When Rolene Otero, enforcement director for the U.S. Department of Labor, began a massive crackdown on garment industry sweatshops in Orange County this year, she knew it would be risky.
Helping women and children who sew for wages as low as $1.45 an hour has not always been a high priority at the home office in Washington, she said. But, Otero said: "You've got to do what you have to do and let the chips fall. I figured when all the excitement died down, I'd either be reassigned to Yuma," where there is no office, "or get to keep my job."
What Otero did may have changed the course of the lives of hundreds of poor Latino and Asian children who along with their mothers worked day and night producing clothes for Los Angeles manufacturers.
It was the situation of children such as 7-year-old David Valladares that touched Otero. David worked every day after school and all day Saturdays in the family's tiny apartment in Santa Ana helping his mother sew clothing. David is only six months younger than Otero's own son, Martin.
"It always bothers me when I see children who are working or are being left alone," said Otero, 40. The first time she saw David, she said, he and four siblings were being cared for by their 14-year-old sister in their apartment while their mother was out picking up garment pieces to sew.
That was not the first time for her to encounter children who had been left alone. In Los Angeles one night, she had gone to serve a subpoena on a woman to testify in a sweatshop case. That night, she saw a something she will never forget: "The mother was away working, and a little 4-year-old girl was all alone taking care of a 3-year-old and 1-year-old baby. You see a certain amount of this. It really bothers you."
Otero's concern over abuses in the garment industry grew, and when she was promoted to director of enforcement in Santa Ana, Orange County became her new battleground.
"She was our resident expert in this area," said Robert Kelley, regional director for the U.S. Department of Labor and Otero's immediate supervisor.
"If you know Rolene," he said, "you know she has no superiors. She has a high intelligence level and a high energy level. She has to with all she does."
She and her staff knew there were garment-industry labor abuses in Orange County, but the office had received few complaints. When Otero began having a Spanish-speaking employee answer the telephone calls to the office, the complaints came rolling in.
With concrete leads to follow, Otero spearheaded a series of raids in Orange County in July, finding 18 shops that were violating minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws. Some cases are still pending, but so far, shops have been ordered to pay a total of more than $180,000 in back wages to at least 220 workers.
Otero estimates that about half of the nearly 400 garment contractors in Orange County are giving piecework to home workers. David Valladares' mother, Juana, was such a home worker. Sewing commercially at home is a misdemeanor under California law. Labor laws that apply to garment workers say that children under 12 may not work and that those 12 to 14 may not work on school days.
For Otero, one of the most satisfying aspects of her job is seeing the families--especially the children--receive back pay.
The sweatshop owner who employed Juana Valladares and her children signed a consent decree to repay the family more than $22,700 in minimum and overtime wages owed to them, including nearly $3,200 owed David and $3,650 owed his 10-year-old sister, Maria Elena.
"I told Maria Elena she better save the money and plan on going to college," Otero said. It's the speech she gives to every child when he or she gets a check for back pay from a former employer.
"Maybe they won't ever go to college," Otero said. "But maybe if somebody thinks they can, maybe they will do it one day. I guess I'm a social worker at heart."