Protecting Temporary Workers

A Public Welfare Foundation grantee in Massachusetts helps shield workers from wage theft, dangerous conditions and other hazards.

The Massachusetts state legislature is currently considering a bill that would give workers who find jobs through temporary agencies more protections against abuse by employers. These temporary agency workers – who tend to be younger, less educated, and disproportionately comprised of people of color – are the lowest paid workers, even among the temporary or contingent workforce as a whole. And the agencies simply fail to ensure either adequate wages or safe working conditions to the people they hire.

A report released last year by the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that low-wage temporary staffing agency workers are a rapidly increasing – and highly vulnerable – segment of an unregulated labor market. In the last two decades, temporary help service employment in the northeastern region of the United States jumped by 68 percent, according to the report. And, an estimated 25,000 temporary staffing agency workers labor in low-wage industrial and service jobs in Massachusetts each day.

Many of these workers are used in local fish and other food processing plants, recycling operations, warehouses, and construction sites as well as for janitorial and housekeeping jobs. They struggle against the agencies and the companies in a “triangular employment relationship,” as described in the report, since either the company or the agency could be the actual employer, but, too often, neither can be held accountable for abuses to workers.

Blurred and shifting lines of responsibility between the agencies and the companies leave workers vulnerable to exploitation through wage theft, loss of overtime pay, exposure to toxic chemicals and other hazards, and failure to secure medical treatment or workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.

At an event last year to highlight the need for legislation, Juan Calderas told a typical story. “I worked ten hours per day peeling fruit. We had no breaks until after ten hours of work,” he recalled. “A few months ago, I was carrying a large bucket of fruit and fell. I broke two discs in my back. When the employer refused to pay my doctor’s bills, that’s when I learned that I wasn’t working for the company at all, but instead for a temporary agency.”

Mr. Calderas has joined hundreds of other workers and organizations in a broad campaign – called REAL for Real Employment Agency Law – to stop abuses by temporary agencies. That campaign, which is being coordinated by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), a Public Welfare Foundation grantee based in Dorchester, Massachusetts that advocates for safe jobs and healthy communities, also includes the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative and more than 40 other labor, community, faith-based and legal organizations.

Campaign organizers have used protests, teach-ins, freedom rides and personal testimony to educate workers about their rights and educate the public about the need for better regulation of temporary agencies.

Under current Massachusetts law, if an agency charges workers a fee for job placement, such as those that place models and accountants, it must be licensed by the Department of Labor Standards and follow certain standards. The licensing process helps authorities keep track of and address workplace abuses.

Agencies that do not charge workers for job placement or that only find temporary job placements must register with the Department annually. But most of these agencies do not have to be licensed.

The bill pending in the Massachusetts Legislature, called the Employment Agency Reform Bill, seeks to close some of these regulatory loopholes. It would require all employment agencies, including temporary agencies, to follow the same standards and it would require agencies to give low-wage workers written information about their job assignment, the employer, how to contact the Department of Labor when they encounter hazardous conditions, and workers’ compensation.

Strong objections to the bill were expressed initially by the American Staffing Association (ASA). But, through negotiations initiated by the bill’s lead sponsor, Representative Linda Dorcena Forry, a Democrat from Dorchester, the REAL Coalition and the ASA are seeking common ground that will maintain the bill’s integrity.

In addition to abuses suffered by workers, the lax oversight of temporary agencies costs the state in unpaid taxes and workers’ compensation insurance. That helps explain why Governor Deval Patrick’s administration supports the bill, as well as the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, health professionals, and the Massachusetts Bar Association.

As Doug Sheff, vice president of the state bar association, has noted, the bill “protects the most vulnerable workers in the Commonwealth from abuse, even serious injury and death. But it also protects law-abiding businesses from being undercut by fly-by-night temp agencies.”

The proposed bill is modeled somewhat after a 2005 law in Illinois that has curbed, although not stopped, wage theft and other abuses by temporary agencies. Both the Illinois law and the Massachusetts bill put into practice key elements of model policies that the National Employment Law Project (NELP), another Public Welfare Foundation grantee, encourages more states to consider. NELP recently included such labor contractor reforms in a publication called “Winning Wage Justice,” a summary of wage and hour policies that can be used to strengthen community efforts across the country against wage theft.

Even as the Massachusetts legislation is getting serious consideration, some agencies are already stepping up to the plate. In a recent groundbreaking development, the temporary staffing agency Employment On Demand, which has offices in Chelsea and New Bedford, Massachusetts, signed an agreement with the Chelsea Collaborative and with Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, organizations that represent immigrant workers in Chelsea and New Bedford, respectively, and which are active members of the REAL campaign.

Under the agreement, Employment on Demand has committed to ensure that all its employees work at companies that comply with state and federal safety and employment laws. It has also promised to give employees detailed information about their job sites and to ensure that they have safe and affordable transportation.

With passage of the Employment Agency Reform Bill, such basic rights would be extended to all temporary agency workers.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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