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Exploitation of blue-collar temps is targeted

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 14, 2011

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A growing number of temporary workers who take low-wage jobs in warehouses, food processing plants, and construction sites are being exploited because the employment agencies they work for are not regulated, according to a report being released today by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

These temp workers are dropped off at work sites with little information about the job, exposed to toxic chemicals without proper protection, and struggle to get medical treatment for on-the-job injuries, said the study. Some are paid less than minimum wage and often do not receive due overtime pay because both the agency and the employer split 40-plus-hour work weeks into two paychecks.

The Massachusetts House is considering a measure, supported by the Patrick administration and the attorney general’s office, that would bring temporary staffing agencies under the oversight of the state Department of Labor Standards; require those that employ blue-collar workers to provide written information to employees about safety, job details, and workers’ compensation; and streamline the registration process.

More detailed record-keeping will make it easier for the state to track companies and detect patterns of abuse, supporters say, and will provide proof of wages, hours, and employers’ names for workers claiming overtime or other pay.

“They need that paper trail to actually protect people from those labor violations,’’ said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Some members of the industry support additional regulation. “If companies pay the people cash or pay the people without tax deductions, it hurts me because there’s no way I can compete with the [lower] rates’’ they charge, said Jose Avila, general manager of Employment on Demand Agency Inc. in Chelsea.

The agency agreed to support the bill after workers told of improper payment and sexual harassment and threatened a protest, said Goldstein-Gelb.

Currently, only professional staffing firms that charge a fee to applicants, such as recruiting businesses that find jobs for executives, are regulated. Temp agencies, which employ janitors, landscapers, and warehouse workers and comprise most of the state’s commercial employment-agency business, only have to register their names and addresses.

“We have a lot of workers who are in effect laboring in the shadows,’’ said Harris Freeman, an associate professor at the Western New England University School of Law in Springfield and study coauthor. “Temporary staffing has been used by lots of low-wage industries to really create a second-class workforce.’’

Across the country, the number of blue-collar temporary workers has increased from 6 percent of the temp agency workforce in 1985 to more than 35 percent today, said the UMass report. In Massachusetts, about 25,000 temporary workers toil in low-wage jobs every day.

Fernando Mutz was polishing granite slabs at Discover Marble & Granite outside Worcester last summer when a piece of a blade broke off, lodged in his eye, and damaged his cornea. “I basically can’t open my left eye,’’ said Mutz, who is unable to work.

Mutz is receiving workers’ compensation, but because his main employer, the now-defunct temporary staffing agency Operation Management Group Inc., calculated the benefits on a 40-hour work week, instead of the 55 hours he normally worked, his payments are about $150 to $200 a week lower, said Diego Low, a coordinator at the Metrowest Worker Center who is helping Mutz try to recover wages.

Discover Marble declined to comment.

The lack of oversight also costs the state money in unpaid taxes and workers’ comp insurance. Last year, a Worcester temp agency owner pleaded guilty to paying workers $24 million in cash at below minimum wage, with no overtime. The state said it has received about 400 such complaints in the past few years.

Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.

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