They are day and temporary laborers, and worker advocates in Illinois say the unscrupulous employment practices of some of the staffing agencies that hire them have been spiraling out of control -- in spite of legislation passed in 2000 to keep the industry in check.
"Say a worker loses a hand," said Tim Bell, executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, a day laborer advocacy group. "What some day labor agencies would do is tell the worker, 'Here's $5,000, and here's a plane ticket back to Mexico. Go open up a business.' That's standard operating procedure for these [agencies.]"
In other cases, injured workers simply are dismissed by the staffing agency, according to Illinois Rep. Cynthia Soto, a Chicago Democrat.
Worker safety advocates are hoping that alleged labor abuses will be stamped out by House Bill 3471, which Soto sponsored and the Illinois House and Senate approved in late May. State officials say the bill gives some much-needed enforcement teeth to the Day Labor and Temporary Labor Service Act of 2000 by ratcheting up the penalties for labor law violations and tightening the registration requirements for day and temporary labor agencies.
According to Bell, those agencies provide temporary work to as many as 500,000 Illinois workers, many of whom are Latino.
"If the law were in effect now, you'd have a lot of agencies that would owe millions and millions in fines," Bell said. At press time, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had not signed the bill into law, although he has been a supporter of the bill and is expected to sign it.
State Sen. Miguel del Valle, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the Day Labor and Temporary Labor Services Act of 2000, said this latest bill essentially is an amendment that strengthens his original act, which was the first of its kind in Illinois to regulate day labor agencies.
The senator said that day labor advocacy groups such as the Chicago Workers' Collaborative -- which involved day laborers throughout the process -- and community organizations "that did not exist at the time I established the Day Labor Act" played a lead role in crafting the new legislation with del Valle. The Illinois Staffing Association, a trade association for temporary staffing firms, also took a seat at the negotiating table, del Valle said, as "they realized the bad apples were the ones messing up the reputation of the industry."
Still, del Valle stressed that worker advocacy groups and day laborers were the drivers of the legislation, and added that because the bill was created at such a "grassroots" level it could become a template for other states' laws governing temporary or day labor agencies.
"I have to tell you, I haven't heard of any other state doing what we've done here, especially in involving the day laborers themselves in the process of coming up with the legislation," del Valle said. "I'd like to think that in many respects we're unique here in Illinois, and that other states will follow our lead. That's something I've been saying all along."
Agencies Must Have Workers' Comp Coverage
Among its workplace safety provisions, H.B. 3471 requires day labor agencies to show proof of workers' compensation insurance in order to be registered with the Illinois Department of Labor. Not only does this stipulation help workers, but it also puts fly-by-night temp agencies that flout labor laws "on the same playing field" with other law-abiding staffing agencies, Bell said.
"A lot of agencies don't have workers' compensation insurance," Bell said. "The ones that don't have it underbid the agencies that do."
Day labor agencies and the businesses that hire them both will be on the hook if an agency operates without proper registration, Bell added: The new bill subjects both parties to fines of up to $500 per day for each day the agency operates unregistered.
The new law also establishes "a clear relationship between agencies and employers" when it comes to being held accountable for workplace safety for day laborers, Bell said.
"If there's an accident that happens at a company, liability is on both parties, not just on the temp agency," he said. Previously, the day labor agency was solely responsible for keeping workers safe, which provided client companies "no incentives" to maintain safe conditions.
H.B. 3471 forbids day labor agencies from charging workers for the costs of transportation between the agency and the job site and mandates that transportation provided by agencies meet basic safety requirements.
Soto explained that some agencies "try to jam more than 14 people into these extended vans," which often lack enough working safety belts for everyone. The new bill requires drivers hired by day labor agencies to have a valid license and forbids the use of vehicles that do not have "a seat and a safety belt for each passenger," according to the legislation.
Increased Fines, Fees Will Pay for More Inspectors
While some of the rules contained within the new bill carry over from the Day Labor and Temporary Labor Services Act of 2000, even the existing laws now pack an enforcement punch: For all violations other than the aforementioned failure to meet registration requirements, first-time violators are subject to fines of up to $6,000 and repeat offenders are subject to fines of up to $2,500 per violation per day.
Those stiffer penalties, combined with registration fees that have increased from $250 to $1,000 per agency and from no fee to $250 per branch office, should help deter fly-by-night agencies from abusing the system, lawmakers say. But the ramped up penalties and fees serve another purpose: to help with "the cost of implementing and enforcing the law," del Valle said.
The new bill stipulates that the money raised by the registration fees assessed to the state's 150 day and temporary labor agencies and their 600 branch offices -- which doesn't even include what state officials believe is a large number of unlicensed agencies -- is to be funneled into a fund that will beef up the Department of Labor's enforcement ranks, del Valle said.