Protest at Ferrara Candy in Forest Park

Activists allege temp racial discrimination

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MICHAEL ROMAIN

Editor, Village Free Press

A group of about 30 community activists from Chicago's Austin neighborhood, and throughout the city, converged Tuesday at the flagship manufacturing facility of the Ferrara Pan Candy Company, 7301 Harrison St. in Forest Park, demanding to speak to the company's CEO, Todd Siwak.

They claim that the company has used two temp agencies — REM and Elite Staffing — "whose job it was to target Mexican workers, make them work in sweatshop-like conditions and shutout other workers" from employment at its plants in Forest Park and Bellwood, according to Dan Gilroth, an activist with the South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACC).

Ferrara Candy Co. is the maker of such ubiquitous sweetened treats as Jawbusters, Boston Bake Beans, Lemonheads and Red Hots. The company, which was founded in 1908 by the Ferrara family, was bought out by a private equity firm in 2012.

Charles Perry, the director of community organizing at the Westside Health Authority (WHA), stood in front of an unmanned receptionist's window in the plant's receiving lobby, hoping to get Siwak on the phone. Several other activists stood outside in front of the plant's entrance with signs that read: "We won't buy what we can't make," and "The system can't work if we don't work."

Perry said that his Austin-based organization, which connects job-seeking residents in that community with employment opportunities throughout the metropolitan area — often sending them to temp agencies that then funnel them to companies like Ferrara Candy Co. — has been getting a stream of complaints from its clients about their working conditions.

He referenced the case of Ronald Parker, 21, who was allegedly sent home from Ferrara's Bellwood facility after he was told that he needed to shave his beard.

"But when the temp agency showed him the [orientation] tape of how to work here, [the employees] have beard guards," Perry said. "In that video, it says that beard guards will be part of the equipment"

John Conversa, the Forest Park plant manager, confirmed that the beard guards were shown in the video, but that the video that shows workers wearing the equipment was only made for full-time workers."

"So, [the beard guards] are just for full-time workers — not temp workers?" Perry asked.

"Correct," Conversa said.

Perry said that, along with disparities in the availability of equipment, he also got complaints from workers who claimed that they were told by Ferrara supervisors to keep quiet about injuries received on the job or risk losing their temporary employment; who were employed with the company for six months to a year without receiving a raise; who were shorted on their pay; and who were overlooked by the company in favor of Mexican workers — who the activists say may tolerate more oppressive working conditions than their African American colleagues.

Gilroth said that Ronald Parker, who wasn't present at the protest, had also worked two twelve-hour shifts two weeks ago and was only paid for one.

"He told us, 'If I speak up about it, then I will never come back to work here again,'" Giloth recalled the man saying.

The activists claimed that the larger dynamic at play is the symbiotic relationship between large companies and temp agencies, which allow the companies to offload the responsibility of paying benefits and living wages, and providing safe working conditions, to their workers.

"Most Fortune 500 companies are starting to use staffing agencies, instead of hiring directly," Perry said. "That way, it takes the responsibility off of the companies. Where they may pay a staffing agency $17 per person — the person who's actually doing the work is only getting $8.25. So they're working half for themselves and half for the staffing agency, which is not fair."

Perry said that the WHA often loads up their clients in vans, transports them to temp agencies, assist them in filling out applications and ensure that their clients make it to the jobs at four AM the next day.

"Once they got [to the job], then it's the temp agency's job to contract them out to a facility and they would take them there, but they wouldn't come and pick them back up."

Perry said he's fielded complaints from clients, many of whom live on the city's west side, who have been virtually stranded in the western suburbs in the early morning hours, because public transportation isn't typically available during that time.

"Now, they have to figure a way from out there to get back home and the temp agency charges them to get dropped off," he said.

"Mind you, these are poor people who are trying to make a living for themselves — folks who have been incarcerated who don't want to do crime any longer and they're trying to make a living for their families. So when you have something like this, you're pushing the people least among us back into a life of criminality and we're trying to stop that."

Shaquan Reece, 25, was once contracted out by Elite Staffing to companies such as Frito Lay, substantiated much of Perry's criticisms.

