Temp worker advocates say staffing agencies are flouting new law

By: - February 12, 2024 7:07 am

A bill signed into law last February gives temp workers a host of new protections, over the objections of staffing agencies that claim the law is unconstitutional. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

When a bill intended to aid New Jersey’s temp workers was signed into law last February, Elvira Gomez assumed things would be different at her temporary job in a warehouse making and packaging glass containers.

The law gave her a host of new protections, but she told the New Jersey Monitor that the staffing agency she works for continues to violate the law, including by forcing her to pay for the bus they require her to take to her job site each day and by not providing her with a work schedule in advance.

She’s hesitant to file a formal complaint, fearing she’s not protected from retaliation, she told the New Jersey Monitor.

“I saw on the news that the agencies aren’t supposed to be charging us for transport, but what am I supposed to do? I have to pay,” she said in an interview translated from Spanish. “There’s no other way to do it besides to pay.”

About 40 complaints have been filed with the Department of Labor in relation to the temp worker law, according to department spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi. Investigations are ongoing into each case, so the department can’t release information on who made each complaint or about what agency is targeted.

The landmark legislation signed by Gov. Phil Murphy granted new rights and protections to the state’s 127,000 temporary workers, who work largely in warehousing and logistics. The law mandates staffing agencies tell workers in advance about their work location and schedule, requires employers to pay temp workers equal to their full-time counterparts, and includes requirements about protective equipment and breaks.

Draft rules that explain how portions of the law will be enforced have not yet been finalized. The state says while the law as written is enforceable now, the regulations can’t be enforced until they are approved and fully in effect.

Delli-Santi said although the proposed rules are “not yet effective, and therefore, not yet binding, they provide guidance to both workers and employers.”

“The Department of Labor and Workforce Development takes these concerns seriously and is working hard to investigate all complaints and ensure” the law is properly enforced, said Delli-Santi.

Make the Road New Jersey, an Elizabeth-based immigration and labor advocacy group, fought for the legislation’s passage. In a statement, it criticized the state for its lack of enforcement to “curb the types of abuses that remain rampant a year after this law was passed.”

“It might seem reasonable to assume that passing a law that got this much attention would move above-board staffing agencies to comply with its terms in anticipation of final rules and full implementation, but for the New Jersey temporary staffing agency industry, that seems to be far from the case. Staffing agencies continue to violate all manner of worker protections and even continue to ignore basic licensing requirements,” said Garrett O’Connor, the group’s policy director.

Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), who sponsored the bill, noted the rules still need to be approved and said he looks forward to “rigorous compliance.”

“We need to make sure the law is as strong as possible and make sure that there is enforcement. Whether it requires revised legislation or legislative advocacy to make sure that laws we pass are being enforced, we’ll do that,” he said.

The New Jersey Monitor identified at least 10 staffing agencies operating in New Jersey that are not registered with the state or have expired registration. Temporary agencies have been required to register since prior to the enactment of the 2023 law, but the law added a requirement to obtain additional certification.

The state is “not authorized to issue those certifications until the regulations are in place,” a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement. The state’s consumer affairs division, which oversees parts of the new law, is part of the Attorney General’s Office. 

Cryan criticized staffing agencies that continue to “act as if they’ve always been above any law.”

“They feel as if they hire the right lobbyists for the right amount of money, they’ll be able to do whatever they want. That simply can’t be the case,” he said.

Activists want state agencies to act quicker

Reynalda Cruz is an organizer with immigrant worker group New Labor and helped lead the long-fought battle for the bill’s passage.

She said New Labor advocates have filed about six complaints over staffing agencies issuing bounced checks and not following some of the law’s requirements. She said she expected the law to be ready for enforcement when it went into full effect last summer.

“As an organization and as someone who protects workers, we wanted the law to go into effect and be ready by August 5. We thought the Labor Department would be ready,” she said. “We wish it happened sooner, but we are going to keep pushing until this law is enforced.”

She said the biggest issues she sees involve equal pay and transportation. Some staffing agencies have made minor adjustments in their operations, she said, but she suspects they’re holding back on making broader changes as a lawsuit challenging the legislation plays out.

The New Jersey Staffing Alliance, New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and American Staffing Association — groups that lobbied aggressively against the bill — are suing the state over claims the law is unconstitutional.

Labor officials said the lawsuit plays no part in the rollout of the rules. The New Jersey Staffing Alliance did not respond to a request for comment.

Joseph Niver, a labor and employment law attorney with Make the Road, said staffing agencies suing to overturn the law should use the money they’re spending on legal fees toward complying with it instead.

Cruz said New Labor wants more pressure on state officials to expedite investigations into staffing agencies the group says are violating the law. She said she has spoken with state labor officials who promise their complaints are being investigated, but she doesn’t see the cases moving forward.

“I believe in this moment, we need more support from the labor department so the law is more enforced,” she said. “We need the support. I know the law is new, so it needs to go through its processes, but really, they need to come out with it and start enforcing it.”

Gomez said she does not think state labor officials “know what we go through.” Contrary to the new law’s requirements, she said, she remains in the dark about her work schedule, is not provided with protective equipment, and is forced to pay $13 cash daily for a bus her staffing agency requires she take to her job site — a bus, she said, that isn’t reliable. She recalled one recent frigid morning when a worker opted to go home after waiting in the cold for hours.

But she’s reluctant to complain, she said. If she fights with one warehouse or staffing agency, she’s nervous she won’t be able to find another job to pay her bills.

“These agencies, they all talk to each other, so we have no other way,” she said. “We thought the law would be impactful for us.”

An earlier version of this story should have said the law providing protections for temp workers can be enforced now, but regulations pursuant to the law cannot be enforced until they are fully approved and in effect.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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