Undocumented immigrant workers are some of the most vulnerable in the U.S., with employers all too often targeting them for abuse, paying them less than the law requires, and basically using ICE to put down worker organizing efforts. But California, which has the highest proportion of undocumented immigrant workers of any state, is leading the way in protecting them and penalizing abusive employers, the Economic Policy Institute’s Daniel Costa reports.
Seven laws enacted since 2013 send a message to employers: the law still applies. You don’t get to break labor laws just because your workers are undocumented.
- California’s AB 263 (2013) prohibits employers from using threats related to immigration status to retaliate against employees who have exercised their labor rights. For example, if an employee complains to an employer about wages owed to her, and if the employer retaliates with threats related to the worker’s immigration status as an excuse to discharge or not pay the worker, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) can investigate and fine the employer, or the worker can bring a civil lawsuit against the employer. Employers guilty of retaliation based on immigration status may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 and the employer’s business license may be temporarily suspended.
Several other laws expand or clarify AB 263, including penalties for filing or threatening to file false reports and say that an “employer’s business license may be revoked (not just suspended temporarily) if the employer is found to have retaliated against an employee based on immigration status. In addition, a lawyer who participates in retaliatory activities on behalf of an employer may be suspended or disbarred.” Making threats about someone’s immigration status can lead to criminal extortion charges. Also:
- California’s AB 450 (2017) can provide due process for workers in the face of an I-9 worksite audit and discourage employers from using the I-9 audit process to retaliate against employees. Under AB 450, employers are prohibited from providing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with access to nonpublic areas of the workplace and employment records when ICE has not obtained a warrant or subpoena, and AB 450 requires employers to notify workers when ICE plans to conduct an audit and inform workers about the details of the audit. Employers can be fined $2,000 to $5,000 for the first violation, and $5,000 to $10,000 for each additional violation. In addition, employers are prohibited from requiring their existing employees to reverify their work authorization at a time or manner not required by federal immigration law, and may face penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.
- California’s SB 54 (2017), also known as the California Values Act, includes a provision that has the potential to make courts and government buildings more accessible to unauthorized workers (by decreasing the risk of detention by ICE agents while pursuing claims for workplace violations by employers). In light of increasing immigration enforcement activities at courthouses and state government buildings by ICE, unauthorized immigrant workers will face significant difficulties accessing the judicial system and due process. SB 54 provides for the upcoming publication (by October 2018) of model policies for ensuring that public facilities “remain safe and accessible to all California residents, regardless of immigration status.” These model policies have the potential to provide unauthorized immigrant workers with greater certainty that ICE agents will not be present in California courtrooms, thus creating a safer environment for immigrants to access the legal system and obtain due process.
But the fact that these laws were necessary goes to show how much exploitation, retaliation and abuse undocumented immigrants face on the job—and California is just one state. In too many places, these laws don't exist to protect the workers who need them.
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● Fifty years after their historic strike, Memphis sanitation workers are still fighting.
● Federally guaranteed employment can be politically popular.