How the Joliet City Council votes on Monday should show whether the city is willing to go along with recent calls for a moratorium on new staffing agencies in town.
The council is slated to vote on proposals for two staffing offices that have prompted a debate on whether there are too many such agencies in town and what kinds of jobs they provide.
The staffing agencies have come with the boom in the warehouse and distribution industry in Joliet and other areas of Will County.
Warehouse Workers for Justice, a group that advocates for better pay and working conditions for workers in the industry, counts 14 staffing offices in Joliet and 99 in Will County.
“It’s really the Midwest capital of staffing agencies,” said Robert Jesus Clack, associate director for Warehouse Workers for Justice. “The only place that has more is the Inland Empire in California, which also is a large warehouse area.”
Clack called for a moratorium on new staffing offices at the City Council meeting Oct 16. The council did not impose a moratorium. But it did table votes until the next meeting Monday on special use permits for an HR Metrics office at 232 S. Larkin Ave. and Innovative Staffing at 423 Collins St.
The City Council was divided, voting, 5-3, to approve the delay.
Likewise, the city Zoning Board of Appeals was divided on 3-2 votes to recommend approval of the special use permits, as some board members questioned the quality of jobs staffing agencies provide to workers. Warehouses for years have had a reputation for employing workers on a temporary or part-time basis to avoid benefits and to keep wages low. Whether or not the reputation is deserved, zoning board members questioned whether staffing agencies provide warehouses with a steady supply of low-wage workers.
Council member Terry Morris in calling for the delay in the City Council vote asked that staff look into whether such working conditions persist or at least check on the kinds of jobs HR Metrics and Innovative Staffing provide. The problem, however, is that the city may not have the means of doing the kind of checking needed to give a stamp of approval for a staffing agency.
“I don’t think we have the resources to do any kind of independent research into this,” said Kendall Jackson, director of community development for Joliet.
Some kind of certification, however, is what Clack suggests. He posed the possibility of Joliet at least certifying that staffing agencies comply with a state law that went into effect this year prohibiting certain practices, such as charging applicants $50 for background checks.
“You may go through five our six staffing agencies in a year,” Clack said. “That’s not unusual, and you get charged each time.”
For now, Joliet staff has requested that Innovative Staffing and HR Metrics provide background information about themselves and services they provide.
John Grueling, president and chief executive officer for the Will County Center for Economic Development, said staffing agencies provide a valuable service, especially in an environment in which worker shortages has become one of the top issues logistics companies face.
Those labor shortages are pushing wages up as employers try to retain workers, Greuling said. He pointed to past meetings between CED and Warehouse Workers for Justice.
“They were demanding that all distribution centers and warehouses have to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour,” Greuling said. “They wanted the city to pass that law. Fast-forward to today.”
Greuling noted Amazon’s recent announcement that it would start workers at a wage of $15 an hour.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” he said.
Greuling and others have questioned why Joliet even requires a special use permit. Such permits are required of auto repair shops and other businesses that could have an impact on surrounding businesses and residents. The impact on neighbors was an issue when Joliet imposed the special use permit 15 years ago. Jackson said the city’s planning staff did some research into past City Council proceedings concerning the special use permit for staffing offices.
“They were concerned about things like adequate parking, noise, loitering and whether or not there would be business that would have negative impact on physical surroundings,” he said. “As far as we could tell, there was nothing about wages or benefits.”