Clifton Adcock/Oklahoma Watch
Lawsuits in Tulsa County and a national news investigation reveal a pattern of complaints that businesses engaged in race, sex and age discrimination in hiring through temporary employment agencies.
In two Tulsa lawsuits, job candidates and a former employee at a temp agency alleged that agency workers used a coding system and notes to accommodate client businesses that requested not to be sent workers of certain races or genders or over a certain age. The temp agency’s owner confirmed to Oklahoma Watch that the incidents occurred but said they were rare and violated company policy.
In one lawsuit against the agency and several businesses, five Tulsans who applied for jobs through the temp agency are seeking class-action status, alleging the discriminatory practices occurred often.
In January, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, an investigative news group, published a report that found dozens of instances and complaints of race, sex and age discrimination at temp agencies around the country. Most involved client companies making discriminatory demands.
Often, the discriminatory actions uncovered by Reveal were blatant; at other times code words or coding systems were used.
Reveal’s investigation turned up the lawsuits in Tulsa County District Court and federal court against Stand-By Personnel, which is one of the largest temp agencies in the city and provides employment to skilled and unskilled laborers. Reveal provided copies of court filings to Oklahoma Watch, which also reviewed the lawsuits and conducted independent reporting.
Among the court records were a race-coding sheet for applicants and job orders for Stand-By client companies that were filled out by Stand-By customer service representatives in 2010 and 2011.
The job orders contained notes stating “Men only,” “No one over 35 years old. Prefer Hispanic,” “No women,” and “Good ol’ boy’ as per customer, No B ppl @ Sapulpa locations.”
The coding sheet used a solid dot for black people, a circle for Hispanics and an “x” for American Indians.
The lawsuit by five former Stand-By job applicants, filed in December 2013, requests that a Tulsa County judge grant class-action status. That has yet to be decided.
Employment discrimination based on race, sex or age is illegal under both federal and Oklahoma law. The five former applicants complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which gave them permission to sue; it’s not known if EEOC is investigating the matter.
Mark Morris, owner of Stand-By Personnel, said the documents are authentic but do not reflect company policy. Instead, the job orders and coding system were created by a handful of employees who were trying to fulfill requests by some of Stand-By’s client companies, he said.
The Stand-By documents became public after a former customer service representative filed a discrimination suit against the company in 2012.
The employee, Amanda Long, who took job orders from clients and worked at the company from March 2010 to September 2011, alleged that as a Hispanic, she was subjected to racial discrimination by Stand-By and that the company required her to discriminate against temporary workers who applied for jobs through Stand-By. In court filings, the company denied the allegations. Long could not be reached for comment.
Around the time Long left the company, Morris, who at the time was partial owner and general manager of Stand-By, sent a memo to employees reminding them not to refuse temp placement based on age, sex or race, and stating that even if a client were to make such demands that it was no excuse for discrimination.
“If a client asks you not to send out persons of a certain race, sex, national origin, or age, that is not a lawful request and complying is not doing the right thing,” the Sept. 15, 2011, memo from Morris states.
Other documents filed in court included emails, notes, internal memos, employee applications and job orders. Stand-By’s attorneys accused the woman of stealing the documents and asked the judge to exclude them from the case and destroy them.
The judge ordered the former employee not to show the documents to anyone other than her attorney and destroy or return to Stand-By any original copies, but did not exclude them from consideration in the case, court records show. Copies of them were later filed as part of a deposition, however. The suit was settled in September 2013 without Stand-By admitting wrongdoing.
Slide Show: Copies of Coding System, Job Orders
Five Applicants Sue
Shortly after the suit was settled, the five individuals who had applied for or gotten temp work through Stand-By sued the agency and four of its client companies. They were represented by the same Tulsa law firm, Smolen Smolen & Roytman, that had represented Amanda Long.
The suit states that Stand-By did not address its employees’ discriminatory practices and that the practices “reflect that discrimination was the defendants’ standard operating procedure – the regular, rather than the unusual, practice.”
Most of the workers were never contacted for skilled or unskilled job placement despite Stand-By having work available, the lawsuit alleges.
In court filings, Stand-By Personnel denies engaging in discrimination and says the plaintiffs failed to report any of their discrimination complaints to the company at the time of the alleged incidents.
Tulsa resident Cara Brown, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview that she submitted an application with Stand-By after being laid off in 2008. Despite her work experience and availability, Brown, who is black and in her mid-40s, said she never received a call from the temp agency, so she began calling the company asking if there was work available.