"I was working for Elite staffing for like a year and a half — coming consistently. I wasn't eligible to get a raise. They expected me to do twelve-hour shifts. They provided the transportation, but they wouldn't pick us back up. If you come and set up at three in the morning, they would pick and choose who they wanted to go out," Reece said.  "And I know the percentage of blacks and Latinos. It [would be] like 15 percent black and maybe 45 percent Latino — but when it would come time to sign up, they'd pick more Latinos before they picked us, saying [that blacks] have to be bilingual. Or they would put us on a line with team leaders who don't speak English at all," she said.

"If you didn't come with your [equipment and supplies] they weren't going to supply them. But the Latinos, they were supplying gloves and extra coats and things like that. Sometimes, they'd make Latinos line leaders within six months and they would get a vest. It's like, I've been here a year-and-a-half. Why am I not eligible for that opportunity, too? They say you have to be bilingual, but I don't think that's fair, because if you put me on the line with a line leader who doesn't speak English at all, why don't they have to be bilingual as well? Why does it only have to be me who has to be versatile in both languages?"

Reece said that, after more than a year with Elite, she was still getting paid the minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Perry and Giloth said that companies and staffing agencies expect temp workers to labor twice as hard for half the pay. They suspect that companies are more willing to hire Mexican workers, since they're typically more willing to put up with labor abuses.

"There's a huge disparity here between Latinos and African Americans who are coming here and looking for these jobs. They are not being selected," said Virgil Crawford, an activist with WHA.

Giloth estimates that Ferrara's Forest Park facility, which he says is wholly reliant on temp workers to man its manufacturing line, employs roughly 200 such workers between shifts and for a typical week. He said that he obtained the figure by talking to Mexican workers at the plant, who pieced the number together department-by-department.

Perry said that 16 months ago, he and other activists were at this same location protesting about the hiring disparity between blacks and Latinos. He noted that, after the conversation, Ferrara did begin to hire more blacks, but the worker mistreatment continued.

The activists wanted to present their concerns and conditions to Siwak personally. Those conditions included: an end to the alleged discrimination in hiring; equal and fair treatment on the job; reliable schedules; a clear path from temp to direct hires; no more late or short paychecks; and a partnership with the community to ensure that those changes were implemented.

As the group waited for Siwak to materialize — Conversa said that the CEO was at the company's corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, but that he would try reaching him via phone — they began to sing Civil Rights-era songs.

"Ain't gonna let nobody, turn us around, turn us around," they sang. "We shall not, we shall not be moved …"

Gilroth suspected the company was engaging in a stall tactic, even as Conversa ensured the crowd that he was genuinely trying to reach Siwak. After an hour of waiting, Perry opted to hand Conversa a letter for Siwak, demanding that the CEO respond by Friday this week. Until then, the group vowed to protest the company's products.

"We can still buy the candy, but we can't help make it at a livable wage?" Perry said.

John Sheehan, a Forest Park resident with the TIF Illumination Project, said that he believes that Ferrara is receiving taxpayer funded Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars.

"I have to pay for my own discrimination?" Gilroth said. "It used to be free."  

Attempts to contact representatives from Ferrara Candy were unsuccessful.  

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Djeena  

Posted: November 6th, 2014 12:59 PM

Temp work most often is NOT a step to perm work. Very few contract jobs specify temp to hire. If they do, it is a really bad company to work for, in my experience, with lots of turnover. I have worked temp jobs for the last year and a half. Before that I had a part time job for about 6 months and then more temp work for 3 years. FT employers want you to be working a FT job just like the one they are hiring for. I hate the transitory nature of temping.

Michelle W from FP  

Posted: November 3rd, 2014 11:59 AM

I'm not about to subscribe to Jerry's idea of public policy or activism, so I'm not really bothered by it. I will continue to buy and behave in a way that is conducive to the values I want to see expressed in the world. That isn't a Polyanna wish; that's action that takes $ away from people who IMHO don't deserve it. If you're comfortable with the status quo, keep at it. @FP Taxpayer there are racial & SES issues involved here. Don't fall for the hype that pits poor ppl against each other.

