Indeed, there are few places where low-wage workers can turn to remedy wage injustices. But newcomers to this country feel they have even fewer options.
Although an increasing number of immigrants are taking their wage disputes to Small Claims Court, courthouse clerks indicate, many are discouraged by the filing costs or intimidated by the judicial system because they lack the fluency in English to argue their claims in the few minutes allotted.
The federal Department of Labor doesn't have a mechanism for handling individual wage claims. Private lawyers seldom take on clients with wage cases of a couple of thousand dollars.
"There isn't any alternative to the labor commissioner's office," said Cynthia Rice, a staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, which has filed a lawsuit against the state for failing to provide translation to workers. That suit is pending.
Rice said there are hard-working people at the agency and that a few offices, such as the one in Salinas, are fairly responsive to immigrant laborers. But on the whole, she said, the service is poor. "The commitment is not there."
Senior labor commissioner officials say they are committed. "We're processing thousands of claims. They're coming in and going out," Rupp said.
Times correspondent Enrique Lavin contributed to this story.
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Wage claims filed by workers with the state labor commissioner's office fell 35% from 1990 to 1995. A prime cause: Half the agency's 10 offices have closed during the '90s. Wage claims filed:
Cases Drag On
State labor code requires the commissioner's office to decide cases within six months, but that often does not happen in some of the busiest regional offices. How long cases that closed in 1994 (most recent data) were active:
Los San Santa Angeles* Diego Ana Statewide 1-5 months 47% 44% 62% 61% 6-12 months 31% 28% 26% 26% 1-2 years 18% 20% 10% 10% More than 2 years 4% 8% 2% 3% Total cases 12,602 5,408 3,597 51,206
* Includes Los Angeles, Van Nuys and Long Beach
Change at Work
As immigration has boomed in California, new arrivals have all but replaced U.S.-born workers in some of the lowest-paying industries. Percent of jobs held by foreign-born workers statewide:
Occupation 1980 1996 Construction laborer 20% 64% Janitor 26% 49% Farm worker 58% 91% Maid/houseman 34% 76% Electronics assembler 37% 60% Household child care 20% 58% Restaurant cook 29% 69% Gardener 37% 66% Drywall installer 9% 48%
\o7 Sources: California Department of Industrial Relations; U.S. Census Bureau\f7