ICE may have tracked work­ers in la­bor dis­putes

Agency casts doubt on al­le­ga­tion it vis­ited state of­fices twice to ap­pre­hend work­ers.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Natalie Kitroeff

Fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents have shown up twice at California la­bor dis­pute pro­ceed­ings to ap­pre­hend un­doc­u­mented work­ers, in what state of­fi­cials be­lieve may be cases of em­ployer re­tal­i­a­tion.

The La­bor Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice, the state’s la­bor en­force­ment arm, said that since Novem­ber U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agents have shown up at lo­ca­tions in Van Nuys and Santa Ana look­ing for work­ers who had brought claims against their em­ploy­ers.

In Jan­uary, ICE also con­tacted a state of­fi­cial and asked for de­tails about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into la­bor vi­o­la­tions at sev­eral con­struc­tion sites across Los Angeles, ac­cord­ing to Julie Su, the state’s la­bor com­mis­sioner and the agency’s head.

An ICE spokes­woman said the agency could not find ev­i­dence to con­firm those vis­its.

State of­fi­cials sent a memo in July in­struct­ing staff mem­bers to refuse en­try to ICE agents who visit its of­fices to ap­pre­hend im­mi­grants who are in the coun­try with­out autho­riza­tion.

Staff mem­bers should ask fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents “to leave our of­fice, in­clud­ing the wait­ing room, and in­form the agent[s] that the la­bor com­mis­sioner does not con­sent to en­try or search of any part of our of­fice,” the memo said.

If agents refuse to leave, the memo tells em­ploy­ees, de­mand a search war­rant signed by a judge be­fore al­low­ing them onto the premises.

“There is no doubt that

al­low­ing ICE to freely en­ter our of­fice would have a sub­stan­tial chill­ing ef­fect on the will­ing­ness of work­ers to re­port vi­o­la­tions and par­tic­i­pate in our fight against wage theft,” Su said.

Virginia Kice, a spokes­woman for ICE, said the agency can­vassed its en­force­ment per­son­nel in the Los Angeles area and re­ceived “no in­for­ma­tion to cor­rob­o­rate” claims that ICE agents vis­ited two state la­bor of­fices “seek­ing spe­cific in­di­vid­u­als.”

“Con­sis­tent with its com­mit­ment to the fair and ef­fec­tive en­force­ment of fed­eral hir­ing and im­mi­gra­tion laws, the agency has long­stand­ing guide­lines and pro­ce­dures de­signed to help en­sure that ICE en­force­ment per­son­nel do not be­come in­volved in la­bor dis­putes in the course of car­ry­ing out their mis­sion,” Kice said.

The La­bor Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice has 18 of­fices across the state, where work­ers can get resti­tu­tion if they can prove their em­ployer paid them less than the min­i­mum wage. They can also file com­plaints against bosses who pun­ish them for protest­ing their con­di­tions.

About 35,000 work­ers a year file claims for back pay, Su said. Many of those com­plaints come from peo­ple in in­dustries that are heav­ily de­pen­dent on im­mi­grants, such as gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ing, car wash­ing and truck­ing.

Parts of those in­dustries thrive un­der­ground, find­ing ways to un­der­pay work­ers. In many gar­ment fac­to­ries, work­ers earn a piece rate — 10 cents for stitch­ing a neck­line, for ex­am­ple — in­stead of an hourly wage.

That prac­tice isn’t il­le­gal as long as em­ploy­ers make sure work­ers are earn­ing at least the min­i­mum wage, which doesn’t hap­pen on many fac­tory floors in down­town Los Angeles. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion of 77 lo­cal gar­ment com­pa­nies by the U.S. La­bor Depart­ment last year found that work­ers were making as lit­tle as $4 an hour sewing clothes for ma­jor re­tail­ers.

Mariela Martinez, the or­ga­niz­ing di­rec­tor for the Gar­ment Worker Center, says she has rep­re­sented about 100 work­ers who filed claims with the La­bor Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice over the last two years. Fewer than 10% were in the coun­try legally, she es­ti­mates.

“The rea­son why em­ploy­ers pay such low wages is be­cause work­ers are un­doc­u­mented,” Martinez said. “It has a lot to do with the per­cep­tion that they won’t speak out and they won’t file a claim.”

Some car washes use a dif­fer­ent model, said Com­mis­sioner Su, com­pen­sat­ing em­ploy­ees only for ve­hi­cles that they ac­tu­ally wash. That means that work­ers stay at work all day but take home less than the min­i­mum wage.

Truck­ing com­pa­nies have evaded wage laws by clas­si­fy­ing work­ers as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors. They don’t pay over­time and force driv­ers to pay for the cost of fuel­ing and main­tain­ing their trucks. Af­ter those pay­ments, for which they aren’t re­im­bursed, driv­ers end up earn­ing less than the min­i­mum.

Since 2011, the La­bor Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice has con­cluded that driv­ers were mis­clas­si­fied as in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors in about 300 wage-claim cases.

Su noted that many em­ploy­ers in each of th­ese in­dustries play by the rules, and they have a strong in­ter­est in making sure work­ers come for­ward when bosses are cut­ting cor­ners.

“They are frus­trated by the chal­lenges they have in com­pet­ing and do­ing work hon­estly when there is an un­der­ground econ­omy,” she said.

State law al­lows work­ers to re­port la­bor vi­o­la­tions re­gard­less of their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

The ICE agents who came to the Van Nuys and Santa Ana of­fices asked for the spe­cific work­ers in­volved in the pro­ceed­ings by name, and ar­rived within a half hour of when the meet­ings with em­ploy­ers were sup­posed to be­gin, Su said.

Su said she sus­pects that the em­ploy­ers be­ing ac­cused of un­der­pay­ing em­ploy­ees tipped off fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents about the sta­tus of the work­ers. The tim­ing of wage hear­ings isn’t pub­lic, and gen­er­ally the worker and em­ployer are the only ones who know that in­for­ma­tion out­side of the agency.

“We should not en­able un­scrupu­lous em­ploy­ers who use im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus as a vul­ner­a­bil­ity to re­tal­i­ate un­law­fully against a worker who is seek­ing our pro­tec­tion,” Su said.

In California it’s il­le­gal for a com­pany to re­tal­i­ate against em­ploy­ees by calling fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion to re­port their sta­tus.

In Van Nuys, the worker who had made a claim for back wages never showed up the day the ICE of­fi­cer came, and the case was closed. In Santa Ana, the worker had re­ported re­tal­i­a­tion, and the state is still in­ves­ti­gat­ing that claim.

Su de­clined to name the em­ploy­ers in ei­ther case, or the con­struc­tion con­trac­tors in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion that ICE had called about.

She said 58 work­ers have re­ported im­mi­gra­tion-re­lated threats from bosses to her of­fice so far this year, com­pared with 14 in 2016.

In the last year, ICE agents have ap­peared out­side a Pasadena court­house and half a mile from a Lin­coln Heights school to ap­pre­hend peo­ple liv­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally.

“This is con­sis­tent with what we have seen un­der the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Michael Kauf­man, an at­tor­ney with the ACLU. “ICE should not be used as a tool by em­ploy­ers to go af­ter em­ploy­ees as­sert­ing their rights.”

Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times

IM­MI­GRA­TION AND Cus­toms En­force­ment agents trans­fer Mexican na­tional Este­ban Amigon for trans­porta­tion to down­town Los Angeles in April.

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