How Employment Agencies Abuse Jobseekers

If you don’t have a job, or you want a better one, advertisements like these may seem promising:

CLEANERS – NOW STAFFING – F/T & P/T, no exp needed. Up to $29.00 per hour.

The U.S. economy continues to improve and the unemployment rate is decreasing, reaching a seven-year low of 5.2 percent in New York City in September, according to the New York State Department of Labor. But many people are still looking for a job or seeking a better one, which can be a stressful and time-consuming process. Lured by advertisements and the promise of work, some turn to an employment agency for help.

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which I serve as Commissioner, licenses and regulates employment agencies. While we are very vigilant in our protection of job seekers, with such a high demand for services and many people desperately in need of work, there are inevitably those who try to take advantage of vulnerable individuals. This has led to a proliferation of predatory employment agencies that exploit the unemployed or underemployed who are trying their best to provide for their families.

One of these individuals was Rosa. After paying $125 to an employment agency, the agency sent her to a laundromat that they claimed was looking for workers. However, when Rosa went to inquire about the job, the owner of the laundromat said they were not hiring and had never asked for workers. Rosa returned to the employment agency asking for a refund, but was refused one. Their only response to her was that she was “too old” and so the laundromat just didn’t want to hire her.

And Marlon, a man from Queens, New York, paid a $125 advance fee to an employment agency plus a $774 fee for a construction training class. The agency guaranteed Marlon a job. Not only did it fail to come through on that promise, it never even referred him to a potential employer. When Marlon returned to the agency to demand a refund, the office had been abandoned.

We at DCA have seen too many job seekers respond to ads for employment only to have agencies charge them illegal fees as high as $1,400—for processing their application, background checks, or “required” trainings like Marlon’s. Many of these agencies operate without a license, send people to jobs that don’t exist, or place them in jobs that don’t pay minimum wage.

This is a growing problem among our immigrant and low-income communities, as they are often the main target of these scams. Over the past year, DCA received more than 600 complaints about employment agencies, and as a result initiated more than 225 investigations into both unlicensed and licensed offices. In the past year, DCA has issued more than 400 violations and secured more than $77,000 in restitution for 269 consumers who were charged illegal and predatory fees.

DCA has also increased its education and advocacy work in this industry. Together with New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), DCA recently created a Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights, which is available in eight languages. It outlines what employment agencies can and cannot do. Advocacy groups have been distributing it to employers and job seekers throughout New York City. Some of the rights and responsibilities noted include: an individual’s right to a full refund of any advance fee if an agency doesn’t find that worker a job or if a job offer isn’t accepted; the job seeker’s right to file a complaint regardless of immigration status; and the requirement that employment agencies refer workers only to employers that are hiring.

“Every day, predatory employment agencies take advantage of unemployed low-wage and immigrant workers,” says Manuel Castro, Executive Director of NICE. “That’s why [we have] worked with DCA on this Bill of Rights. With DCA cracking down on bad actors, and a campaign pushing for legislative reform, low-wage job seekers will be better protected when looking for quality jobs.”

We urge New Yorkers to know their rights, including the right to submit a complaint to DCA about employment agencies in New York. For job hunters who choose to use an employment agency, it’s important to check the local laws and know your rights. Here in New York City, get our tips and read the Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights. There are laws and rules that can protect the unemployed and underemployed from these predatory practices. Knowing those rights is the first step.

Author’s note: Read the results from DCA’s investigations of employment agencies.



Why Ending On-Call Scheduling Benefits Workers and Businesses

Just last month, Urban Outfitters became the newest addition to a growing list of retailers that have ended the use of on-call scheduling for their employees. This practice, which requires employees to plan their lives around the mere possibility of having to work, has been subjected to an investigation from the New York Attorney General’s office and damning stories in the press.

Sure, the fact that Urban Outfitters and other retailers such as The Gap, J. Crew, Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret are nixing an abusive practice is laudable. In addition to heading off potential legal trouble, their decisions over the past several months demonstrate that companies are listening to the needs of their employees and the questions being raised by customers.

But let’s not let these headlines fool us into thinking that all is well in the retail industry. Despite Urban Outfitters abandoning the practice, many large profitable restaurant and retail chains continue to intentionally deny employees more hours and use scheduling systems that wreak havoc on their ability to take care of their families.

For example, it’s common for employees to find out whether or not they need to work a shift mere hours before they are scheduled to start. In fact, almost half of the service industry employees surveyed in Washington, D.C. reported that they first learned of their work schedules less than one week in advance. Nearly one-third received less than 24 hours’ notice of schedule changes.

