that Angela Rand has, on and off, found employment through temporary hiring agencies in the Chicago region, she’s occasionally received treatment that she terms “odd.”

There was the first job, when she worked security at an airport with the expectation that she’d be moved into a higher-paying post in a more sensitive area of the facility.

“[I] never had a criminal background. [But] I failed my background fingerprint test,” recalled Rand, who is 41 and currently unemployed. Rand said when she redid the test, it showed that she had no criminal background. But she never received any explanation for why the incorrect result came back the first time.

“It gave me an odd feeling. I don’t want to necessarily say ‘discrimination,’ ” Rand said. “But I’m the only one with this problem? So it does kind of make you look and wonder ‘Well, why am I the only one going through this?’ ”

A new study is lending evidence to claims that have surfaced over the years through lawsuits and whistleblower complaints about racial discrimination in blue-collar temp agency hiring practices. The coalition behind the report, led by the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative and Warehouse Workers for Justice, conducted “matched pair” testing of a sampling of 60 Chicago-area temp agencies.

The study, employing methodology that has been used to document discrimination in housing and real estate practices, paired Black job applicants with Latinx applicants of the same gender, approximate age and work experience. These applicants would visit temp agencies separately to inquire about employment opportunities, then document the results.

The research found that two-thirds of the tested agencies engaged in racial discrimination, mainly practices that disfavored Black job applicants. It also found that more than 80% of jobs were offered to only one of the two paired candidates. And the only jobs that were offered exclusively to Black applicants were less desirable jobs, those offering the lowest pay or those scheduled for evening or overnight shifts.

“In the not-so-distant past, employers would put up signs saying ‘Black people need not apply,’ and it was accepted as normal,” said Sheila Maddali, co-director of the National Legal Advocacy Network. “Now that would be considered illegal, and so we don’t see these signs. But there are many people … that can tell you this practice very much continues to exist, of racial discrimination and expulsion.”

As of this month, there are 351 registered temp agencies in Illinois. Those agencies — due to a 2017 amendment to the state’s Temporary and Day Labor Services Act — are required to report the demographic details of their hires. Nonetheless, worker advocates say discrimination continues in the industry because candidates are weeded out early on, during the application phase of the hiring process, sometimes at the behest of the factory or warehouse employers that contract with the temp agencies.

“Companies are advising these staffing agencies that they want ‘hockey players’ — code for white workers, or ‘basketball players’ — code for Black workers, ‘heavy lifters’ — which is code for men, or ‘light lifters’ — code for women,” Maddali said. “And too often, the staffing agencies simply comply and the companies that they contract with skirt legal liability.”

The report comes during a time when a growing number of employers have turned to temp agencies to help fill gaps in their workforces due to layoffs forced by the pandemic. Unlike many other industries in the Chicago area, the employment services industry, which includes temp agencies, has grown over the past year. In the tri-state Chicago metropolitan area, the employment services industry lost 18% of its workers between March and April of 2020, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the industry has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, growing practically every month since last April and reaching roughly 163,000 workers in December.

The report recommends the creation of a Temp Agency Seal of Approval Program as one solution to the hiring and labor abuse issues that it identifies in the industry. Among the requirements would be that participating temp agencies would submit to third-party monitoring of hiring practices, and would build a complaints program for workers to raise issues without fear of retaliation. Members of the coalition behind the study said they hope to persuade county and municipal governments that utilize temp agencies to commit only to those that participate in the Temp Agency Seal of Approval Program.

To Rand, who most recently was among the “testers” for the study, the light that this study sheds on her own experiences has been a promising start.

“Absolutely they discriminate,” Rand said of temporary staffing agencies. “It’s giving a small person like me a bigger voice so that you see with your own eyes the discrimination we’ve been living through. I hope it helps.”

Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.