In 2015, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office sued several employment agencies in Chicago’s Chinatown area. The unlicensed agencies, run by Chinese immigrants, were alleged to have participated in a scheme to illegally exploit and discriminate against Mexican immigrants. The agencies referred employees to work in restaurants across the Midwest in places as distant as Wisconsin. There, the workers were paid substandard wages and subject to constant harassment and unreasonable work requirements. The agency itself forced employees to pay a $100 transportation fee and a $100 flat fee when they began working. The agency charged employers an additional amount, which the employers recouped from their employees paychecks.
The AG alleged that the agencies’ advertisements placed in Chinese-language newspapers were illegal in that they specifically offered Mexican labor and did not offer the possibility of the hire of people of other races or ethnicities. The restaurants involved settled with the state. The settlement included back pay to employees referred by the agency and penalties assessed by the AG. The agency had to cease operations and were found to have engaged in discriminatory practices in advertising.
This case illustrates a variety of issues in employment law that can affect workers in any industry.
Discriminatory advertisements – A section of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discriminatory practices in advertising jobs. An employer or agency cannot request a specific race or nationality as the employment agencies in Chinatown did when they offered “Mexican” labor.
Overtime pay – The Federal Labor and Standards Act states that employees must be paid time and a half for any hours worked over 40 hours per week. These employees regularly worked over 8 hours per day. They were never compensated for overtime work.
Fair wages – As these employees were paid just above minimum wage, but worked in excess of an eight-hour day, their actual hourly wages were just above three dollars per hour.
Harassment – The workers reported that their supervisors constantly insulted and harassed them while at work, creating a hostile work environment.
Discrimination – Some insults included insults towards their nationality as Mexican immigrants, which constituted a violation of the worker’s civil rights.
Employment Agency Fees – While employment agencies, when licensed, can charge a fee, they can only charge you if they actually find work. In the case of the Chinatown agencies, they did find the employee work; however, they were not licensed. Also, the employer forced the employees to effectively pay the employee’s fee to the agency by taking it out of their paycheck.
According to DePaolo & Zadeikis “understanding Employment Law can feel a bit like running a maze with a blindfold on” and it is necessary to consult a professional to get clear and concise answers.