Brown said she was told the company would contact her if a job was available. However, at the same time, Brown said she saw advertisements in the newspaper by Stand-By offering jobs.
“Every time I would see something in the newspaper saying they were hiring, I would call them because I know I qualify,” Brown said. “I still didn’t get anything from them.”
Brown said she later re-applied with Stand-By to find temporary work. Her son also applied. The company placed him in a job, but she never received a call.
“When I updated my information, I thought for sure I’d be getting some calls. I even had more experience,” Brown said. “But it was the same thing.”
Brown said she even approached a company that contracts with Stand-By for labor, looking for work. The job was cleaning toilets at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds. But the company told her she would have to go through Stand-By to be placed.
“That’s as low as you can get when you really need a job, but I was willing to do that,” Brown said. “I called Stand-By and said I’ve got an application on file. I didn’t get that job either.”
Curtis Counce, who is black and worked as a temp for Stand-By, said he was able to get a permanent job with the company at which Stand-By placed him. However, while still working as a temp for Stand-By, he discovered that a fellow temp at the location, who was white and doing the same job, was being paid $2 per hour more than he was.
“I kind of just let it slide under the table,” Counce said. “I feel like I should have been making the same amount of money as any other employee there.”
“Regardless of my race or color, I just think I should have been treated equally,” he said.
Gloria Ferrell, who is black and 57 years old, said she also applied at Stand-By but for months never received a call from the company for job placement, even after calling the firm repeatedly.
“I know I wasn’t dumb and qualified for a lot of things. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s my age.’ I don’t know what it was. It wasn’t me,” Ferrell said.
In court records, Stand-By states that some of the plaintiffs were not qualified to perform the jobs available through the agency at the time and all voluntarily severed their relationship with the firm. The workers also didn’t file complaints with the EEOC in a timely manner, the company says.
In view of this and other facts, “this proceeding should not be designated nor proceed as a class action,” Stand-By states.
As evidence of discrimination, the lawsuit cites the coding sheet and work orders disclosed in the previous lawsuit by Amanda Long.
Morris, the Stand-By owner, said in an interview that the coding sheet and work orders are authentic, but said the occurrences were very rare and were done by individual employees acting in violation of company policy.
“We’re not completely innocent. But did we have a concerted effort for the whole company and were we putting out (of job consideration) a bunch of people? This is affecting way less than one percent of these jobs,” Morris said “When you’re talking to a client and the salesperson is writing a job order, they sometimes didn’t think about what that guy was asking for. We never go out and say ‘Hey, we’ve got a bunch of white guys.’”
The coding system was the idea of one of the customer service managers who did not inform upper management of what she was doing, Morris said, but it fell out of use after about a week. After it came to light, the employee was reprimanded but not terminated.
“We admit it, it happened, it was stupid on her part,” Morris said. “They (the manager and other employees) didn’t tell me what was going on. They said ‘Hey, we’ve got some clients who are looking for this type of person.’ I don’t know why the manager did it. She knew better. They talked about it, they came up with a code, and they probably (applied) it to about 20 applications. We do about 120 applications a week.”
Stand-By does receive requests by companies that could be considered discriminatory, Morris said, usually from smaller businesses and older employers.
Once, Stand-By was asked by a state representative’s campaign to send only “pretty women” for part of the campaign’s door-knocking efforts, he said. He declined to identify the legislator.
“Every once in awhile we would have a client say, ‘I need women on this job’ or ‘need men on this job,” Morris said. “They’ll say ‘I don’t want any blacks, or Hispanics, or whites, or old or young’ sometimes. And we’ll say ‘Hey, we can’t do that.’”
Morris said he, and by extension Stand-By, believe in giving everyone a chance to work and get their foot in the door for full-time employment, regardless of race, sex or age.
“It’s a sad deal it did happen. There are companies out there that are just that way. We try to stay away from them, we won’t do business with them,” Morris said. “There’s still some older people, a supervisor for construction or an old industrial site – that’s just the way they are. They were just raised that way. But if they won’t work with us, if they say something like that, we’ll still send out the best person, the most available person. We’ve lost clients because of it.”
Lauren Lambright, one of the workers’ attorneys, disagreed that the cases were rare and isolated. She said attorneys are hoping to have the case certified as a class-action suit because the practices affected many workers, not just the current plaintiffs, and that suit may prevent other companies from doing the same thing.
“I think it brings some attention to the issues we have in the workplace and hopefully effect some change,” Lambright said. “Hopefully, it makes all staffing companies think twice before accepting discriminatory requests from their clients.”