Temporary staffing agencies in Illinois encourage unsafe working conditions and a culture of not reporting accidents to cut costs and keep insurance premiums low, a new study found. But those cost-saving tactics come at a hefty price: Their employees’ health and safety.
The Urban and Diversity Program at University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health and Chicago Worker's Collaborative released a report where they surveyed temporary staffing agencies and deemed 12 of them “the worst offenders” in the state.
Rosa Ramirez has been working on and off for Paramount Staffing for five years. When she was on a manufacturing line making filters in 2010, she tore the tendons in both of her shoulders.
"I felt very tired but I didn't pay attention. It wasn't until the next day that I noticed something was wrong," Ramirez told The Chicago Reporter in Spanish. "I couldn't lift my arms. I couldn't do my hair or get dressed."
Ramirez, who is undocumented and has been working in the staffing agency industry for more than 10 years, went to a community clinic because she didn't have insurance. She later went to a hospital where she was told she needed surgery. When she went to Paramount Staffing to report the accident, she said the managers refused to pay.
The Reporter spoke with Moises Vega, manager of Paramount Staffing last Wednesday. He refused to comment stating he needed permission to speak to the media. He promised to answer questions Thursday. The Reporter followed up on Thursday and the company refused to answer questions.
One of Thousands
There are many workers like Ramirez who get injured on the job and don't report it for fear of retaliation from staffing agencies, labor activists say.
Around 300,000 workers are employed by temporary staffing agencies around Illinois and many are immigrant workers, according to the report. These workers are more vulnerable, said the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, a non-profit group that pushes for better working conditions for low-wage and temporary workers.
“These immigrant workers, both documented and undocumented, are often times the first choice for temporary hire since they may be unlikely to get work anywhere else,” the reported stated. “This may be due to many factors including: Lack of proper legal documents, education, and job and language skills.”
Many companies may prefer to hire temporary workers through third-party agencies because they are not liable to pay for worker's compensation. In practice, though, this can lead to unsafe working conditions because companies have less incentive to maintain workplace standards or provide safety training, labor activists say.
Because middlemen hire all employees, the client companies who use them to hire workers have less incentive to keep workplace conditions safe, explained Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative.
The client company does not have to pay workers compensation, but the staffing agency does. This pressures the agency to “keep costs low to make a profit, and they encourage workers to not report an accident,” Bicchieri said.
Larger companies may turn a blind eye to unsafe practices that keep costs down by cutting corners, while workers are discouraged from reporting incidents or seeking worker’s compensation.
This kind of hiring practice is seen all over the world, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) because it benefits the client company as contract labor is “an effective way to avoid employer responsibilities.”
It’s the kind of system that keeps international companies like Apple and H&M from taking responsibility for sweat shops – their production line is run by a middle man, who takes on responsibility for unsafe conditions that ultimately keep production costs low. In the case of temporary staffing agencies, depending upon the location, temporary employees may have more rights than contract workers, but the same sort of relationship applies, say the ILO.
Breaking the Silence
Typical workplace conditions for temporary workers in Chicago were reported as unsafe or unsanitary with “slippery floors covered in grease, oil, water and other substances, limited ventilation, temperatures that were either unbearably hot or too cold and lots of dust and debris everywhere,” according to the report.
The report only lists 12 top offenders and Bicchieri said that may not tell the full story.
Organizations like the Chicago Workers Collaborative still need to tackle the problem of underreporting, which perpetuates the cycle of unsafe working conditions.
“A particular company may look OK because it’s number 30 or 40 on the list,” Bicchieri said. “Is that because they don’t have accidents or do a particularly good job at encouraging workers to not report accidents?”
Whether a company is self-insured can provide some indication of accident performance. Bicchieri said companies are often times self-insured because insurance carriers will no longer take them on due to the number of claims.
“When you’re self-insured, in our experience, it’s normally because a few or no insurances will take you on board, in other words they are so concerned because of your accident record they won’t insure you,” he said. “So you end up becoming self-insured, and end up posting a certain amount of money you can use for accidents.”
Bicchieri said many workers do not speak up for fear of being reprimanded by the staffing agency, though doing so could prevent future accidents.
"When I reported my injury they told me I didn't work there," Ramirez said. "I just want justice."
After the staffing agency refused to pay for Ramirez’s treatment, she was able to get help through the worker’s collaborative. She’s since had surgery on her shoulders, but she’s still looking for compensation.
Despite her struggles, she refuses to stay quiet.
"People think that just because they are undocumented they have no rights," she said. "We do have rights and at the end if they (staffing agencies) want to fire us they will find any excuse."
By Erin Hale
-- Contributing Maria Ines Zamudio