Low-wage workers and their advocates are pushing for legislation that would better protect them against what they call predatory and fraudulent employment agencies.
At a press conference Thursday in front of City Hall, several groups and elected officials asserted that employment agencies for low-wage workers throughout the five boroughs are taking advantage of them in a number of ways, including charging high fees, taking money without finding work and working while unlicensed or illegally sharing space with other businesses.
A study conducted in conjunction with the “Justice for Job Seekers” bills — 3702 in the Assembly and 3415 in the state Senate — found that 72 percent of employment agencies surveyed did not offer job seekers contracts, even though they are required to by law; 46 percent of agencies guaranteed they would find a job, even though that is also against the law; 38 percent of employment agencies took advance fees and did not refund them, which is also required by law; and that most surveyed did not display a license or the city’s employment agency laws, also mandatory.
According to the city Department of Consumer Affairs, complaints about employment agencies have risen three times in the past year, from 328 filed in 2013, to 940 last year. Queens neighborhoods with the most are Jackson Heights, Woodside and Elmhurst.
Advocates also stressed that while a finder’s fee due to the job-hunting agency is only supposed to be 10 to 14 percent of a worker’s first month’s wages, it’s often higher, and job seekers aren’t aware there’s a cap.
The bills are sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx, Westchester) and Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights.)
“We had constituents coming to our offices and saying that they were getting slips that were telling them to go to a job site that didn’t exist and [companies] were taking their money and were never giving it back — and when they complained, they said they would report them because they said they were undocumented,” Moya said. “This legislation would go to end that, it would go to end the root of corruption that exists within these employment agencies.”
The investigation, carried out by mystery shoppers over the course of a month, was an update to a 2012 report compiled by the Urban Justice Center, the Community Development Project and the Jackson Heights-based group New Immigrant Community Empowerment called “Dreams and Schemes in Queens, New York,” which found that immigrants were cheated out of thousands of dollars.
Delia Ruiz, a Queens resident who participated, said she went to around 20 agencies in Queens and Brooklyn. Some agencies were already closed by the time she went to the listed location and some representatives said they could find work for underaged individuals.
“Now that people are organized, people will report more, will not be afraid,” Ruiz said, adding that she’s seen people have to pay a fee and then pay again after six months when no job was found.
“What we’re hoping is that once this legislation is passed what we’ll see is ads in the newspaper [that] will clearly identify an agency as licensed, that license number will be displayed. That is a huge problem because these ads are simply saying ‘Jobs guaranteed, come to us!’” said Jessica Garcia, director of organizing and programs at NICE.
Garcia added that the legislation would also require agencies to be very specific about what the job is, what it pays, the hours and what skills are needed.
“Workers are being sent to jobs that they don’t qualify for, or jobs where they pay below the minimum wage or the hours and the pay rate that was told to them was actually not accurate,” she said. “What agencies do is they hold this against the job seeker. They’ll say, ‘Well we tried and we sent you to these places and you turned them down, so we did our job. You’re the one that turned it down, that’s not our fault.’”
Garcia said that job seekers insisted that penalties, which are now viewed by the scheming companies as a part of doing business, should be higher.
Violations would be $1,000 for the first offense and $5,000 for second offenses. Victims would also be able to sue agencies.
Residents of Westchester and Long Island also often become victims.
Maritza Ortiz, a Long Island resident, said that she went to two employment agencies in Queens, paying $150 overall.
“They told me to wait, that they would call me when there was a job. I kept on waiting and waiting, there was nothing,” Ortiz said. “I decided to go looking for the employment agency and once I got there I couldn’t find them, they were no longer there. They hadn’t given me any paperwork or a receipt.”
Under the bills, agencies would only be able to charge workers once they have been placed in jobs, and clear receipts and standard contracts will be required.