By Sasha Khokha and Rachel Estabrook
While Congress debates federal immigration reform in Washington, California lawmakers are pushing several bills to strengthen state protections for immigrant workers. The measures could shut down California companies when employers intimidate their workers.
Take the case of Jose Arias, who milked cows at a San Joaquin county dairy for nearly a decade, starting his shift at 5 a.m. and working until noon. He started again at 4 p.m. and milked cows until midnight. But he wasn’t paid overtime, given meals and rest breaks, or paid his wages on time. He finally left the dairy and filed a lawsuit that made its way to the California Supreme Court, which validated his right to file a claim.
As Arias and the dairy owners were in the middle of negotiations, and shortly before trial, he says he learned the attorney representing the dairy had emailed an immigration agent about Arias’ immigration status.
“I felt nervous. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even eat because I was thinking about what could happen,” says Arias in Spanish.
The possibility of getting deported to Mexico, separated from his wife and four children, terrified him. Even talking about his case still makes him nervous. Sitting in his attorney’s office, he speaks haltingly, softly, and shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
“I feel, well, pretty defeated. But I’m pushing on,” he says.
This month, Arias filed a separate case claiming he was retaliated against when the dairy’s attorney, Anthony Raimondo, contacted immigration agents.
In an email to The California Report, Raimondo said “once all the evidence is presented, it will show that the retaliation claim is completely without merit,” though he wouldn’t comment on tape for this story.
But Arias says he’s pursuing the case because he knows he has rights, even as an undocumented worker.
Legislation against worker intimidation
Now two bills working their way through the state legislature may encourage immigrant workers like Arias to come forward.
AB 263 (Hernandez-D West Covina) would raise penalties on employers who retaliate against workers to $10,000 per worker and make retaliation a misdemeanor punishable by jail time. It also specifies actions that would be considered retaliatory if employers do them within 90 days of a worker making a complaint, attempting to unionize or participating in a public investigation or hearing about working conditions.
SB 666 (Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg-D Sacramento) would specifically address retaliation by attorneys, subjecting them to discipline or disbarment. Employers who retaliate against immigrant workers could pay a $10,000 fine and have their business licenses revoked or suspended.
Steinberg and Hernandez say existing federal and state laws that protect workers from retaliation haven’t stopped employers from using the threat of calling immigration authorities to keep employees quiet.
“I’ve worked 40 hours, you’ve paid me for 20,” says Hernandez. “And when employers say, ‘You know what, if you keep bothering me and asking for this money, I’m going to call immigration on you.’ What does that say to the employee? It says to them, ‘You’re going to be separated from your family. You’re going to be punished at that level if you don’t work for free.’”
Business groups respond
The Hernandez bill would require courts to permanently revoke business licenses from employers who retaliate against their workers more than once. That’s the part of the bill that’s getting a chilly reception from business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Wine Grape Growers Association.
“The problem here is that the remedy proposed is remarkably broad,” says Mike Belote. He’s a lobbyist for the California Employment Law Council, a group of the state’s biggest private employers. He says he doesn’t doubt that retaliation against immigrant workers can happen. But he thinks the Hernandez bill could hurt California’s economy.
“If one of our very, very large employers, who may have tens of thousands of employees in California, and thousands of supervisors, if you have one rogue supervisor who engages in these practices twice, every license possessed by that business must be permanently revoked,” says Belote.
Hernandez, however, insists it’s a fitting punishment.
“There’s a broader effect here: all the other workers that witness the abuse and then witness the employer getting away with it. That creates a very chilling, stifling element in the workplace,” he says. “I’m confident the majority of Californians do not want our economy to be helped through exploitation.”
Intimidation in Sacramento?
Hernandez says members of the legislature actually got to witness worker retaliation at a hearing on the issue in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, which he chairs, in March. Among those testifying were workers from Marquez Brothers cheese plant in Hanford. Shipping clerk Candida Venegas helped lead the effort to unionize the plant.
“We told our people, we’re going to go to Sacramento to show you guys we shouldn’t be afraid anymore,” says Venegas. “But then we were afraid ourselves.”
Venegas and Hernandez say company lawyers showed up to the Sacramento hearing and sat behind the workers, trying to intimidate them again.
“Let me make one thing clear,” Hernandez told the audience at the hearing. “I find it really ironic and outrageous that as we sit here today discussing employer intimidation and harassment of employees who seek to find justice in their workplace that these employers would hire high-priced attorneys to come out and follow their employees here today.”
Venegas is a U.S. citizen, but she says she was standing up for her immigrant co-workers. She was fired shortly after the hearing in Sacramento.
“Everybody’s scared now,” says Venegas. “They’re saying, if it happened to her who was trying to help out people, what’s going to happen to us?
Hernandez’s committee has launched a formal investigation based on Venegas’s claims.
Marquez Brothers declined to comment for this story, although a company spokesman told the local newspaper that Venegas was fired for getting into a fight with another employee, not because she was challenging working conditions in the plant.
Both the Steinberg and Hernandez bills have passed through committee and are headed for votes on the full floor of each chamber.
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