Temporary staffing agencies now are encouraged to operate at a higher standard regarding pay, working conditions and benefits for the workers they place in Memphis businesses.
That standard is engraved in the recently announced Greater Memphis Chamber’s Gold Standard Certification, which vets the agencies’ performance on workplace equity issues.
“It’s really about best practices; who provides the best practices. When you talk about customer service for staffing agencies, they (staffing agencies) have two sets of customers.
“They have their businesses that contract with them to help them find talent. They also have the individual, who’s seeking employment,” said Sondra Howell, vice president of Talent Innovation for the chamber.
Although just announced, the idea of the certification program began during a protest years ago.
In 2016, hundreds of activists took to the Memphis streets to protest the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castille in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Soon, they advanced to the I-55 bridge. With traffic snarled, police were called. The crowd eventually was dispersed with the promise of a community meeting.
In addition to police brutality, poverty and lack of opportunity would be discussed at meeting.
The activists, however, weren’t done.
“We organized after that and picketed the Chamber of Commerce. The (then-) president of the chamber, Phil Trenary, came down, which I thought was one ballsy move.
“I said to myself, ‘If I were in that position, I would have done that.’ That’s a good way of showing good faith,” said Al Lewis with the Coalition of Concerned Citizens.
They talked about economic justice — fair compensation, basic benefits, and upward mobility — and their lack of availability to temporary workers.
The chamber’s Howell, added, “He (Trenary) was approached by community activists about a number of things, and one of those things was really about equity; how people are able to access good jobs in underserved communities.”
One thing that stood out was that it was not necessarily skills, but a lack of experience forced job seekers to go to a staffing agency, “and that’s not just locally, but nationally,” Howell said.
After several meetings, the Gold Star Certification was proposed.
Trenary was murdered in 2018. After that, the push for the proposal dwindled. It wasn’t until another episode of police violence, the George Floyd protests, that the concept was dusted off.
After weeks of local and nationwide protests over George’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the chamber hosted the “Protest to Progress” initiative in 2020, where community leaders could discuss issues around equity and race.
“The second big meeting was at the Civil Rights Museum. That’s where they invited several large corporations, several of the mega churches had their preachers there…There were about six organizing groups.
“They just wanted to hear from us. That’s what floored me. I couldn’t believe my own ears when that happened. And they heard, that’s what was really impressive. There wasn’t a lot of banter at all. They wanted to hear what our concerns were,” said Lewis.
Soon, meetings were being held once a week. Eventually, the certification program was re-introduced by current chamber President Beverly Robertson.
“Beverly was whole-heartedly behind it when she stood up the ‘Protest to Progress’ initiative in response to the civil disruption. She brought many businesses to the table, along with our community activists to really talk about what were the concerns. What does change look like and how do industries and businesses support that change,” said Howell.
Part of the fresh look is to scrutinize a businesses’ practices. To achieve this, an independent advisory board was formed. In addition to Lewis, it includes members of the business community and activists.
Out of the hundred-plus businesses that applied, only five achieved certifications. They were CTD Staffing, Staffline LLC, ProLogistix, Prestigious Placement, and Summerfield Associates Inc.
Staffline LLC. Headquartered in Memphis, the agency staffs several light industrial businesses, including warehouses, locally.
“The application process, once the chamber and city found what was important to them … they were asking us to quantify how we approach business. What our business principles are like and our interactions with our employees,” said Mark Story, president and chief operating officer.
“Also, they asked us for letters of recommendation, one from an employee and one from a customer. So, it’s a pretty intense qualification that you had to go through and give a number of examples of how you perform.”
Unlike many of the other applicants, Staffline had incorporated many of the certification’s demands into its employment practices.
In addition to competitive pay, it offers its employees paid holidays and vacations. Health insurance is also offered. They also offer guidance to employees seeking to advance within. The benefits have helped the company retain experienced employees.
“We went through this process, and I got tickled …What I found interesting very quickly is we did not have to adapt to meet any of the qualifications of what the chamber was requesting,” said Story.