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Priests Assail Wage Abuse of Illegal Aliens

Times Staff Writer

One man reportedly washed pots and pans for $80 a week, less than half the minimum wage. A Nicaraguan refugee said she worked as a housekeeper and baby-sitter for nearly seven months, repeatedly asking--unsuccessfully--to be paid overtime for long hours and weekend work.

And two illegal aliens from Mexico and one from Honduras said they cleaned a pizza parlor for two days, and were paid in pizza.

Two activist Roman Catholic priests gave those examples to illustrate what they denounced Wednesday as growing abuse of immigrant workers who, caught in the vise of new immigration laws, are paid too little or not at all.

Fathers Gregory J. Boyle and Michael Kennedy said they can document dozens of cases of workers who have been exploited by employers. The two priests are based at churches that have come to serve as nightly sanctuaries for scores of illegal aliens.

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“The employers count on the fact that they (illegal alien workers) live in fear,” said Boyle, pastor of Dolores Mission Church, at a press conference at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, or La Placita.

Kennedy, associate pastor at La Placita, said he has seen the number of workers complaining of receiving what he called “scandalous and sinful” wages swell in recent months to 20 a week. With the advent of employer sanctions, the priests said, thousands of illegal immigrants who did not qualify for amnesty are open to increased exploitation, a phenomenon that state labor officials say they too are beginning to detect.

The priests provided details--names and addresses of employers, dates of work, wages allegedly owed--for nine cases. Most of the employers named did not return phone calls. Those contacted denied the accusations, saying they had paid what they owed.

Concepcion Paredes, a native of Leon, Nicaragua, who said she has amnesty papers, told reporters that her employer refused to pay her for overtime and Saturdays. She said she worked for nearly seven months as a housekeeper and baby-sitter for a Reseda family and was owed $6,022 in back wages. The family denied the accusations.

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Paredes sought help from the Legal Aid Foundation and filed a complaint with the state Labor Commission. She has taken her former employer to court. An appearance is scheduled for next month.

Illegal alien workers can turn to state labor agencies when their employers refuse to pay them the minimum wage, according to Legal Aid attorney Tony Mischel. Residency status is considered irrelevant in wage-abuse cases.

Roger Miller, regional manager of the bureau of field enforcement of the Labor Commission, said his office has seen a “substantial” increase of wage-abuse complaints in the last two months, especially from workers in the garment industry. He said the increase may be attributed to a combination of the new immigration law and last year’s increase of the state minimum wage to $4.25. Miller’s office is assigned to investigate complaints in the workplace.

Boyle and Kennedy said that Martin Hidalgo from Mexico worked at the Librerias Mexico bookstore in downtown Los Angeles for five days last month, but that his employer only paid him half the minimum wage. The employer still owes him $93.75, the priests said.

Manager’s View

Ricardo Fernandez, who identified himself as manager of the bookstore, said Hidalgo had been paid what he had agreed to work for: $170 for five days of work. Fernandez added that Hidalgo was lucky to be working anywhere.

Boyle and Kennedy said many workers, because they are illegal aliens, are afraid to complain and will endure poor treatment or low wages because any kind of employment is better than nothing.


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