Immigrant workers by the thousands file through the doors of the state labor commissioner's office every year, hoping the government can force employers to pay them fair wages.
Instead, many of the mostly unskilled, low-paid laborers get a painful first lesson in American bureaucracy. They find an agency with too few offices, inconsistent bilingual services and delays that can stretch to two or more years for collection of just a few hundred dollars.
"It's like a black hole," said Michelle Yu, a Legal Aid Foundation attorney who over the years has pursued several hundred wage claims, mostly for immigrants. "The system that was supposed to help them is a hindrance."
Employment is the main force behind immigration, and nowhere do newcomers face as much exploitation as in the workplace. And no place gets as many of their complaints as the state labor commissioner's office--for many immigrants the only recourse they have.
The picture of immigrants toiling in sweatshops and other low-wage industries is a familiar one. But unseen is what happens to those workers--legal and undocumented--who try to fight back by using the system.
Take Ricardo Cannales, a former car washer in Monterey Park who complained about working 50- and 60-hour weeks for six months, only to get paid about $1 an hour.
After filing a claim with the labor agency for $6,000, the East Los Angeles man waited five months as his paperwork was transferred from Los Angeles to Van Nuys to Long Beach. Then his case got mixed up with some others. It wasn't until just a few weeks ago--17 months after Cannales made his complaint--that he was called to a hearing and finally got his money.
"It took too long and they never told me why," said Cannales, who has since found work as a farmhand in Bakersfield.
The most tenacious workers, like Cannales, stick it out and prevail. But nearly a third of the immigrants who file wage claims give up along the way because they can't wait, can't make sense of the state letters they get or can't travel to attend hearings, according to some experts.
Greg Rupp, an assistant labor commissioner in Los Angeles, acknowledged that delays do occur, but said they were partly caused by insufficient information provided by workers.
Rupp also said the agency has tried hard to make interpreters available. But noting that dozens of positions have been cut in the budget-crunch '90s, he said: "I think we're doing a very good job with the resources we have, the authority we have, and the tools we have."
The work-related abuses that undocumented and legal residents face are part of the widespread exploitation of immigrants in California, now home to more than a third of the nation's 24 million foreign-born people.
A review of more than 700 wage claims filed in English and Spanish in the Southland since 1993, selected on the basis of certain industries where immigrants abound, show a vast majority complain about not receiving the required time-and-a-half overtime. But also typical are allegations of not being paid at all, paid late or with checks that bounce.
Alejandro Diaz, 24, a yard worker in Rialto, said his employer deducted $123 from his paycheck after a leaf blower was stolen from the back of the company truck. When Diaz complained to the labor commissioner, his employer returned the money.
But Diaz said a co-worker who is an undocumented immigrant and who also got a similar paycheck deduction wasn't so lucky. He did not want to file a claim, afraid it could cost him his job or even deportation.
While undocumented workers are more reluctant to go to the state, many of them do file claims. Like the police and other government agencies, the labor commissioner is supposed to help all workers regardless of legal status.
But a broad review of cases and agency statistics, along with interviews with dozens of workers, employee representatives and current and former government investigators, paint a picture of an agency that, if it were a business, would be heading toward bankruptcy.
* The agency routinely misses statutory deadlines for processing claims. Hearings are supposed to be held within four months, and cases closed soon after. But in the Los Angeles area, more than one-fifth of the workers waited at least one year for results, according to 1994 data, the latest available.
* Half of the agency's 10 service centers in the Southland have been closed in the '90s, including an important hearing office in downtown Los Angeles. That has been a prime cause for a sharp drop in wage-claim filings, from 68,000 in 1990 to 44,000 in 1995.
* Non-English-speaking workers sometimes are lost because the agency doesn't consistently provide bilingual letters or services. Said Regula Aguilar, an Orange County construction laborer who filed his complaint in Spanish: "I had to take my letters to my neighbor, who would translate for me."