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.
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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.