For years, Jose Garcia worked 60 hours a week as a cook at the Great Wall Mandarin Chinese Restaurant, just north of Los Angeles in Lancaster, Calif. His flat salary did not guarantee either a minimum wage or overtime. He knew he was probably being underpaid, but wasn’t sure where to turn for help.
One day, he made a call that virtually changed his life. He contacted the EMPLEO (Employment Education and Outreach) program local toll-free hotline, where volunteers are versed in the local, state and federal laws that protect workers. These volunteers direct concerns to the appropriate agency for possible investigation and resolution. As the result of Jose’s call, a total of twelve employees were able to receive $90,000 in minimum wage and overtime back pay from their employer, including $8,000 owed to Jose. In another case last year, a worker at Los Angeles’ Daikokuya restaurant chain reported that he never received his last pay check. His call to EMPLEO lead to 66 employees receiving nearly $150,000 in back wages.
These are just two of many cases that have come to light through calls made to this volunteer help line. In fact, since its inception in 2004, the EMPLEO program has assisted nearly 7,000 workers in all. Thanks to their trust in the hotline, thousands of workers have received more than $6,000,000 in back wages. These workers not only fought for their rights, but for what rightfully belonged to them.
EMPLEO is an alliance of federal, state, and local government agencies, foreign consulates and advocacy groups in Southern California. The alliance was formed after representatives from the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, along with the General Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles and the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, met for more than a year to find solutions for serving the needs of the Hispanic immigrant workforce. This segment of the population has a high percentage of vulnerable workers often unfamiliar with their rights under labor laws in California and the U.S. The alliance benefits from other stakeholders as well, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement and Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and the consulates of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
The eighth anniversary celebration for the EMPLEO program was held today at the General Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles. Each of the stakeholders who take part in the alliance reaffirmed their commitment to the program. This year, EMPLEO honored one of the founding stakeholders, Bishop Gerald Barnes, who helped establish the program and also donated the space and resources that house the program’s call center at the Diocese of San Bernardino. It is from the small, humble offices of EMPLEO where the program’s volunteers work tirelessly on behalf of workers like Jose Garcia. They are informed of their rights to decent and fair working conditions and get help at resolving workplace issues.
The EMPLEO toll-free number – 1-877-55-AYUDA (877-552-9832) provides assistance in Spanish throughout Southern California.
Editor’s Note: The authors, Francisco Ocampo and Justin Emerick are the Assistant District Director and the Community Outreach and Resource Planning Director for the Los Angeles District Office, Wage and Hour Division.