New bill would increase temp worker protections

Even as the economy has improved, workers nationwide struggle to find traditional, full-time jobs. Illinois’ proposed law would increase safety protections for temp workers and track how many moved into permanent jobs.

By Michael Grabell
ProPublica

An Illinois lawmaker is set to introduce a bill in the state legislature today to increase protections for the growing army of temporary workers.

The bill was prompted in part by a 2013 ProPublica investigation that highlighted the instability and dangers faced by temp workers nationwide and comes as President Donald Trump begins to address the economic anxieties that helped propel him to the Oval Office.

Trump’s economic plans have focused on the effects of trade deals, but he has said little about other forces affecting blue-collar workers, such as the growth in temporary and contract jobs. His nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, and others leading the transition have been outspoken opponents of regulation of the “gig” economy or policies that would hold large employers, like fast-food restaurants, responsible for what happens to temp and franchise workers.

But there is significant evidence that some of the economic angst is caused by workers’ struggles to find traditional, full-time work even as the unemployment rate has returned to historic lows. A study released last year found that nearly all of the net employment growth from 2005 to 2015 occurred in alternative work arrangements, such as contract, temp and on-call jobs. Meanwhile, the share of people who want full-time jobs, but can only find part-time work remains higher than it was before the recession. And for people in many metropolitan areas, it’s extremely difficult to find factory or warehouse work without first going through a temp agency.

ProPublica’s investigation found that temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than regular workers and that some temps work for years at the same company for less pay without getting full-time positions.

The Illinois bill, called the Responsible Job Creation Act, would require that temp workers receive the same wages and benefits as employees hired directly by a company — a policy that’s common in most of the developed world, but unheard of in the United States. In fact, Illinois is already one of the few states that have laws protecting temp workers. A ProPublica analysis of international economic data found that the United States has some of the weakest labor protections for temp workers among major economies.

“Much of the economy is being outsourced and workers’ income is unstable,” said Tim Bell, director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, which advocates for temp workers. “What this bill does is it tries to increase the incentive for workers to be hired directly by companies.”

Sponsored by Rep. Carol Ammons, a Democrat from Champaign-Urbana, the bill calls for increased safety requirements for temp agencies and their client companies and would require temp agencies to track how many workers move from temporary to permanent jobs each year. The staffing industry often promotes temp work as a way for companies to try out new employees and for inexperienced workers to get a foot in the door. But labor advocates say temp agencies charge high fees to employers who want to hire their temps, creating a disincentive for firms to create full-time jobs.

“People need permanent jobs,” Ammons said in an interview Tuesday. “They need stability and they need essential security for their families.”

Dan Shomon, a lobbyist for the Staffing Services Association of Illinois — a membership group of light industrial staffing agencies that fights “unnecessary regulations” — declined to comment.

Another part of the bill would require staffing firms to track race, gender and ethnicity of job applicants. Last year, the investigative news organization Reveal found that companies sometimes direct temp agencies to filter out African Americans or assign work based on gender. Last fall, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a new focus on temp worker discrimination. It’s unclear whether that will continue under the Trump administration.

White House and Labor Department officials did not return calls or emails for comment.

One of the Obama administration’s top labor priorities was cracking down on employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors and holding large businesses responsible for the pay and conditions of their subcontractors and franchise employees. In speech after speech, Obama administration staffers spoke about the urgency to address what one top labor official called the “fissured workplace.”

Trump’s labor nominee seems have different views. As CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains, Puzder criticized a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that could make McDonald’s responsible for wage violations at its franchise restaurants and make it easier for workers across the brand to unionize.

Though Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration drew attention to the dangers faced by temp workers, horrific accidents have continued. In June, 20-year-old Regina Elsea was crushed to death by a robot at a Kia and Hyundai auto parts supplier in Alabama.

The accident was similar to that of Day Davis, who was featured in ProPublica’s investigation of temp worker safety. Davis, 21, was crushed to death in 2012 at a Bacardi bottling plant in Florida — 90 minutes into the first day of the first job of his life.

The new bill faces mixed chances in the heavily Democratic Illinois legislature. While many lawmakers support policies benefiting workers and unions, a bill that focused on temp worker discrimination died in 2015. And legislative leaders have been locked in a long battle with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner over the budget.

Fredy Amador, a 34-year-old temp worker from Waukegan, said he hopes that Trump will pursue policies that encourage full-time employment. Amador, who worked for five years in a quality control lab at a popcorn factory, said workers employed by the factory made nearly twice as much as he did.

“We have to do it this way,” he said, “because a lot of companies don’t want to hire anyone right now because they have all these temp agencies around.”

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