Waging a Battle for Workers’ Rights – LA County, free legal team fight to protect jobs and wages
Rose Basmadzhyan (left), Chief of the Wage Enforcement Program & Investigation Division, LA County Department of Consumer & Business Affairs; Yvonne Medrano (right), Program Attorney of the Employee Rights Program, Bet Tzedek Legal Services
By Mark Hedin, Ethnic Media Services
Amid the economic tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers’ advocates are concerned that hard-won gains in workers’ rights may suddenly be lost.
At an April 22 town hall hosted by the LA County Office of Immigrant Affairs, speakers provided updates on laws new and old that protect workers from unsafe conditions or being cheated.
“It’s important to let those workers know that we’re here for you,” Rose Basmadzhyan, Wage Enforcement Program and Investigation chief for LA County’s Department of Consumer & Business Affairs, said. “We want them to come to us; we want them trust us; we want them to know that we’re on their side.”
“We don’t care if you have an issue with your immigration status,” she said. “We won’t allow your employer to retaliate against you. We have tools and mechanisms to prevent that.”
Basmadzhyan said that sometimes, her department can be helpful just by making a call to the employer. An employer might be unaware of the rules, or simply mindful that it’s better to avoid getting investigated, and will take steps to avoid that.
Her team will launch investigations even without getting a complaint if it thinks something might be wrong. She encouraged workers to contact the Department of Consumer and Business Affairs if they have any doubts, and promised anonymity for such “whistle-blowing.”
“We want to deter these kinds of behaviors because it hurts… businesses that are complying with the laws and it also hurts our workers.”
Basmadzhyan described three county ordinances related to workers rights, two of them enacted since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
Information about all three – addressing minimum wage violations, employers retaliating against workers, and a new, temporary “hero pay” rule that provides some workers and extra $5 per hour, can be found on her department’s website (https://dcba.lacounty.gov/minimum-wage/).
The site also provides links for filing complaints about possible violations: For unlawfully low pay or withheld wages, click here: https://tinyurl.com/LApayrate. If a worker has been wrongfully punished, click here: https://tinyurl.com/LAretaliation.
The minimum wage rule, in place since July 2016, sets a standard of $15 per hour. (Companies with 25 or fewer workers are allowed to pay just $14.25 per hour, but that rate grows to $15 per hour in July.)
The anti-retaliation ordinance, in place since Nov. 24 last year, includes potential fines of $10,000 per day, per violation, per employee for companies who retaliate against a worker reporting public safety issues or other abuses at their workplace.
The third, a “hero pay” ordinance effective Feb. 26 this year, has only a 120-day window – until late June, unless extended — but requires that stores selling primarily foods, household good and medications provide an extra $5 per hour to people working on site.
Bet Tzedek Legal Services “is lucky,” Yvonne Garcia Medrano said, because as a nonprofit organization that does not get federal money, it is free to help undocumented workers.
As a consequence, “the majority of people we serve are low-wage or undocumented workers.”
Many, she said, are undocumented Filipino residential health care workers, along with garment workers, restaurant workers and car-wash workers.
Bet Tzedek’s help is offered at no cost for people living or working in Los Angeles County. Additionally, Bet Tzedek hosts weekly clinics online, “that we’re very, very proud of,” Medrano said. “Anyone can call our clinic number.”
To make an appointment, call (323) 939-0506, extension 415. The clinics are held weekly, on Wednesdays from 5-7 p.m.
They’re “where the majority of our cases come from … a lot of wage and hours cases, minimum wage violations,” she said. A team of about five attorneys will discuss the caller’s concerns to evaluate the case and give advice.
“For the most part, we tend to file cases with the California Department of Industrial Relations, often referred to as the Labor Commissioner’s office,” she said.
That office, she added, is particularly tough on retaliation cases and makes it clear to employers that a worker’s undocumented status is irrelevant and that even just raising the subject is likely to trigger a retaliation probe.
Bet Tzedek also files cases with the county or with the city office of wage standards.
“We tend to file wherever we can file — the state, the county — and we see which one moves faster,” she said.
Bet Tzedek also works with agencies such as workers centers, whose calls to employers sometimes yield immediate results and can seem less threatening than one from a lawyer or a regulatory agency would.
Medrano highlighted the challenges faced by residential health care workers, who are often live-in and expected to be on duty around the clock.
“We’ve seen a lot of really sad situations of people who are sacrificing themselves and their bodies to help our most vulnerable.”
Their situation has been made worse by a tough job market that heightens the fear of retaliation, especially, in the cases of in-home workers, when they also risk losing where they live.
“We’ve also had a dramatic increase in workers that have a problem with unemployment benefits,” Medrano said. Undocumented workers are not eligible, but legal residents have reported not getting paid or being told why.
Since its founding in 1999, Bet Tzedek has won workers $13 million in judgments and settlements.