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 showed 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 ongoing 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 in an interview.
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 all sorts of 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 their 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% of the workers 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 continue to 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.
Under California's labor code, 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 all of 2016.
"This is consistent with what we have seen under the Trump Administration," said Michael Kaufman, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. He said the appearance of ICE agents at labor proceedings was "deeply troubling."
"ICE should not be used as a tool by employers to go after employees asserting their rights," Kaufman said.
Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter
4:35 p.m., Aug. 3: This article was updated with a more specific response from ICE and additional detail about labor complaints.