And the problem goes beyond not knowing when you’ll work. It’s also about not knowing how much you’ll work. Plenty of companies force their employees to keep their schedules open with the possibility of being scheduled full-time, but then only assign and compensate workers for part-time hours. And being sent home before the end of a scheduled shift is then passed off as a natural part of the job.

These practices add a whole new level of volatility to people’s lives. Not knowing when you’ll work from week to week can make it difficult or men and women to arrange child care, pursue education or training, or hold down a second job to make ends meet. It’s also next to impossible to budget when you don’t know if you’ll be scheduled for 10 hours or 40, or if you’ll be sent home an hour early each day.

It is possible for businesses to be productive while allowing their employees to lead stable, meaningful lives

Luckily, we’re making strides so that the lives of the people who ring up our purchases and serve our food are less turbulent.

In San Francisco, community leaders, labor advocates and retail employees came together and enacted the first set of comprehensive and meaningful standards that would address this issue. Now, when an employer cancels an on-call shift with less than 24 hours’ notice, they must pay the employee two to four hours. The new rules also mandate that schedules are posted two weeks ahead of time and that the nation’s biggest and most profitable retailers must provide part-time employees with more access to hours before hiring additional part-time workers. Acknowledging that scheduling and hours are just part of the picture, the organizers of this initiative also worked to successfully raise San Francisco’s minimum wage to $15.

This victory has inspired similar efforts in Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts. On the national level, the Schedules That Work Act would ensure that everyone has the right to request a predictable schedule.

And so, as this momentum grows, business owners would be wise to look to their colleagues to see the benefits of consistent scheduling for both their employees’ livelihoods and their business’s productivity.

Take Costco: in addition to offering better rates of pay and benefits than competitors, it guarantees many part-time employees a minimum of 24 hours and provides two weeks of advance notice for scheduling. As a result of these policies, the company boasts one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry.

Small business owners have also adopted stable scheduling. Tony Lucca, the owner of two D.C. restaurants, gives his employees their schedule a month in advance and uses an online scheduling system that gives employees a say in when they work. And Gina Schaefer, the owner of a number of Ace Hardware stores in the District, makes sure shifts are made available to part-time employees first before hiring anyone new.

We know that it is possible for businesses to be productive while allowing their employees to lead stable, meaningful lives. So yes, let’s cheer on the companies who are ending on-call scheduling. But as Black Friday approaches, let’s not forget that the real change will come when all families in our community achieve the strong wages, reliable hours, and sane schedules that they need in order to build a good life.



How to Expand Our Nation’s Most Effective Anti-Poverty Program

Social Security is our nation’s most effective anti-poverty program. The system’s modest but vital benefits lifted 21.4 million Americans out of poverty in 2014, including 1.1 million children. It could lift millions more if we expand the program’s benefits—but things have taken a distressing step in the opposite direction.

In recent years, low and non-existent cost-of-living adjustments (“COLAs”) have been gradually eroding the value of Social Security benefits. These COLAs are calculated using an inflation measure that is intended to reflect costs faced by workers. The measure does not accurately account for costs faced by seniors and Americans with disabilities, who spend a far higher percentage of their income on health care.

To the wealthy few, the extra $40 or $50 a month from a COLA increase might not seem like a big deal. But to elderly Social Security beneficiaries, this increase is much-needed income that they can use to put food on the table and pay for lifesaving prescriptions.

That’s why Social Security’s 59 million beneficiaries were devastated to hear the news that, for only the third time in 40 years, there will be no COLA in 2016. They know that the cost of basic necessities, including medical care, prescription drugs, food, and housing, has continued to increase. But their benefits are not increasing accordingly and are losing their purchasing power. If this trend continues, younger generations will have effectively lower benefits, even though the decline of pensions and rising inequality means that they will be even more reliant on these benefits than their parents and grandparents are.

And this isn’t just hurting Social Security beneficiaries. The same formula is used to calculate the COLA for many other programs, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and various veterans’ benefits including Disability Compensation benefits, pension benefits, and Military Retirement Pay. For the millions of Americans—particularly veterans—who receive Social Security as well as one or more of these other benefits, a year without a COLA is a double or triple whammy.

But there is hopeful news. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a longtime champion of Social Security, is on the case. She is sponsoring the SAVE Benefits act, a bill—already supported by twenty of her colleagues—which would send every Social Security beneficiary (as well as others impacted by the lack of a COLA) a one-time payment of about $581 to cover next year’s lack of a COLA increase.

That payment would make a serious difference in the lives of millions of beneficiaries. For many seniors, it could cover over three months of groceries. For others, it may cover the average Medicare out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs. It’s no surprise that the SAVE Benefits Act would lift over one million Americans out of poverty.

