Temp Agency Accused of Honoring Clients’ Racial Preferences

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By Patrick Dorrian

Dec. 6 — MVP Staffing unlawfully honored clients’ coded requests not to send them black workers for temporary assignments, a federal lawsuit alleges ( Hunt v. Pers. Staffing Grp., LLC , N.D. Ill., No. 1:16-cv-11086, class complaint 12/6/16 ).

The lawsuit targets discrimination in hiring, which generally is difficult to detect, Joseph M. Sellers, one of the lawyers representing the proposed class, told Bloomberg BNA. Unlike bias against employees who already are working for a company, unsuccessful job applicants often have no way of knowing if they weren’t hired for discriminatory reasons, said Sellers, a partner in Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington.

The case is also important, he said Dec. 6, because it involves the relationship between a staffing agency and seven of its clients and the issue of customer preference discrimination. The seven clients are all large industrial manufacturers that could have done the hiring themselves but turned to the Cicero, Ill., office of Personnel Staffing Group LLC, which does business as MVP, for help, Sellers said.

That was understandable given that the companies were looking to contract large numbers of laborers on a daily basis and their needs might shift from day to day, Sellers added. However, what they really ended up doing was effectively contracting out their discriminatory preferences, he said. “That’s equally unlawful,” Sellers said.

The lawsuit also names the seven client companies as co-defendants with MVP, asserting that they are “joint employers” with the temporary staffing agency.

The problem of customer preference discrimination and other types of employment bias in the staffing industry also has been a focus of federal enforcement authorities for a number of years. Moreover, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission signaled in October its intent to increase its scrutiny of temporary workers, staffing agencies, independent contractor relationships, joint employment and the on-demand or “gig” economy when it added the emerging issues relating to “complex employment relationships” in the contemporary workplace to its strategic enforcement priorities for fiscal years 2017 through 2021.

Coded Language Allegedly Used by MVP Clients

The class complaint against MVP alleges the company sent its clients Hispanic job seekers rather than black applicants whenever they sought low and moderately skilled laborers. The clients indicated their discriminatory preferences by using coded language, including Spanish words describing black applicants as unwilling to do “dirty work” and Hispanic applicants as “dirty ones” willing to do such work, says the complaint, filed Dec. 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Client companies the Segerdahl Corp.; Mercury Plastics Inc.; MPS Chicago Inc., doing business as Jet Litho; the Penray Cos.; Advertising Resources Inc., doing business as ARI Packaging; Lawrence Foods Inc.; and Blommer Chocolate Co. are named as co-defendants based on their alleged roles in the pattern or practice of race discrimination against black applicants. The pattern of race bias has been occurring since at least December 2012, according to the complaint.

The five named plaintiffs sued under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. § 1981) on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated black laborer applicants. The five named plaintiffs were never or rarely referred by MVP to any of the seven clients, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks certification of a single class based on the actions of MVP’s Cicero office, with separate subclasses for each named client company.

In addition to following its clients’ coded discriminatory preferences, MVP itself screened out black laborers for working for the seven companies, as the Cicero branch manager said she didn’t want candidates who looked “gang related,” had tattoos or wore their pants hanging low, the complaint asserts. Moreover, the majority of the Cicero office’s job advertisements for work with the seven client companies were placed exclusively in Spanish-language publications and the office focused its recruitment efforts on predominantly Latino neighborhoods, according to the complaint.

On the rare occasions when black applicants were referred to any of the seven client companies, they were given “the worst jobs with the most unpleasant working conditions” and weren’t invited back for a second day, the complaint alleges.

Class Got Help From Whistle-Blowers

Sellers told Bloomberg BNA that discrimination in the application process is one of the hardest forms of job bias to detect and that it usually “can elude detection for quite some time.”

But here, a couple of the class members suspected discrimination and watched the activities of the Cicero office, Sellers said. Moreover, the class received help from some “whistle-blowers” who confirmed the class’s allegations, he said.

The whistle-blowers are former MVP dispatchers, drivers and on-site representatives, according to the complaint.

They state that MVP was directed by the client companies not to assign their company black laborers.

Other Cases, Investigations

Each of the named plaintiffs filed a charge with the EEOC and the agency is still conducting its own investigation, Sellers said. The enforcement agency’s interests are aligned with the class’s, and some of the whistle-blowers have been made available to the EEOC, he said.

Sellers also said that his firm is involved in three other similar cases in the Northern District of Illinois, including two in which MVP’s Cicero office is a named defendant. Those cases, however, don’t involve all seven of the client companies sued here, he said.

This case is unique in that “we’re trying to bring in the same room” all parties, Sellers said. Otherwise, the staffing company will just blame its client and the client will deny any blame, he said. “We’re trying to avoid those finger-pointing exercises,” Sellers said.

The complaint also hints at wider-spread bias in the staffing industry, Sellers said. He said “we’re not trying to indict a whole category of companies,” but staffing firms that honor their clients' discriminatory preferences are guilty of bias just as much as if the bias had originated with them.

He said some of the litigation in the other pending cases “turned up” some of the evidence of wider-spread bias, but he was noncommittal when asked if more lawsuits against staffing firms and their customers were on the horizon.

The temporary staffing industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the contemporary job market and there are more than 300 temporary staffing agencies, with more than 900 branches in Illinois alone, the complaint says.

Shaylyn Cochran and Miriam R. Nemeth of Cohen Milstein and Christopher J. Williams and Alvar Ayala of Workers’ Law Office in Chicago also represent the proposed class.

MVP told Bloomberg BNA Dec. 6 that no one was available to comment on the lawsuit.

Mercury Plastics’ director of materials management group, David Goldman, told Bloomberg BNA that his company had “no comment” on the class’s allegations.

Segerdahl, MPS Chicago, the Penray Cos., ARI Packaging, Lawrence Foods and Blommer Chocolate didn’t respond Dec. 6 to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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