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Reveal: Decoding Discrimination In America’s Temp Industry

people wait in a temp office

Business is booming for staffing agencies across the country – the temporary jobs sector is one of our fastest-growing industries in terms of employment. But there's another side to the temp world: a blatant system of racial discrimination that evokes practices of America's pre-civil rights era.

This hour of Reveal will explore this type of discrimination and look at how it’s affecting people around the country. We begin in Tennessee with two sisters, born in Russia, who ended up recruiting workers for a temp agency. And they claim some people were hired not based on their résumé, but on the color of their skin.

How far one temp agency went to please its customers

When temp agencies fill orders for a worker of a certain race or gender, that’s illegal. So some use code words like “vanilla cupcake,” “country boys” or “blue eyes” to hide the discrimination. (Hint: Those are all codes for white workers.)

This segment digs into one staffing agency with branches across the South, where former employees said some clients demanded white workers. Others wanted Latinos.  Reveal’s Will Evans talked to dozens of former employees of Automation Personnel Services, who told him that this type of discrimination was common. Recruiters, office managers and sales reps from six states said Automation would often send out temp workers not based on their experience or skills – but because of their race, age or gender.

Tell us your story: We're using this investigation to kick off a larger look at the many faces of workplace discrimination in America today – and we need your help to do it. Have a story to share about discrimination you've experienced or witnessed on the job? Share it with Reveal here.

Temp-worker organizer in Chicago confronts racial divide

The first modern industrial staffing company was founded 70 years ago in Chicago. Today, the city and its suburbs are ground zero for blue-collar temp work with about 900 registered temp offices. But many black workers are convinced they’re not getting their share of the work.  From WBEZ, reporter Chip Mitchell tells the story of a labor organizer who’s pushing what would be the nation’s first law addressing temp-work discrimination. To get the bill passed, he says he needs some temp workers to make a big sacrifice.

America’s long battle over jobs and justice

We’ve come a long way since the 1963 March on Washington. Or have we? The civil rights movement and an epic fight in Congress led to a slew of reforms and efforts to eliminate discrimination.

Host Al Letson delves into the turbulent history and interviews Clifford Alexander, the first African American to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who believes we’re still battling some of the same problems the federal agency was established to eradicate.

Reveal is a weekly radio program produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. It airs Thursdays at 1 p.m. on 89.9 FM and on the web at