JJ  

Posted: November 1st, 2014 10:23 PM

"and who were overlooked by the company in favor of Mexican workers ?" who the activists say may tolerate more oppressive work" How do you get away with such blatant racist sentiment. Why would a mexican worker tolerate oppressive work conditions any more than a black or white worker? All of these charges they have laid out are easily verified as true or not. That is the job of the newspaper journalist to follow up these charges. Almost all of the comments here are incredibly moronic.

F.P. taxpayer  

Posted: November 1st, 2014 4:22 PM

Many companies hire only part time employees with college degrees and have no benefits at all. They happen to be Caucasion. Allstate does that and my son is one of them. He has to travel to North Brook, no public transportation there. A Caucasian I know has worked for UPS for his entire life and never received full time status with benefits. This economy is not just discriminating against people of color. You just don't see the others protesting because some one didn't pick them up from work.

Sharon Daly from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 11:53 PM

Unite. Organize. Act. pitchforks, too. and tumbrels.

Bill Dwyer from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 9:28 PM

Jerry, lots of people- many thousands- got their heads cracked open, some died- in the years-long protests that were organized by Gandhi. India got free because Gandhi convinced all the Indians to stand up to the Brits and take their violence. It was most certainly effective. Sorry. Just an historical fact

jerry from forest park  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 9:00 PM

Bill, I didn't say it was wrong, just ineffective. Social change comes at a cost which is usually violet and bloody. The changes Brian spoke happened because fought and died for them not because some one protested or boycotted. The problem is the 1% hasn't figured out that if the 99% is making money that they can spend they will make more money (1%). They are stupid and greedy, the 1%'s of coarse.

Bill Dwyer from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 6:03 PM

Jerry, Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent protests and large scale civil disobedience are explictlly credited by most historians- and by many British sources- with shining a spotlight on British injustice and brutality in India, directly leading to independence after WWII. You're a fair-minded guy. So why do you feel so strongly that people protesting injustices is wrong in any way? It's not. And it's not ineffective.

jerry from forest park  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 5:56 PM

Well Brian, if you bothed really ready my comments you would know where I stand. But as usual you either didn't bother or chose to ignore all of what I said. Since this not the first time I have bumped heads with you, I see chose to ignore.

Brian Kuhr from Forest Park  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 5:01 PM

Jerry--Thanks to workers standing up for their rights we have an 8 hour day, 40 hour work week, child labor laws, a minimum wage., etc. If you are saying that the lesson of history is that workers should take whatever crumbs are offered to them and be grateful, you are reading the wrong history books. People need to stand up and be counted. Which side are you on?

jerry from park forest  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 3:47 PM

@who they want, if I had enough time to give you a history lesson maybe you would understand. Viotet protest work sometimes, maybe half the time. Viet Nam didn't end because of protesters, Gandi's non violence didn't free India, to many dead bodies. I could go on but I doubt you would believe it and there isn't enouigh space. Do I wish things were different, yes I do, but they aren't.

who they want  

Posted: October 31st, 2014 12:02 PM

Truly a recipe for a better world for us and our children. Fill in the blank: "As for _____, sometimes it works, mostly it doesn't." Variations on this theme are of course everywhere in the writings and teachings of those figures from history we associate with positive social change and human rights.

jerry from forest park  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 11:56 PM

I don't recall saying Michelle is dumb, I believe I said sensible. As for boycotting, it sometimes works, mostly it doesn't.

who they want  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 8:06 PM

@ jerry -- "your [sic] kidding right?" because boycotts never work?

Gina from FP  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 6:29 PM

@jerry - so we are powerless? Why do we vote, then? These business conversations are always hard for me. I want to think this kind of thing is wrong and in a utopian society it would be. In a capitalist one, not so much. And my father supported us with money from his small business so I can appreciate those challenges from the owner's perspective. Also, you can't just call Michelle dumb, Jerry! (I'm channeling Mean Girls and totally kidding).

jerry from forest park  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 4:11 PM

Michelle, your kidding right, it's because we allow it? I am glad you think your puchasing and voting dicisioins will effect how business do business and hire poeple. In a prefect world this may be true, guess what, it is not prectect. I am a little surprised because I always concidered you to be a sensible person

Michelle W from FP  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 3:26 PM

Forest Parker: Your article states that temp work is a jumping off point to full time employment. How's that working for the example cited in the article of a 1.5 year tenured "temp" at Ferrara? Are your standards so diminished that you no longer think good pay, benefits and days off is appropriate compensation? No one disputed the existence or rise of temp workers. I challenge the notion that it is good for society.

