EMPOWERED WORKERS OVERCOME FEAR
(This article is reprinted from Union Labor News, May 2020. Rebecca Meier-Rao is Executive Director of Worker Justice Wisconsin.)
I began my position as Executive Director of Worker Justice Wisconsin (WJW) in mid-February. About a month later we had to shut our office doors due to COVID-19, and we began advocating for the rights of workers remotely.
Thankfully, the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters had donated laptop computers to us the week before our office closed, which made our transition to working from home much easier than it otherwise would have been.
After adjusting our phone line and making a few other modifications, we were set to go. Since working from home, the intake load of our two advocates – Kristen and Socorro – has just about tripled.
They’re dealing primarily with cases of wage theft, unsafe working conditions and mass layoffs.
About two-thirds of the people WJW serves are immigrant workers. What is unique about this population is that many of them are not eligible for unemployment—though they pay taxes, they cannot receive anything in return.
In such cases, our advocates have spent a lot of time helping these folks locate and apply for resources to pay rent and utilities, and get the food they need.
The challenge here is that while there are good resources available—for example, the Latino Consortium for Action Emergency Relief Fund for undocumented workers, there just isn’t enough to go around.
Even when people receive funds (not all who apply do) they can receive only a one-time payment of $1000. This helps, but it is far from the regular income they would get from unemployment insurance.
Many years ago, I worked at La Voz Latina in Rockford, IL, where I saw many immigrant persons walking a fine line between living their lives—being mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and workers—and remaining invisible enough to survive in an environment hostile to immigrants.
What I saw then, I see now. Most of the workers we form relationships with at WJW are living paycheck to paycheck. There is sometimes a language barrier. Regardless of immigration status, they are often treated as expendable by their employers. Even when it’s clear that they’re being treated unjustly, they’re reluctant to confront the employer out of the justifiable fear that they will lose their livelihood, or depending on their documentation status, will be reported to ICE.
The problem is exacerbated in this time of COVID-19. Hotels have laid off workers without paying them their earned PTO and vacation time as promised. Food production facilities continued to operate too long without making the slightest change to protect their workers.
Perhaps the most aggravating case I’ve seen is of a residential cleaning company fraudulently advertising itself as an essential business under Gov. Evers Safer at Home Order, sending its workers (all of them Latina women) into people’s homes with rags for masks and shoe covers with holes in them. We know of other cleaning companies operating along these lines.
In the face of these challenges, our advocates have stood by the workers’ side to make sure their labor rights are upheld. They have contacted employers who promised to pay earned PTO and vacation time, and in some cases have managed to recover that money.
Particularly if the worker cannot receive unemployment, one can imagine how important those funds (which, I must stress, were earned) are! Our advocates have counseled workers on how to enter a complaint with OSHA and have helped file cases with the city and state.
They have also empowered workers to act collectively in the face of unjust or unsafe working conditions, which is not an easy task considering that many immigrant workers feel a great deal of fear at the prospect of being exposed. Nonetheless, in some cases it is the only way to ensure delinquent bosses are forced to do what is right.
In my short time as Executive Director of Worker Justice Wisconsin, I have seen the reprehensible way some employers treat low-wage immigrant workers. But I have also seen workers standing up for their rights, the dedicated passion of our WJW staff and board, and the collaborative efforts of local unions and nonprofits. It gives me great reason to hope that there is a will for worker justice in our community!