By Mark Hedin
Ethnic Media Services
In a time of COVID-necessitated lockdowns, if you’re working, you’re essential. In Los Angeles County, no one should allow an employer to rob them of their wages or force them to work in unsafe conditions. But immigrant workers, both documented and not, are particularly vulnerable to such exploitations.
Three county officials and a lawyer described an array of programs to protect workers at a teleconference Dec. 14 for ethnic media. A third of Angelenos are immigrants, noted Michael Nobleza, FUSE corps executive advisor for the Office of Immigrant Affairs (https://tinyurl.com/OIAservices), but immigrants comprise 40-60% of the essential workforce – janitors, delivery drivers, warehouse, restaurant and health care workers — “on the front lines of the pandemic, putting themselves at risk so that we can stay home safe.” These workers are also the most likely to face challenges trying to stay healthy, due to work conditions where maintaining safe physical distancing and using personal protective equipment is difficult, and sometimes living close to similarly challenged workers, freeways and industrial plants. For many, he said, “physical health and well-being comes second to economic health.”
Undocumented workers are ineligible for most state and federal aid programs, and the federal CARES Act disqualifies entire households for assistance if just one person is undocumented, cutting out 1.125 million Angeleno citizens or green card holders, Nobleza said. OIA has held webinars addressing voting, workers’ rights, workplace safety, eviction defense and foreclosure prevention strategies (archived at https://oia.lacounty.gov/know-your-worker-rights-webinar-resources/, including Spanish-language presentations, and also at the OIA’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/LAC4Immigrants/) and hosted an event with Univision LA this year to address “how to keep the American dream alive” for DACA recipients.
In early February of 2021, as part of its new LA Immigrant Essential Workers Initiative, OIA will host a two-day summit “focused on day laborers, domestic workers and DACA recipients entering the workforce” to propose legislation reforms and connect essential workers to “wraparound” services. Rose Basmadzhyan, chief of the Wage Enforcement Program and Investigative Division at the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, investigates issues of minimum wage and unpaid wages, matters of overtime, split shift differentials, adequate lunch breaks and more.
“A lot of times workers are afraid to come forward,” she said. “We’re happy to take a tip anonymously or from a third party. We do understand the vulnerability, fear of retaliation or adverse action. We have tools to allow us to remedy that, from hefty fines to reinstatement.”
The office can be reached at 800 593-8222 and https://dcba.lacounty.gov/.
So far, she said, 1,500 employees have received wages they were due, and the county has collected $1.3 million in fines and back pay.
“When we get a complaint,” she said, “we investigate the entire business, because when a problem exists with one employee, the problem will exist with others.”
Statewide, the minimum wage is going up $1 per hour on Jan. 1, to $13 for companies with 25 or fewer workers and $14 for bigger ones. But in L.A. County, it’s already $14.25 for small businesses and $15 for large ones. Monica Nguyen, director of GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence), described her program, run under the auspices of the largest public social services agency in the country, the county Department of Public Social Services, which helps more than 3.5 million people, in 19 languages. GAIN administers federal state and county-funded programs for people who receive cash assistance through CalWorks.
“Our goal is to help people overcome any barriers they have finding and keeping employment,” she said, through job search assistance, vocational training, case management, adult education, or dealing with domestic violence or mental health issues – “you name it,” Nguyen said. “Every day we can see around us those affected by COVID-19,” she said, citing “severe food insecurity” and a “much larger unemployment rate than usual in L.A. County.” Last December, she said, the unemployment rate was 4.3%. This year, in September, it hit 15.5% and was 12.3% in October. “There’s plenty of support we can provide,” Nguyen said. “Child care, assistance with transportation, work-related expenses such as tools and books.”
People can apply for GAIN services at (866) 292-4246 or contact DPSS at (866) 613-3777 and dpss.lacounty.gov. She also suggested applying for CalFresh (https://www.getcalfresh.org), “an excellent opportunity to get help.”
Yvonne Garcia Medrano, program attorney for Bet Tzedek’s employee rights legal services, concluded the conference by encouraging anyone experiencing any issues around things such as workplace safety, wage theft, discrimination, unemployment, or retaliation to reach out to her nonprofit for pro bono legal help.
Bet Tzedek (https://www.bettzedek.org/) is at the center of network of dozens of legal firms, ready to go to bat for anyone “seniors, the unhoused, immigrants and workers in Los Angeles County regardless of race, age, gender or status,” she said, “one of the few legal nonprofits that provide legal help to undocumented workers.”
Bet Tzedek has a weekly clinic that workers can reach any time at (323) 939-0506, extension 415. Messages will be returned for an intake interview, followed up by a phone call on a Wednesday from 4-7 p.m. from a lawyer offering actual legal help, not simply a workshop.
“Our fear is that we’re returning to a time when nobody is enforcing these laws and employers know it.”