Since migrating to the United States nearly two decades ago, Patricia Martinez, now 55, and a mother of two adult children, found a livelihood working through staffing agencies. Though some days felt heavier than others, she was grateful to have a job even if it meant earning the minimum wage.
But once at Superior Staffing — a temporary employment and staffing agency based in Elmhurst — Martinez alleges that she experienced mistreatment at the company she was assigned to, and a sudden pay cut at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020.
Martinez said she began speaking up about the alleged mistreatment and shortly after sought legal counsel when she said she got a call in June 2021 from the staffing agency telling her her services were no longer needed. Ana Diaz Rivas, 40, echoed Martinez’s claims after her wage was also lowered and she was denied work without notice, she said.
“When they fired me, they didn’t give me a reason even when I asked. I knew this was wrong, and I wanted to know if I had any rights,” Martinez said.
On Aug. 23, the two women filed a class action lawsuit against Superior Staffing and its client company FAREVA Morton Grove, a cosmetic and hygiene manufacturing company, alleging wage theft and multiple violations of the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act.
According to the lawsuit, which could cover at least 100 similarly affected workers, Martinez and Diaz Rivas had their wages lowered without receiving the legally required notice under the Illinois Day and Temporary Labor Services Act.
The lawsuit claims that when Martinez was assigned to work at the cosmetic company in December 2019, she earned $13 an hour. Three months later, she got a raise of 50 cents, but in November of 2020, Superior Staffing changed Martinez’s regular hourly wage to $12 an hour while she was still contracted to work at FAREVA.
“That $1.50 was the money I needed for gas, for me to be able to get to work,” Martinez said in Spanish during a news conference in Little Village last week.
“I told them I wouldn’t be able to afford getting to work. They told me I had no right to complain because I didn’t work for the company; that I was just a temporary worker … they told me to accept this or leave. They made me feel disposable,” she said at the news conference.
Neither Superior Staffing or FAREVA’s corporate offices responded to multiple phone calls and several emails requesting comment.
The lawsuit also alleges that Diaz Rivas was told that her $13 an hour wage would be raised 50 cents three months after her start date in August 2020, but instead, her hourly pay was reduced to $12 at the same time that Martinez’s wage was reduced.
According to the lawsuit, the two workers were not paid for days that they were assigned to show up at FAREVA but were turned away because there was no work available. On multiple occasions, Diaz Rivas said she and other temporary workers arrived for their shift at FAREVA and were sent away with no work and no wages. The lawsuit claims that Superior Staffing and FAREVA violated Illinois’ temporary staffing law by failing to pay them for at least four hours of work at their agreed upon rates of pay on all days that Superior Staffing contracted them to work at FAREVA.
Diaz Rivas said she sought employment at Superior Staffing because it was close to her home and she could be closer to her 3-year-old son, who has special needs.
“Besides lowering my pay without telling me in advance, I was also turned away from work whenever they didn’t need me. It didn’t matter to them that I still needed to pay my babysitter for a full day,” Diaz Rivas said, adding that she stayed at the company because she has a child to support. She said she was told in June 2021 that she was no longer needed at the manufacturing company.
Though both women said they were assigned to FAREVA by Superior Staffing, the two did not know each other, they said, and landed at the same table after looking for help separately.
Martinez first contacted the Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights organization after doing research online, she said. The organization provides guidance to workers regardless of immigration status and provides resources and collective strategies of resistance against labor rights abuses, according to its website.
For Diaz Rivas, the encouragement to seek legal help came from her child’s counselor. After sharing her experience at the staffing agency and FAREVA, the counselor put her in touch with Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights.
It took nearly a year to file the “groundbreaking class action lawsuit,” said Mark Birhanu, an attorney with Raise the Floor Alliance who is representing the women.
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Raise the Floor Alliance was founded by a coalition of worker centers operating throughout the Chicago area, including Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights, as a shared legal, policy and organizing resource for low-wage workers.
Birhanu said that the women “are fighting for relief available to them under these laws, including an injunction restraining the defendants from continuing legal violations. They’re doing this so that other workers do not suffer what Ms. Diaz Rivas and Ms. Martinez went through.”
Martinez and Diaz Rivas say that other workers who experienced similar treatment through the staffing agency could be afraid to speak up because they might fear getting fired. They added that for some workers their age or immigration status might also make it difficult to find a job elsewhere.
“Many stay … because they need the money,” Martinez said. The women say that they hope they can be an example for other immigrant and temporary workers to be more aware of their rights.
Temporary staffing agencies in Illinois are not required to process their employees through the E-Verify immigration system that confirms a worker’s identification and permit to work in the country. Therefore, some immigrants turn to temporary agencies for work. Not using E-Verify may allow some companies to take advantage of some vulnerable workers, said Martin Unzueta, the executive director of Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights.
“It is not fair that we are treated as disposable workers. Many times we do not complain, but discrimination and exploitation are present every day and at all times against us,” Unzueta said. He encouraged workers who believe their rights have been violated to reach out to organizations like Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights.