Chicago — Sara Rangel was making more than $11 an hour working in a stockroom when the recession hit and she was laid off. Afterward, she began applying for temporary jobs through staffing agencies with the goal of landing a permanent position.
Five years later, Rangel, 47, is being paid $2 less an hour for the same work she did before the recession, and sees herself pigeonholed as a temporary employee with little chance of finding permanent employment.
"It's sad to realize that you can only get jobs through staffing agencies," she said.
Companies hit hard by the recession have been hesitant to make permanent hires, even as the economy and their prospects have improved. Instead, many have continued to outsource hiring to staffing agencies, which supply temporary workers at low wages and without benefits. Manufacturers, in particular, like the arrangement because it reduces their labor costs and staffing can be quickly adjusted to meet demand for parts or products.
But labor advocates like Tim Bell, senior organizer of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, said staffing agencies also act as gatekeepers for companies, essentially hiring people who keep their heads down and don't complain about working conditions, pay or safety issues.
Lawyers representing African-Americans in lawsuits against staffing agencies and companies in Chicago say the gatekeeping also tends to give preference to Latinos over African-Americans.
Employment discrimination claims against private employment agencies, a category that includes staffing agencies, are on the rise, according to the Illinois Department of Human Rights. Such complaints doubled to 49 in fiscal 2013 from 2009, the state agency said.
Meanwhile, the quest to obtain permanent higher-paying jobs remains elusive for many people.
Businesses typically make permanent hires once they are confident with the economy, but they have not reached that point, said Richard Wahlquist, chief executive of the American Staffing Association, which represents 1,700 staffing agencies throughout the U.S. In the interim, staffing agencies prepare workers for permanent employment, he said.
"It's part of the tale of what happens coming out of a recession," Wahlquist said.
Permanent workers tend to be trained by their employers. But the federal Department of Labor said many temporary employees are sent to factory jobs without proper training, which has led to injuries and deaths. A lawsuit in a Chicago-area court says Carlos Centeno Sr., 50, a temporary worker, wasn't adequately trained or protected in November 2011 when he was severely burned while using a cleaning solution of citric acid and hot water to clean a tank at Raani, a Bedford Park maker of health and beauty products. The solution, which was heated to more than 170 degrees, erupted from the tank, spraying and scalding Centeno who, according to the suit filed in 2012, wasn't provided protective gear including goggles and chemical-resistant gloves.
Afterward, Centeno, who suffered burns over 80 percent of his body, was kept at the factory for more than 30 minutes as a staffer filled out paperwork, the suit said. Centeno, a father of four, demanded an ambulance and his skin began peeling off, according to the suit. His managers did not wash him off in an available safety shower and also failed to call 911, the Labor Department said.
One of Centeno's co-workers drove him to a local occupational health clinic, according to the Labor Department. He died three weeks later.
Payroll documents filed with the court show Centeno was paid minimum wages, grossing $340 for a 40-hour week. He is not unlike other workers desperate for temporary work. Many line up as early as 4:30 a.m. at spots on the city's southwest side and surrounding suburbs. Vans collect laborers and transport them to temporary factory jobs.
Maurice Massey, 37, said the waiting for jobs and the disappointments never end.
When he does land a job, Massey said, he must call the staffing agency at the end of his shift to check whether he's scheduled to work the following day. And even when he's scheduled to work the next day, it doesn't necessarily mean he can count on that job.
Massey said he occasionally has been left stranded outside factories because the agency has sent more than enough people for the available jobs. When that has happened, Massey said, he has had to wait until the end of the shift, when the agency's van returns to pick up those who have worked.
Rangel, the stockroom worker, said at the end of a job placement she returns to the staffing agencies and waits in line. Often days go by without an assignment. And sometimes at midweek, she said she finds herself still waiting and fighting the urge to leave.
"I've said to myself, 'I don't want this. I have to find a way to find something better,'" she said.
At the same time, Rangel said, she reminds herself she has no options. "You can't knock on doors anymore."