Top job placement firm sued for alleged bias against blacks

A national job-placement firm discriminated against blacks in favor of Hispanic workers to comply with racially based criteria of companies seeking temporary workers in factories, on assembly lines or for other low-skilled positions, a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of several African-Americans alleges.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, says that Personnel Staffing Group LLC and its clients used code words to distinguish races and to disguise racially guided decisions that could be deemed violations of federal civil rights law, including by referring to blacks as "guapos," which means "pretty boys" in Spanish, and to Hispanics as "bilinguals."

The filing describes the temporary employment sector as one of the fastest growing in the country, saying there are more than 300 temp agencies with over 900 offices in Illinois alone.

Some companies that use temporary workers seek to get around anti-discrimination laws by relying on job-placement agencies, a Tuesday statement from lawyers and activists announcing the litigation contended. The practice was akin to companies asking agencies "to launder their overt discrimination," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, a general counsel for the National Employment Law Project.

Personnel Staffing Group LLC, which was incorporated in Florida and also goes by MVP and MVP Staffing, has more than 60 offices in nearly 40 states. The lawsuit cites instances of alleged bias by one of its branch offices in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. Multiple messages seeking comment from a head office of Personnel Staffing Group just outside Chicago were not returned.

The 33-page lawsuit was filed on behalf of five African-American laborers, and seeks class certification to cover potentially thousands of black people allegedly denied work based on race. It names Personnel Staffing Group and seven client firms, saying they bear joint responsibility "for the pattern or practice of excluding or severely restricting job assignments for African-American laborers."

Agency workers would be instructed through "thinly-veiled stereotypes," including references to street gangs or types of clothes, to convey the message that certain clients did not want African-Americans sent to job sites, the lawsuit said. Some firms who did not want blacks would allegedly return documentation on a specific black laborer after one day marked: "Do Not Return."

A sworn statement from one former agency employee filed along with the lawsuit said that Personnel Staffing Group managers would warn subordinates to not send African-Americans to clients who said they didn't want blacks "because MVP could lose the account if I did."

Another former agency employee alleged that superiors instructed staff to lie to black people that there was a "hiring freeze" at a company they inquired about. When some staffers complained and said that would be illegal, the manager responded "that this is what the customer wants, so it is on them, not us," the former employee alleged in her statement.

Some companies, the suit said, claimed blacks were more likely to complain about low pay or work-safety issues and said those were reasons for preferring Hispanics. It also says that in instances where blacks got jobs, they were often offered less desirable work. The filing cited one example of African-Americans working in a hot oven room of a bakery, where some became overwhelmed by the heat and collapsed.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order barring all the companies from the alleged racial screening.