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State Official Tells Day Laborers How Laws Can Work for Them

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California state labor commissioner became a teacher Monday, instructing day laborers in the American workers’ rights he said they are too frequently denied.

The seminar by Jose Millan at a labor site run by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles--or CHIRLA--was the latest of several such events his staff has coordinated, mostly in Southern California, in the past few months.

“If I can do anything to help them get the rights they deserve, I’m going to do it,” Millan said.

Educating day laborers throughout the state was a primary concern of his when he was appointed to the post last July after 13 years with the department, Millan said.

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In Los Angeles, day laborers and domestic workers are prime candidates for exploitation by some employers who, for example, don’t pay the minimum wage, said Luke Williams, CHIRLA’s executive director.

Monday’s event, held under a tent, is the sort of outreach program Millan hopes to popularize throughout the state.

“I think society doesn’t appreciate the work you do,” Millan said, using a bullhorn to be heard above the traffic noise from Van Nuys Airport and nearby streets. “But as hard workers, you have rights.”

The three dozen listeners were men who come daily to the Los Angeles Day Labor Site, a facility on Sherman Way near Laurel Canyon Boulevard that receives some public funds because of a city effort to establish controlled gathering environments for day laborers.

The facility is supervised by CHIRLA staff members but has a council made up of the workers themselves. The men establish rules of behavior to be followed at the site.

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Monday, Millan tried to familiarize the workers with his office--which falls under the Department of Industrial Relations--and how to file complaints against employers.

Staff members showed the workers copies of forms the men could fill out to claim wages not paid to them or to complain about working conditions. The men heard about the laws that govern all employers, including the individual homeowners who routinely hire them for odd jobs.

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All employers must pay the minimum wage and overtime, as well as withhold Social Security deductions from checks and maintain workers’ compensation insurance, Millan told them. They are required to keep safe working conditions.

The men reported that employers frequently refuse to pay the wages agreed upon at the beginning of the day. Some said they had recently worked for employers who pay $4 an hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $5.75. Others have been hurt on the job and have gone without medical treatment because their employers would not pay.

“I just did not want to cause any problems,” said a man who did not want to be identified.

He said he is unable to work because of illnesses that include respiratory and eye problems he said he developed after metal dust entered his eyes and lungs at a metal-products factory.

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Jose Cedillo, 45, was suddenly laid off at a factory and the company refused for several weeks to give him his final $300 check, he said.

The labor code, Millan’s staff explained, says that a person laid off must be paid final wages immediately. If the person quits the job voluntarily, the employer has three days to pay up.

Cedillo said he has also been hired by private homeowners who did not want to pay as much as both parties had agreed.

“They say, ‘This is all I have,’ ” he said. “You leave with anger and embarrassment--humiliated.”

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Threatening to call immigration authorities is a common practice by employers who exploit workers who are in the country illegally, Millan said.

His job is to protect all workers in California, legal and illegal, he said. Determining legal status is left to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, he said.

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Last year his office received 44,000 claims from workers seeking wages they contended were owed them. Of those, 70% were resolved in favor of the worker without formal hearings, he said. The other cases went through formal hearings, and 90% of those were resolved in favor of the workers.

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Fines and penalties for employers can be stiff, Millan said.

For example, those who lack workers’ compensation insurance can be fined $1,000 per employee, up to $100,000. Those who pay cash for work and avoid Social Security taxes are liable for fines of $250 per employee per violation.

A big problem in protecting immigrants is their unwillingness to get involved, Millan said. But after Monday’s seminar, at least some day laborers were encouraged to speak up.

“We have more affirmation now,” said Gustavo Guzman, 35. “If the boss says it can’t be done, now we know it can be done.”

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