Temp agency accused of taking advantage of Hispanic workers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 1999

When Hugo Luna came to Austin from Iowa, she came for work.

Tuesday, October 26, 1999

When Hugo Luna came to Austin from Iowa, she came for work. She got it quickly. However, the free food and accommodation she’d been promised by the employment agency that brought her here weren’t exactly what she’d anticipated.

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Luna, born and raised in Texas, said she shared the quaint white and green farmhouse she’d been brought to – located approximately eight miles south of Austin close to Lyle off of Highway 5 – with 26 other people. All were of Hispanic origin. They were sleeping on couches and floors, several in the two-car garage, plus a family of four was occupying one shed while an older couple slept in another, smaller shed. The group shared one downstairs bathroom and one kitchen.

For food, Luna said she and many of the others went to the Salvation Army. They were advised to do exactly that by the woman overseeing the farmhouse for MetroTemp Employment Agency, the DesMoines-based agency that recruited Luna, she said.

"I had my own apartment and a job in Iowa," Luna told the crowd at the League of Women Voters meeting Monday night. "I could pay my bills there, but I came here because Bobbi (Bobbi Goebel, the president of MetroTemp) promised me I’d make more money here and told me not to worry about accommodation.

"I just want someone to stop her and people like her from hurting anyone else."

Goebel was unavailable for comment when the Herald went to press this morning.

Lori Espe, then a social worker at the Austin Salvation Army, has never visited the farmhouse. However, she confirmed that the charity gave out at least 10 food orders to people who listed the farmhouse, address RR 2, Box 120, as their home address during the month of August. Although she has no precise records of the weights of each order, at an average of 125 pounds per food order, it came to well over 1,000 pounds of food.

"We had requests from the beginning of August through the end from that house, it crested on Aug. 13th according to our records," Espe said. "Six of them came in – all in a row. They said they’d just gotten here. It’s part of our mission statement to help people, but we may have to look at some changes to policy after that."

Things did get better at the farmhouse.

MetroTemp purchased another building, this one located north of Austin near the intersection of State Highway 218 and old Highway 218. This long low building with two double doors was and is referred to as "The Mission." According to Luna, many of the farmhouse occupants – mostly men – who hadn’t already found other accommodation were sent there to live, bringing the farmhouse to an acceptable level of six or seven in the four-bedroom structure.

Luna is not the only one upset about Goebel’s operation.

Mike Woods is a much more recent arrival to Austin and QPP via MetroTemp.

Recently divorced and jobless, Woods got acquainted with MetroTemp because of an advertisement that promised $9 an hour wages plus benefits. Woods said he was promised a month’s free accommodation and food, as opposed to the two weeks promised Luna and most of the others. He can testify to conditions in The Mission.

"I got here and, yes, there was a bed, but no bed linens," he said. "When I asked about food, I was told I’d be sorted out, but Lorenzo (who Woods said works for MetroTemp) wasn’t actually coming through with anything or telling me any specifics. It was so dirty, I got (sick to my stomach) for four days after being there only a couple days."

Woods, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy, wasn’t putting up with The Mission. It was too dirty, and there was no place in the kitchen to wash dishes even if you could access the single electric skillet.

"They take advantage of the Hispanics," he said, referring to the agency. "… If I told you I’d put you up in my house and feed you for a month or two weeks, that’s what I’d do … They couldn’t do this to Americans, put them in these kinds of conditions, they won’t put up with it. These Mexicans are just happy to get a job and a roof over their heads, so they don’t complain.

"The city needs to nip this in the bud before it gets out of hand – tell MetroTemp if they don’t play by the rules then they shouldn’t bring people here."

QPP personnel director Dale Wicks refused to answer any questions about MetroTemp or any other agencies the pork processing plant works – or doesn’t work – with.

Because he was a veteran and has lived here all his life, getting help was easier for Woods than the others that come in with MetroTemp to work at QPP. He went to several of the local agencies, and told them of the conditions at the Mission, where he said at least 14 men were sharing one toilet, two showers and the above-mentioned electric skillet, no stove.

Woods also said, once he notified Semcac’s Anne Troska of the conditions at The Mission, Troska called the lodging facility and the manager of the Mission did take action on some of the food issues immediately. It wasn’t the first time Troska had heard of the Mission, or the farmhouse, she had mentioned both places at a meeting on homelessness two weeks before.

In the end, Woods ended up living in The Mission less than a week, thanks to the intervention of the veteran’s agency here.

It took Luna much longer to get out of the farmhouse, but that was because it took Luna much longer to become disillusioned with MetroTemp.

"I thought she (Bobbi) was helping us out," Luna said. "It took me three months to realize she wasn’t helping us, she brings people up here and treats them well until she gets her money from the company and then you’re on your own."

The bright side of the story for both Luna and Woods is Quality Pork Processing and the city of Austin as a whole.

Luna got kicked out of the farmhouse on Saturday, but someone in the personnel department in QPP found her a place to stay for up to 30 days. She found another apartment Monday, and will move again this weekend.

Woods also has a place to stay now, without sharing facilities with more than a dozen others. The VFW paid his first 10 days rent. He’ll take over the rent when he gets his first paycheck this weekend

They both agreed that the pay is good and QPP a fine place to work. Luna loves how clean Austin is.

Woods, well, he worries that this "nice community" will have a nasty shock down the road if some guidelines for agencies like MetroTemp aren’t put in place.

As for Troska, she is gratified that there is progress being made around Austin on housing issues. There has been interest from the Ministerial Association since she and several other agencies met to discuss homelessness in Austin and QPP has also shown an interest in discussing the issue.

"When people start to talk, that’s when progress is made," Troska said.