The Worcester Telegram and Gazette featured Metrowest Worker Center's campaign against wage theft.
State law addresses rights of temporary workers
By Aaron Nicodemus
Worcester Telegram & Gazette
February 2, 2014
Knowing who your employer is.
It seems like knowing who hired you and who is paying you would be obvious pieces of information that any worker would have.
But for people toiling in the state's underground economy, basic information is often unavailable.
Workers can come into this underground economy in several ways. They can be employed by staffing agencies, but then actually work for some other company. They can be day workers, hired for one day of work at a time.
When bad things start happening — like an on-the-job injury, a layoff, unpaid overtime, etc. — the worker has little recourse if he or she cannot say who hired them.
It has been a year since the state's "Act Establishing a Temporary Workers Right to Know" was enacted, at the behest of worker rights organizations and workers themselves, who were finding that staffing agencies and other unscrupulous employers were bailing out on their responsibilities when bad things happened at work.
"Companies used to offshore their legal responsibility for workers' rights," said Diego Low, a coordinator with the MetroWest Worker Center in Framingham. "The law is a first attempt to regulate and bring under control a situation that can be an end around for basic labor standards."
The Right to Know law requires that temporary workers receive a piece of paper from the temp agency stating who their employer is, what kind of work they will be doing, the amount of their wages, the employer's workers' compensation carrier and other basic information. The law also prohibits charging any fee that would reduce a worker's pay beneath the minimum wage. It was a common practice for workers to be charged for drug tests, finder's fees or transportation to a job that reduced their rate of pay below the state minimum wage.
"We were getting contacted by employees who were injured on the job, but they couldn't name who their employer was," said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health in Cambridge. "There is a burgeoning underground economy in Massachusetts, and it was robbing workers of their basic rights."
Last year, a district court ruled that Discover Marble and Granite in Millbury and a staffing agency called Operation Management Group Inc., were shorting approximately 50 workers on their pay. Workers would receive checks from different sources, and sometimes the checks would be for less than they were owed, or they would bounce.
When they complained to Discover, the workers were directed to OMG. And when they complained to OMG, they were directed back to Discover. So, who did they work for? The case ended with a settlement that gave the workers nearly $300,000.
In 2006, Erasmo Ramos worked for a Framingham frozen food company that was making frozen dinners for Ethnic Gourmet. For six months, he worked in the kitchen preparing frozen food sold at supermarket chains, including Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's.
When the Ethnic Gourmet factory suddenly closed, Mr. Ramos and his fellow workers were not only out of a job, they were left without the protection of the WARN Act, which stipulates that workers receive notice when an employer with more than 100 employees is about to close.
Mr. Ramos and his fellow workers were denied these rights because they came to Ethnic Gourmet through a staffing agency. When the factory closed, its owners claimed that the workers were actually employed by the staffing agency, not their factory.
And the staffing agency, as you might imagine, was nowhere to be found.
Mr. Ramos and his fellow employees knew who they worked for, but in a sense, could not prove it. Another thing the law is supposed to do is make it easier for workers to prove who they work for.
Most of us take for granted that we know who we work for. But for workers in the state's underground economy, who they work for is often a mystery.
The law is a first step in addressing problems with the underground economy, by attacking the most legitimate part of it: staffing agencies. It's an excellent start.
Attorney General Martha Coakley had two investigations against staffing agencies that resulted in an enforcement action in 2013, according to a spokesman for the office. They did not disclose how many staffing agencies were investigated.
Beyond staffing agencies, the underground economy has plenty of other avenues.
What about the day workers, who are often picked up on the side of the road and driven to a job site. Do they really know who they are working for?
And what about all those workers who receive their pay in cash? Their employer is likely known to them — it's often who hands them the cash — but they have as much motivation as the employer to keep the arrangement secret.
There are already plenty of laws that make such arrangements illegal. And yet, the underground economy flourishes.
Article at link:http://www.telegram.com/article/20140202/COLUMN73/302029977/0
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