Senator Warren’s bill is fully funded by closing the “performance pay” loophole, which allows big corporations to take a tax deduction for the lavish compensation packages they give their wealthy CEOs. This loophole costs taxpayers about $9.7 billion dollars every year. The SAVE Benefits Act uses some of these savings to provide the 70 million Americans who are not receiving a COLA with the much-needed $581 checks. The rest would go into the Social Security trust fund to bolster the program’s long-term actuarial balance.

Passing the SAVE Benefits Act is an essential step, but it is only the first step. To permanently address the gradual erosion of Social Security benefits, Congress must pass legislation adopting an updated measurement tailored to reflect the real living costs (such as high health care expenses) that seniors and Americans with disabilities face, for calculating future COLAs. And to permanently tackle our country’s looming retirement income crisis, and address the millions of seniors and people with disabilities already living in poverty, Congress must expand Social Security’s modest benefits.

This is a powerful movement that is gaining momentum every day. The American people overwhelmingly support expanding Social Security’s benefits by requiring the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share. Forty-three Senators and over 100 U.S. Representatives have pledged to support expanding benefits, not cutting them.

Social Security has been a resounding success for over 80 years. Now is the time to build upon that legacy.



First Person

What I Learned After My Mother’s Near-Arrest in St. Louis

Twenty years ago, I packed my gold Chevy Nova and drove across the Mississippi River toward Madison, Wisconsin. Like so many others who uproot from their hometowns, I did so for a better gig.

In my case, that gig was working as an editor-writer at a magazine, and I jumped at the chance. As a 29-year-old writer, I didn’t see any opportunities for growth in St. Louis. This was a town, after all, that had slowly sucked civic pride right out of me. Underneath its veneer of friendliness, St. Louis felt like a dystopian world in which everyone is in play or being played by forces known and unknown.

It was a place, in fact, where a group of CEOs and wealthy elites working under the mantle of “Civic Progress” made the real decisions about the city’s direction. The benefits of said “progress” never extended to me or other members of my community—not in terms of adequate jobs, housing, education or anything else that would offer us the opportunity to thrive.

On August 9, 2014, these tensions between the powerful and the disregarded boiled over when an 18-year-old black teenager was shot by a 28-year-old white police officer. I was in St. Louis at the time, celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday with families and friends. Our joy quickly turned to sorrow, frustration, and anger. We gathered around the television and watched as police officers, dressed for war, met protesters with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

These events added to the sense of exclusion and disaffection that I had experienced during my years growing up in St. Louis—feelings that persisted until this September when I downloaded the 16-person Ferguson Commission report. Instead of burying the institutionalized racism and poverty my community has struggled with, the authors state an unequivocal truth: “We know that talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But make no mistake: this is about race.”

The report is an indictment of a country that is breaking the backs and hopes of the poor and people of color.

In painstaking fashion, the report details how multiple municipalities in the region use poor, black citizens as veritable cash machines, collecting fines and fees from them to fill the city coffers. The Commission adds to the findings of an Arch City Defenders report, which had revealed that one town, Bel Ridge—about the size of a square mile with a population of 2,700 people, 81 percent of whom are black and 42 percent in poverty—filed almost 8,000 cases in municipal court. Almost a quarter of the city’s revenues came from court fines and fees.

For me, reading the report evoked a memory going back some thirty years when I watched the police try to arrest my mother.

My father was out enjoying his morning routine, grabbing coffee at White Castle and reading the paper, when two police officers—one older and gruff, the other younger and visibly apprehensive—came to the door and announced that my mother was under arrest for amassing parking fines; fines that were all incurred in front of our house, mostly for alternate-side parking violations. Forking over cash for fines just didn’t rank as high as other needs like paying the mortgage and buying food.

Neither officer was expecting Angela Davis, but that’s what they got. My mother sat on the staircase in the foyer and said she wasn’t getting up. They threatened her and tried to pick her up, but she pulled away and yelled. Things escalated when the older police officer shouted at my grandmother who was slowed by a stroke and trying to calm the situation. The front door was open and a crowd gathered.

The older officer unbuttoned the holster to his service revolver and placed his hand on the grip. My mother said, “Well, it’s a good goddamned day to die.”

Thirty years later she tells me she has never been more scared—or more defiant—than at that moment. Like so many others who have had similar experiences—some of whom are included in the Ferguson report—her resistance was not rooted in hatred of the police. Her brother, her father, two of her uncles—they were all in law enforcement. This was about respect. My mother offered to pay the fine in person on Monday, but the officers wanted it their way.

Just as I thought the arrest was about to become terrifyingly violent, my father came home. I remember how he shifted from confusion to fear to anger.

