NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — In the summer of 2014, Kevin James was trying to find work as a day laborer. He took a city bus from the south side of Chicago to MVP Staffing, an employment agency in Cicero, Illinois, filled out the paperwork and was sent to a local manufacturing plant, where he spent the day packaging cookies in boxes.
That was the only day James, who is African-American, says he was sent on a job assignment.
For the next two months, James says he would make the 35-minute trip to MVP Staffing, a temporary employment agency with 60 offices nationwide, and he would “sit there and wait” for an assignment for hours. None came. So James stopped going. It was “mainly Hispanics” who were getting jobs, according to James.
“I didn’t see no reason to go down there just to be told to go home,” said James, 29, who, despite having worked in various retail jobs, factories and as a dishwasher, remains unemployed.
On Tuesday, attorneys for five black workers, including James, filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that MVP Staffing and seven of its clients discriminated against black workers and failed to assign them work. The suit alleges that MVP and its clients preferred to hire Latino workers instead. It also alleges that supervisors used code words to differentiate between Latino and African-American applicants and only conducted criminal background checks on black applicants.
The client companies named in the lawsuit include Segerdahl Graphics Inc., Mercury Plastics Inc., MPS Chicago Inc. (doing business as Jet Litho), The Penray Companies Inc., Advertising Resources Inc. (doing business as ARI Packaging), Lawrence Foods Inc., and Blommer Chocolate Company.
None of these companies, including MVP Staffing, returned requests for comment.
The complaint includes testimony from several former MVP workers that “African American laborers were marked “Do Not Return” or DNR’d” within hours of their assignments or at the end of their first shift.” When black workers were given assignments, the complaint alleges, they were given single assignments and “placed in the worst jobs with the most unpleasant working conditions.”
Joseph Sellers, chair of the civil rights and employment practice at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll who is co-counsel for the plaintiffs said that much of the discrimination was based on “a series of stereotypes about African Americans and Latinos,” including that Latinos are immigrants that are less likely to complain about low pay or bad working conditions out of fear.
The lawsuit contains statements from former MVP employees, including Rosa Ceja, who was an on-site manager at one of MVP’s client companies in Illinois. “I know that certain clients of MVP do not want African Americans assigned to work at their company and that MVP has a policy of accommodating these requests,” Ceja said in her statement. She added that she had been “yelled at” if she assigned black workers to a client.
Ceja’s statement includes some of the coded language she says MVP used to describe black and Latino workers. Latino workers were described as “feos” (Spanish for “ugly ones” ), she said, while black workers were “guapos” (Spanish for “handsome ones” or, according to the court filings, “pretty boys — ones who don’t want to do dirty work.”)
“The obstacles in getting a job are among the most difficult to detect,” Sellers said. “Most people have no idea if other people are treated differently than they are in applications for jobs.”