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Marketplace Morning Report

African-Americans allege labor discrimination in Chicago

Jeff Tyler May 7, 2013
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Some African-Americans in Chicago are alleging discrimination by temp staffing companies. They report getting the runaround by companies that actively hire Latino immigrants.

Last summer, 38-year-old Billy Ray, who is African-American, filled out an application at a temp firm called Staffing Network. In fact, he says he filled it out more than once.

“My applications continue to come up missing. Every time I called, it was, like, ‘We don’t have your application,” says Ray.

Over several months, he began to notice.

“Other Hispanics would get hired before I would,” says Ray.

He did get a temp job in a warehouse through Staffing Network. Ray says there were more than a hundred Latino workers but only five or six African-Americans.

It’s often said that Latino immigrants will do the jobs that Americans don’t want. So I asked Ray: What about the perception that African-Americans don’t really want these minimum-wage jobs?

“Oh no,” says Ray. “They definitely want them.” Ray says it’s the temp staffing companies that don’t want African-American workers. He believes they prefer Latinos.

Ray has filed a complaint alleging racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Others have also reported discrimination by temp firms. Reginald Hudson, 45, started filling out applications at temp agencies in January. He has 17 years of experience in construction, with certificates to show he can operate heavy machinery.

He says the staffing firms would make excuses and tell him to come back another time to fill out an application. Hudson was allowed to fill out an application at Staffing Network. But after several months of waiting, he has yet to be offered a job. Hudson believes he is the victim of discrimination. But he’s not ready to give up on the temp staffing industry.

“I ain’t gave up on the temp agencies. Not yet. Hopefully, something’s bound to slip through,” says Hudson.

Hudson and Ray are working with Chris Williams, an employment lawyer in Chicago.

“I’ve filed three law suits just recently alleging that African-Americans are denied, in some instances, even the ability to apply for a job,” says Williams.

A campaign called Bringing Down Barriers created a test. It sent two men to apply for jobs at the same temp firm: One African-American, one Latino.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of African-Americans told to come back in two or three weeks, try filling it out on the Internet. Whereas the Latino might be told to call back in a few hours; you might get work later on. Or something like that,” says Brandon Ford, an organizer of the experiment.

The questions remains, why would temp firms prefer immigrant Latino workers?

“We believe that many of the agencies feel African-Americans are a threat, because they’re more likely to complain if they feel they were shorted pay, if they got injured and were not allowed to fill-out a workers’ comp case, they’re more likely to complain,” says Leone Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.

Staffing Network did not respond to requests for a comment.

Billy Ray eventually found work at another temp firm where he makes minimum wage.

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