Now that I am about the same age as my father was then, I realize he had felt what so many black men feel in situations like that: emasculation. My father, the Marine, the civil engineer, with no criminal past—the man who talked philosophy with friends and could handle himself around roughneck construction workers—was forced to navigate a path that a white man of the same socio-economic status would likely not encounter. They didn’t have that history of police harassment; black male subjugation in the face of a baton or gun; and the gut punch of knowing that the man behind the badge has total control over you.

Thankfully, a higher-ranking police officer, who was black, arrived on the scene. He sorted it out and reprimanded the lead officer. The next day my parents paid the fine with a little help from a family member. If my mother had been arrested, the cost to my parents—bail, a lawyer, court fees, the fine itself—would have financially crippled us.

The Ferguson report demonstrates that my family’s experience was not unique, and that the truths laid bare in the document don’t just apply to Ferguson, the St. Louis area, or Missouri. In fact, the report is an indictment of a country that is breaking the backs and hopes of the poor and people of color.

But the report also offers sweeping reforms that would help us move beyond the current, unjust status quo—actions raging from police training and consolidating police departments, to court and sentencing reform, to increasing healthcare coverage for the poor and addressing hunger, to raising the minimum wage, ending predatory lending, and investing in quality job training for disconnected youth that leads to employment.

In recognizing the lived realities of African Americans—and offering reforms that speak to those experiences—the Ferguson report is a blueprint on how to tear down the racial wall that divides us. Now we need to respond with action, until young black people no longer have to leave repressive hometowns in search of opportunity as I did.




How to Stop Predatory Lenders Now

Payday lenders are extremely good at what they do. They present their predatory products as the solution to financial emergencies. They seek out and find low-wage workers through enticing commercials in English and Spanish. And, perhaps most ingeniously, they circumvent state laws in order to continue their shady lending practices. A great example of this last tactic comes from Ohio where payday lenders thrive despite regulations meant to curb them.

In 2008, Ohio passed the Short Term Loan Act, which established a number of protections against predatory payday lending and other small dollar loans, including setting a 28 percent rate cap on payday loans.

Not surprisingly, the Ohio payday industry immediately tried to overturn the law through a ballot initiative. So what did Ohioans decide? They voted overwhelmingly (64 percent) to affirm the Short Term Loan Act, including the 28 percent rate cap. (Fun fact: the Ohio payday industry spent $16 million on the ballot initiative effort, while opponents spent just $265,000).

For the past seven years, however, payday lenders have deliberately defied the will of Ohio voters by continuing to saddle consumers with triple-digit interest rates on loans—some as high as 763 percent. They do this by using two older Ohio laws—the Mortgage Lending Act and Small Loan Act—to take out different lending licenses that allow them to circumvent the protections put in place by the Short Term Loan Act.

There are now 836 payday and auto title lenders in Ohio—more than the number of McDonald’s in the state. These lenders are so good at bypassing state laws that every year they rake in $502 million in loan fees alone. That’s more than twice the amount they earned in 2005, three years before the 28 percent rate cap was set.

Even if every state had protections on the books, lenders would find new ways to get around them.

Unfortunately, payday lenders scheming to avoid state consumer protection laws isn’t just a problem in Ohio—it’s a problem throughout the country. Time and again, whenever states crack down on abusive, small dollar lending, payday lenders find creative ways to continue business as usual:

  • In Texas, payday lenders are dodging state laws by posing as Credit Access Businesses (a tactic also employed by Ohio payday lenders). By disguising themselves as a completely different kind of financial service provider—one that isn’t subject to the limits imposed on payday lenders—they are able to essentially continue to act like payday lenders.

The moral of the story is clear: even if every state had protections on the books, lenders would find new ways to get around them.

But the good news is that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) can help to crack down on these abuses.

Earlier this spring, the CFPB released a proposed framework for regulations that would govern the small dollar lending industry. As currently written, however, it would leave a number of glaring loopholes that are ripe for exploitation by payday lenders.

For starters, the proposal doesn’t address the problem of unscrupulous online lenders. It also fails to address the main cause of payday debt traps: the fact that lenders aren’t required to determine a borrower’s ability to repay a loan, even as they continue to peddle more and more loans to “help” a consumer dig out of a hole.

The CFPB can’t eliminate all the circumvention and abuses by payday lenders, but it can help. To do that, it needs to issue the strongest rules possible—and soon. It’s been eight months since the release of the regulatory framework and the CFPB has yet to offer an official proposal. Low-income Americans across the country need the CFPB to act fast.

That’s why we at CFED launched the Consumers Can’t Wait Campaign—to call on the CFPB to release strong rules on payday lending now. Until the CFPB acts, the profitable practice of ensnaring millions of American consumers in debt traps will continue to thrive unabated.