Forest Parker  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 2:13 PM

http://www.lanereport.com/31575/2014/05/the-rise-of-the-temporary-worker/

Curious One from Forest Park  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 1:52 PM

They are not called JAWBREAKERS anymore?

Sharon Daly from Forest Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 11:19 AM

ditto x1000, what Michelle W. said.

Michelle W from FP  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 9:37 AM

Gentlemen on "how the world works": it's because we ALLOW it to be this way. It isn't inevitable. I know my labor history too, and at one point hiring women and children and blatantly paying them less was "the way the world works". We should have a worldwide strictly enforced standards for companies to prevent this, and prevent them from finding less-regulated pastures. This viewpoint effects my purchasing and voting decisions. Follow your own consciences & spare me the world lesson.

Forest Parker  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 9:29 AM

Michelle and the others about temp workers. It is how the world works these days. Everything is outsourced these days. That way, doesn't count as a headcount on payroll and no benefits to dish out. Probably been going on for years.

jerry from forest park  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 9:27 AM

Michelle, while I don't disagree with you this how companies hire people now a days, if they hire at all. From personal experince this goes back at least 25 years.

Michelle W from FP  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 9:16 AM

It is shameful for a factory to chronically employ temp workers. That is not a benefit to the economy, local or otherwise, for anyone other than factory managers and owners. I wonder if they accept returns as I bought my Halloween candy from them, but never again until they rework these policies. Maybe a comment to the kids that Ferrara is using bad business practices.

Sharp Observer from FP  

Posted: October 30th, 2014 7:01 AM

Looks like Black activists complaining about White managers exploiting Latino workers. Not even one Hispanic has been interviewed or featured in this article. Let them speak!

who they want  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 10:20 PM

"unfortunately any company c[a]n hire who they want" subject of course to what's allowed under federal labor law. Here is an outline: http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/practices/ I'm not a lawyer but it looks temp agencies are also subject to EEOC jurisdiction, as suggested by this law suit that the EEOC settled with Sedona Staffing http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/litigation/sedona_staffing.cfm

Djeena  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 7:57 PM

Wow, as always, I am shocked by the rancorous comments. I work almost solely for temp agencies, although in a specialized field, and all of this is surely true. Yes, Ferrara can hire who they want but that doesn't make it ethical. These folks have the right to complain and I HIGHLY doubt Ferrara will leave. Even if they do, so what? How many of you are employed there? Thought so.. The bilingual issue is one I also despise. btw, you can't deny help to people and then curse them for not working!

goldielocks from forest park  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 6:03 PM

unfortunately any company cn hire who they want, including Ferrara Pan, i started out as a temp years ago in the mailroom of a major bank, and got worked up thru thru the years filling up for folks, however, i am still a temp, business would rather pay the temp agency than to pay the worker directly plus benefits, same old story.. bottomline.

Forest Park parker from Forest Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 5:53 PM

That's right...make noise...show how "powerful" you are. Instead of pushing for a union waste time by arguing about a beard guard. Soon any jobs in Bellwood will be transferred to Chicago in The Little Village or Pilsen neighborhoods where they appreciate jobs and can easily walk to them. Your group can take a Pace bus or two, 2 CTA trains and a CTA bus to and from the part time jobs.

Truth be told from Forest Park  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 5:09 PM

The plain truth is that most Latino workers can run circles around white and African American workers. Their work ethic is incredible.

Forest Parker Too  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 3:40 PM

Yeah, we should shut up and be happy with the scraps corporate leaders deign to share.

Forest Parker  

Posted: October 29th, 2014 3:12 PM

Keep pushing 'em WHA. Ferrara will pack up and leave Forest Park all together. And wouldn't that be great for FP. It would not. Seems to me Ferrara can (and will continue) to hire who they want. Sorry protesters.

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