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Making the job fair for everyone

Spanish-speaking workers -- legal residents or not -- receive help with workplace rights.

January 18, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The case started with a phone call to a Spanish-speaking volunteer at a small office in San Bernardino. A Los Angeles domestic worker said her boss owed her a few hundred dollars.

The U.S. Department of Labor opened an investigation and, with the help of the Mexican Consulate, discovered hundreds of workers who hadn't been paid the minimum wage or overtime for their work cleaning homes and carpets.

In August, a federal judge ordered Gardena-based Southern California Maid Service and Carpet Cleaning to pay nearly $3.5 million in back wages to 385 current and former workers.

The case stemmed from a program launched in 2004 by the Labor Department, the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles and other agencies to educate Spanish-speaking workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities, to encourage employees to report abuses and to investigate labor law violations by businesses.

Since the program, called EMPLEO, began, the Labor Department has recovered nearly $4.35 million in compensation for 2,267 workers, not including the Gardena case. Now officials are considering expanding it statewide. Similar programs are in Las Vegas, Houston, Philadelphia and Dallas.

As part of the program, the Labor Department conducts investigations and recovers unpaid wages on behalf of the workers regardless of their immigration status.

"We don't ask the question," said Priscilla Garcia, an assistant district director for the department's West Covina office. "We just make sure that the laws are enforced properly and that employees are receiving their entitlement to minimum wage and overtime."

The Mexican and Central American consulates in Los Angeles said they play a critical role in the program because they have long advocated for immigrants living in the U.S. States and have gained the trust of their communities. Immigrants may be wary of going to U.S. authorities because they fear deportation or losing their job or because they don't know they have the same labor rights as Americans.

"They are vulnerable due to their migratory status," said Marco Antonio Fraire, legal affairs consul for the Mexican Consulate. "Some employers think that they do not know their rights. Some employers take advantage of that situation to offer them low-paid salaries, salaries lower than the ones authorized by law."

Karina Magallon, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, began working in August 2006 for a Van Nuys factory that made tents. Magallon said she worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, earning $6 an hour.

"I hadn't worked in the U.S. before," she said. "I thought that was normal."

Magallon, 29, said she visited the doctor because of skin irritation from the fabric used at the factory. In January 2007, she said, the doctor advised her to stop working.

A friend had given her the EMPLEO number, so she called to register a complaint about both the safety hazard and the low pay. Magallon and several of her colleagues met with a department investigator, who determined that the factory had violated labor laws. Within a few months, Magallon received a check for $1,500.

"At first, I thought because I didn't have papers, I had to put up with everything," she said. "Then I realized that . . . there are agencies that support us. It doesn't matter if we are legal or illegal."

EMPLEO, which means employment in Spanish and stands for Employment Education and Outreach, is another example of how involved the consulate is in providing services to Mexican nationals living in the United States.

"The Mexican government is aggressively expanding its work in this area," said USC professor Roberto Suro. "It's quite a substantial operation."

The consulate does not conduct the investigations, but rather channels complaints to the proper agencies. Consular officials also help publicize the program and disseminate the toll-free hotline number (877) 55-AYUDA through Spanish-language media.

The call center, staffed by volunteers from the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, is open Monday through Friday. The most common calls involve overtime pay or minimum wage, but callers also report unfair termination, unsafe working conditions and discrimination.

Nearly 60% of workers who call the center and about 50% of the employers involved are in Los Angeles County. Most callers are Mexican or Central American and work in traditionally low-wage jobs.

Erika Ramirez, 29, called EMPLEO in March after the company she was working for fired her and then failed to issue her final paycheck for about $150. The factory referred her to the labor contractor that arranged her job, which said a check had been issued and demanded $25 to stop payment before issuing a new one. They wouldn't show her a copy of the first check.

"I thought it wasn't fair," she said. "Immigrants or residents or citizens, if you work, you have the right to be paid."

Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, eventually received her check a few months later.

Most employers want to do the right thing and just need guidance, said Sandy Cajas, president of the Regional Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who helps disseminate posters and brochures about EMPLEO to her members.

Josie Gonzalez, a Pasadena attorney who represents employers in immigration matters, said there are contradictions in employment and labor law. For example, a company that discovers that an employee's Social Security number is false may want to terminate the worker and issue a final check but can't do so with the fake number.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he applauds the government for enforcing labor laws because he believes that will help deter employers from hiring illegal workers as cheap labor. But he said the government needed to hold employees accountable for breaking the law by being here illegally.

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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