SACRAMENTO — Alarmed that abusive bosses are increasingly threatening to turn employees over to U.S. authorities when they complain about working conditions, state lawmakers and immigrant-rights advocates are calling for tougher laws to combat the practice.
The tactic is used against low-wage, undocumented workers in California if they complain about not being paid what they're due or about unsafe working conditions, said Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina). He is chairman of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, which highlighted the issue at a hearing in the state Capitol on Wednesday.
Such "abuse and exploitation" is compounded by "the added injustice of intimidation based on immigration status," Hernandez said at a morning media conference to unveil planned state legislation. "I, for one, am not content to stand by and wait for the federal government to do its job."
Complaints about immigration status being used as part of workplace retaliation are not new.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said her agency seeks to stay out of these matters when possible. As a rule, federal immigration officers try to avoid becoming involved in workplace labor disputes, said spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
The mission of the agency is "to identify and penalize employers who knowingly violate the law, particularly if they mistreat workers, engage in human smuggling or depend on unauthorized workers to give them an advantage over law-abiding competitors," she said.
Hernandez and fellow Democratic legislators said they planned to pressure Congress and President Obama to speedily pass comprehensive federal immigration reform that provides a path toward citizenship for some of the nation's 11 million undocumented residents.
But Hernandez said that at the same time he will be pushing a bill, AB 263, that would slap fines and possibly tougher penalties on employers who try to punish workers by anonymously calling ICE in hopes that federal agents make an arrest.
Neither Kice nor employer groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, had any comment on the proposed legislation, which has yet to be detailed.
Undocumented, low-wage workers, mainly in the service, agriculture and housekeeping industries, are particularly vulnerable to employer retaliation, said Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. "They are often fired. Their wages are stolen, and they're threatened with sexual abuse," Pulaski said. "All because employers know they can get away with it."
Much of the testimony about employer retaliation against undocumented workers heard by the committee Wednesday was based on a new report by the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington and Oakland that supports the rights of the working poor and unemployed.
A weak labor market with high unemployment gives employers a tremendous advantage over people vying for scarce jobs, said a section of the report that focused on California. "This imbalance gives employers great power to set the terms and conditions of employment and to violate workers' rights without fear of consequences," the report contended.
Among the cases cited by the report was that of a day laborer from Garden Grove hired by a contractor last year to pave a parking lot. At the end of the day, the worker asked to be paid for 10 hours, but the contractor accused him of stealing, the report said. The worker called the police, who didn't arrest the worker but turned him over to federal immigration officials.
In another 2012 case in Los Angeles, a Thai immigrant working as a restaurant delivery driver complained to labor officials about not getting overtime pay or rest and meal breaks. The U.S. Labor Department ordered his employer to pay $23,000 in hourly wages and mileage expenses. According to the report, the employer told the delivery driver to repay the money and threatened him with bodily harm and deportation.
Employer abuses could be remedied in a number of ways at the state level, the National Employment Law Project said.
They include enacting stronger penalties against companies that threaten workers with deportation; boosting resources for enforcement of core labor laws in low-wage industries; and separating the legal activities of state labor regulators, local police and federal immigration authorities.