Feds unveil process to protect immigrant workers facing employer retaliation
Labor activists with Arriba Las Vegas demand more aggressive enforcement from Nevada OSHA for labor violations. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)
The U.S. Department of Labor rolled out new guidance Wednesday aimed at protecting workers from immigration-related intimidation when they participate in investigations on labor abuses.
For the first time, the agency outlined steps workers can take to get support from government officials when seeking deportation relief —such as deferred action, parole, or stay of removal — during investigations of unlawful conduct by employers.
Employers often take advantage of a dysfunctional immigration system in the U.S. to intimidate undocumented workers who try to obtain better working conditions, say labor organizers in Nevada.
Unions in Nevada say organizing efforts are routinely stifled in the state by employers who use threats of deportation to upend union organizing drives and disrupt labor enforcement investigations.
“For the Department of Labor to carry out the laws it enforces, workers must feel free to participate in its investigations and proceedings without fear of retaliation or consequences related to their immigration status,” wrote the Office of the Solicitor in a release announcing the new regulatory guidance.
Like the well-known Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, deferred action for labor enforcement could temporarily protect workers from deportation who report labor abuses.
The announcement comes after a six month deadline from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directing DHS agencies to develop policies to protect immigrant workers in labor disputes.
Labor advocates in Nevada have stepped up efforts in recent years to protect immigrant whistleblowers via deferred action after allegations that Unforgettable Coatings, a painting company based in Las Vegas, had committed wage theft which eventually led to a Department of Labor investigation of the company. The case was filed in federal district court in 2020 and is ongoing.
Rosario Ortiz, a former employee of Unforgettable Coatings, Inc. has been a leading voice to advocate for protections for immigrant workers in Las Vegas and across the country.
“For over two year, we have fought to win these protections for workers in Las Vegas,” said Ortiz, in his native Spanish. “As a result of this fight we are making changes for immigrant workers like me.”
Ortiz said the Department of Labor helped grant him deferred action as a key witness in their labor rights investigation, adding that his advocacy is his attempt to get other workers the protections he’s now receiving.
Workers at Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center have been aggressively advocating for expanded access to protections for immigrant workers involved in labor disputes.
Last April, workers in Las Vegas called on the Biden administration to seek protections for witnesses in the ongoing Department of Labor investigation into Unforgettable Coatings Inc.
Former employees of the company met with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh in August and September 2021 to seek support from the Department of Labor after they say they experienced retaliation after speaking out against wage theft.
“This announcement creates an opportunity for workers to defend their rights and to feel confident in filing complaints with the Department of Labor,” said Jonas Reyes, a former employee of Unforgettable Coatings, Inc. “We have gotten this far because of worker participation and continue the fight so that future generations of workers have the courage to stand up against the abuses they face and so that they can gain protections, not only in the state of Nevada, but across the country.”
Unforgettable Coatings’ owner Cory Summerhays has previously denied the allegations adding that he believes he’s being targeted by unions because his business is a competitor.
The Department of Labor also published answers to lingering questions about factors the department considers when deciding whether or not to assist workers seeking protections.
Requests for support from the Labor Department during investigations of unlawful conduct by employers will be considered on a case-by-case basis, said the agency.
Workers will need to provide enough information to the department to identify the worksite that is the subject of the labor dispute and any related investigations or cases as part of the process.
On Thursday, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Protections for Immigrant Workers, a national coalition of labor organizers, praised the announcement from the Department of Labor.
“There is much more the administration needs to do,” said Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, during a press conference.
Marin-Molina said the Labor Department must make efforts to inform immigrant workers throughout the U.S. of the formal process announced Wednesday.
Labor organizers in several other states have also pushed for deferred action for workers reporting labor violations.
Advocates in Gainesville, Georgia have worked to expand access to deferred action after a preventable poultry plant explosion resulted in the deaths of six people.
“This is information that everyone needs to know,” said Rosario Palacios, an organizer with Georgia Families Unidas. “We’ve had a handful of folks who have successfully gone through this process because of the work of many volunteers and pro bono attorneys but we have over 100 more folks who can potentially qualify.”
In states where the controversial 287 (g) program allows state and local law enforcement agencies to act as immigration enforcement agents, like Georgia, the announcement of a formal process to seek deferred action is especially important, Palacios said.
“After the explosion sheriffs went to the plant and folks ran. Not just because they just watched their coworkers die but because they were afraid they were going to be deported,” Palacios said.
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