"Read this article and let me know what you think."
That short directive, with no other editorializing, came in an email recently from Paul Phipps, the editor of Staffing Talk. The article he wanted me to read is called Undocumented Life: Staffing agencies offer a rough option when a regular job is lost.
The piece was written by María Inés Zamudio, of The Chicago Reporter, an investigative news organization that publishes a website and bimonthly magazine examining the political, economic and social issues of metro Chicago with a focus on race and poverty.
First of all, let me say I love investigative journalism. I believe there is real value in serving the underserved, and giving a voice to those who might not otherwise have one.
As for my reaction to the piece? Well, for sure it doesn't paint a very flattering picture of the staffing business, beginning with the headline that denotes staffing jobs as being different (i.e., not as good) from "regular" jobs. And it uses a very broad brush in the body of the story. From a journalistic standpoint exclusively, I thought the reporting was sloppy and contained several unsubstantiated generalizations. However, they did a change a word in the original story following my email to the reporter and the editor. More on that later.
Yes, I did write an email kind of sticking up for the staffing industry. I also asked the reporter if she would share with me a data source, or sources, that would provide some affirmation and confirmation of some of the generalizations she stated as fact. I did not receive a reply. But here is my original email.
----Beginning of email---
Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2012 4:21 PM
Subject: Undocumented Indeed
I am one of the principal writers for Staffing Talk (www.http://staffingtalk.com), a blog site dedicated to exclusive coverage of the HR, recruiting and staffing space(s).
Our editor, Paul Phipps, sent me the link to your story and asked for "my reaction." My reaction is, "Wow, what did a staffing agency do to you that you went looking for a proverbial pound of flesh?" At any rate, I am going to write a piece in Staffing Talk about your story, and wanted to ask you a couple of things.
First, a little background. According to the American Staffing Association, there are some 17,000 staffing firms with 35,000 offices in the U.S., and they put nearly three million people to work every day. There are also approximately seven million "undocumented immigrants" in this country.
With that many illegals in the country, and in the workforce, and that many people being put to work by staffing agencies, are there going to be people working who shouldn't be? Of course. And I wouldn't even hazard a guess at the number.
Are some staffing agency owners douchebags? For sure. Are others out and out crooks operating their business with the intent to cheat and defraud and take advantage? I suppose so, though I don't think they are represented in any outsized way in relation to the general population. You also tend to read about those people in the paper eventually.
However, the vast majority of staffing agency owners I have met are small business people who are simply trying to survive with very small margins in a highly commoditized, highly competitive business, where those margins are constantly under attack and they are being squeezed from every conceivable direction.
Like you, I once held the notion that staffing agencies were a choice of last resort for both employee, as well as employer. That anyone who worked for, or with, a staffing agency simply had run out of "regular" options as you couch it.
That notion is outdated, to the the point of simply being inaccurate.
Some 66-percent of people who are employed by staffing agencies say flexible work time is important to them, and is one of the principal reasons they go the staffing agency route. Others like to"test drive" a company and so on.
Again, are there situations where workers are with a staffing agency not out of choice, but rather by necessity? Yes. Certainly. And workers without social security cards I'm sure feel like they are also missing some basic human rights, and are subject to cheating, harassment, etc., as outlined in your story.
But to say those things "are not unusual," by attributing, but not actually quoting, someone who used to work at some unknown, unnamed staffing agencies seems a bit loose at best.
You say "staffing agencies charge for filling out applications, transportation and parking -- among other things."
Really? As a matter of fact? Every staffing agency? Because that's how I read that line. How about inserting a qualifier, such as "some" staffing agencies do those things? They shouldn't, but again, no doubt some do, and shame on them for taking advantage of people who feel they can't say no to those things.
The next graph is the one I am most interested in asking about though, and there is an action item here. You write, staffing agencies "are liable for checking each worker's work authorization. But most don't. And most cases of abuse go unreported."
Those are very broad, sweeping statements, and I am curious about your source material for those statements. Perhaps you could point me to some piece of research or government statistic you used to affirm that most (how many exactly?) staffing agencies don't verify immigration status, as required by law, and punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In fact, I did a story last year about someone in your area who got busted. Clinton Perkins, who ran a pair of staffing agencies in Bensenville, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined $465,718 for using illegal aliens to form his temporary worker labor pool in the Chicagoland area.
The Chicago office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is quite active, and I'm sure your statement that most staffing agencies fail to verify whether someone can legally work in this country will be news to them. That office issued this statement at the time of Perkins' sentencing.
“Employers in all industries and locations must comply with the nation’s immigration laws if we are to have an effective immigration enforcement strategy in this country. ICE is committed to ensuring that employers are held accountable for maintaining a legal workforce. The goal of our enforcement effort is two-fold — reduce the demand for illegal employment and protect job opportunities for the nation’s lawful workforce.”
Are they able to catch and prosecute every unscrupulous staffing agency owner? No. But every single staffing agency owner knows they are subject to surprise visits from ICE at any time, and that if they have been sending undocumented workers to job sites, they can lose their business, their reputation, their bank account, as well as their freedom. That would serve as an incentive to me if I was a business owner.
I am not trying to pick on you in any way. As a longtime journalist, I believe wholly in the value of investigative reporting, and think that giving a voice to those who might now otherwise have one, such as Manuel, the subject of your staffing story, is a worthwhile reason for being.
But I also believe in fair, responsible, accurate journalism, and look forward to hearing about your research and statistics that formed the basis for your conclusions and generalizations for the staffing story.
David Gee for Staffing Talk
----End of email----
Okay, so as I said, I did not receive a reply from anyone. However, when I went to read the story again, just before writing this post, I notice they did change a word in the story. That line most staffing agencies do not check work authorization, has now been changed to many staffing agencies don't check. A nuanced, but certainly important, difference. So my email must have resonated/registered on some level.
Now it's your turn to sound off. What do you think of the original article?