A State Inquiry Is Said to Target Job Agencies

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The newspaper advertisement looked like the answer to her problems. “Housekeeping needed. No exp needed, up to $18.75 hr.” Zade rushed to the Manhattan employment agency that had posted the notice. Her husband had been suffering from kidney problems for five years and had not been working. Zade, 51 and an immigrant from Kosovo, needed a job. Now.

Karen Casillas, left, and Sara Navarro run an employment agency out of a beauty salon in Queens. Agencies that cheat clients give honest services a bad name, Ms. Navarro said.

The agency requested $299. After Zade handed over the money, an employee gave her an address.

It was then that her troubles began. She traveled from her Bronx home to the job location in Canarsie, Brooklyn — a journey of at least two hours — and knocked on the door of a two-story home. The woman who answered looked baffled. “There’s nobody here for you,” Zade remembered her saying. The job, she realized, did not exist.

Employment agencies play an essential role in many city neighborhoods, brokering work or job training for low-skilled and illegal immigrants, in exchange for a fee. But with a weak economy and many people desperate for jobs, fraudulent practices are common.

The New York State attorney general’s office is investigating about a dozen employment agencies that may have cheated job seekers, according to an official familiar with the investigation. The office is examining whether the agencies took fees from clients in exchange for jobs that never materialized or paid below the minimum wage, refused to give refunds, charged fees in excess of the permitted amount, lacked proper licenses or violated civil rights law by referring clients to jobs based on their nationality or gender.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

The agencies under examination are in northern Queens and serve mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. The investigation, however, offers a glimpse into larger problems at employment agencies across the city. In 2008, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pledged to put a stop to abuse at such agencies. But the investigation, as well as interviews with clients, lawyers and advocates, suggests that many agencies continue to swindle customers.

Zade and several other clients asked that their full names not be used, citing fears of deportation or retribution from the employment agencies.

There are 329 licensed employment agencies in the city, but many more operate without licenses, according to New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a nonprofit group that issued a report on employment agencies in 2012.

New York City employment agencies must be licensed by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which is charged with inspecting agencies, ensuring they follow a set of rules and fining or closing them if they do not. It is also charged with addressing customer complaints.

In the last fiscal year, the department forced agencies to pay $41,025 in fines to the city and $7,580 in restitution to customers. Between 2010 and 2012, it revoked the licenses of three agencies.

“The most common baseline fraud is agencies that take money for a job placement and then just don’t do anything,” said Laura Huizar, a lawyer with LatinoJustice PRLDEF who represents several individuals who said they had been duped. Sometimes the agency simply disappears with a customer’s fee. Zade returned to United Care Services, the agency in Manhattan that had taken her money, only to find that its owners had abandoned the office, in the Flatiron district. Other victims stood outside, she recalled. “One woman is waiting there saying, ‘I paid $499, and I have three kids,’ ” she said.

The attorney general’s office has since lodged criminal charges against the owners, who are accused of robbing dozens of people. The owners, Elena Shchukina and Ronald Ulysse, are free on bail, charged with fraud and petty larceny. If convicted, they each face up to four years in jail. They could not be reached for comment.

In some cases, clients are given jobs for low pay in abusive conditions. Other times, they are offered training they are told will guarantee work — as security guards, nannies or home health aides — but never placed in a job.

One woman, a 44-year-old Asian immigrant living in the Bronx, lost her job as a medical researcher. She replied to a Craigslist advertisement posted by an employment agency promising a course that would certify her as a home health aide.

After paying $300 at an office in what she called a “very nice building” in Manhattan, she headed to a Brooklyn location, a place that an agency employee had told her would host the classes. A man there said no such course existed.

“This is a daylight robbery,” the woman said. “They have been putting the same advertisement since they cheated me. I don’t know how many people have used them since.”

The Department of Consumer Affairs recently closed the Permay Employment Agency, a Woodside, Queens, business whose owner, Perla Mayorga, violated city and state law on hundreds of occasions. A judge ordered the agency to pay $12,800 in fines to the city and approximately $5,000 in restitution to 16 clients. The department had previously secured $11,245 in restitution for 50 consumers who filed complaints.

The Permay case is notable, said Jonathan Mintz, the commissioner of the Consumer Affairs Department, because an unusually high number of clients complained to the department, making it easier to lodge a case against its owner.

But tracking violators is difficult, he said, mostly because customers, who are often in the country illegally, are afraid to speak out. “The major barrier is people’s willingness to tell us about their bad experiences,” Mr. Mintz said.

Some New Yorkers, however, say that agency customers should not have to wait for government officials to take action against an abusive employment agency: that customers should be able to do it themselves.

Under the state’s current business law, individuals who believe they have been cheated by an employment agency do not have the right to sue for violations, Ms. Huizar said. “Other states have specially amended their laws concerning employment agencies,” she said, “giving workers the right to sue.”

In Jackson Heights, Queens, managers at a number of agencies defended their practices. Sara Navarro, 25, runs an agency out of a basement beauty salon on the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Junction Boulevard.

Speaking above the whir of a hair dryer, she said agencies that cheated clients had given honest ones a bad name.

“More than anything we help people,” she said, adding that she will help a client “until they find something steady.”

source-http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/nyregion/a-state-inquiry-is-said-to-target-job-agencies.html?_r=1&