Undocumented Life: Staffing agencies offer a rough option when a regular job is lost

Manuel worked in a factory for 22 years, but when it closed he had to re-enter the job market without an essential tool: a social security number.

Shortly after crossing the border illegally in the 1989, Manuel, not his real name, found work at InnerPac Inc. He described his job as "good, stable and with benefits." But when the company closed in February 2011 he was devastated.

"I lost everything," he said. "I couldn't even file for unemployment. I started looking for work right away but I couldn't find anything. I only found work at a restaurant where they paid me in cash."

He didn't work at the restaurant long. After a couple of weeks he was looking for work again. But most places asked for a social security card. A family friend told Manuel that a staffing agency in Little Village didn't ask for "papers."

The friend was right. Manuel arrived at 4 a.m. outside the agency. In a few minutes managers picked him to work for the day. He got into a van that drove him to a warehouse in Bolingbrook.  He worked there until 3 p.m. and was asked to come back. He continued working for the staffing agency for six months. 

He worked long hours, many for which he was never paid. He also had to pay $48 every week for the staffing agency's required transportation to the warehouse.

Manuel's experiences are not unusual, says Graciela Burgueno, an organizer with the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, who was a worker for several staffing agencies in Chicago.

In fact, some staffing agencies charge for filling out applications, transportation and parking--among other things. Since workers are only contracted to work day by day, they often tolerate many abuses, such as long hours, no overtime pay, abuse and sexual harassment.

These agencies, registered with the state, win bids with factories and warehouses to provide workers at a flat rate. They are liable for checking each worker's work authorization. But many don't. And most cases of abuse go unreported.

"If you report abuse or sexual harassment you run the risk of not being called again to work," she said. "Everyone knows that."

Many undocumented workers rely on these staffing agencies to find work because they have limited job opportunities, Burgueno said.

Manuel worked for the staffing agency in Little Village for six months, often working 60 hours a week earning minimum wage. But he only got paid for 40 hours. He never complained.

Instead, the 54-year old father kept looking. A friend told him about another staffing agency that didn't check immigration work authorization. He says the new agency is a little better because he doesn't have to pay for transportation. But this new agency continues to pay him 40 hours a week, but most weeks he works at least 48 hours.

"I don't make enough," he says. "I usually tap into my savings to pay for the mortgage and other bills."

Manuel came to Chicago after a recession forced him to close his small business in Mexico City. He brought his wife and three children--who are all now adults.

He's considering moving back to Mexico now because it has been so hard to find a stable job.

"My savings aren't going to last," he said. "Maybe I'll have better luck taking those savings and starting another business in Mexico."

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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