Investigation Finds Rampant Discrimination at Temp Agencies

Investigation Finds Rampant Discrimination at Temp Agencies

Alternative work arrangements like temping and freelancing are making up an increasingly large segment of the US economy. As the “gig economy” grows, more attention is rightly being paid to how contingent workers are treated by the platforms or agencies they rely on for employment opportunities. Organizations that source talent through these intermediaries need to be conscious of whether they are underpaying workers, engaging in discriminatory practices, or otherwise running afoul of labor regulations—especially now that authorities are holding “joint employers” responsible for the compensation and work conditions of those they employ indirectly.

Unfortunately, many temp agencies appear to be doing just that. At, Kelly Heyboer calls attention to a disconcerting new investigative report that looked at dozens of recent lawsuits filed by applicants, recruiters, and employees at temp agencies alleging “widespread racist, sexist or discriminatory hiring in the growing temp industry”:

In some cases, factories or companies allegedly placed orders for temps of certain races, and temp agency recruiters complied because they said they felt financial pressure to keep their clients happy. In some cases, temp agencies allegedly used code words to indicate a preference for applicants of a certain race or gender. According to the allegations in lawsuits and interviews:

  • At an Illinois temp agency, “code 3” meant a Latino worker. At a Texas agency, “blue eyes” signified a white worker was needed. In Seattle, an agency requested “no Mohammeds” when a client didn’t want temps of Middle Eastern descent.
  • In Ohio, temp agency supervisors requested “vanilla cupcakes” or “hockey players” when a company wanted a white temp. In Florida, construction contractors said, “Don’t send me any more monkeys” when they didn’t want black workers.
  • Other codes were more subtle. In Oklahoma, a temp agency marked applications with a dot for black workers, a circle for Hispanic applicants and an X for Indian applicants, according to one court case. In other cases, requests for “heavies” allegedly denoted temp jobs for men while “small hands” was code that the client wanted female temps.

The full report by Will Evans from the Center for Investigative Reporting goes into more detail about these allegations:

The problem is significant and growing, said Jenny Yang, chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with enforcing the federal ban on job discrimination. “Staffing agencies are refusing to place African American employees based on their race,” she said, “and they are terminating employees when they complain about that, as well as limiting assignments that individuals may have.”

Sometimes, it’s obvious. Two hours into an assembly-line shift packaging candy in Atlanta, a few black workers said they were told to leave their positions, according to their lawsuit. “I’m sorry,” a temp agency representative allegedly told them, “but the Company told me to only hire Mexicans.” The suit settled quickly – and confidentially – last year.

For many temp workers, though, it’s impossible to know why they didn’t get placed, so they rarely file complaints.