Federal government to day laborers: We’re here to help

By Matt O’Brien
Contra Costa Times

Posted: 04/01/2010 02:13:52 PM PDT
Updated: 04/01/2010 02:13:54 PM PDT

CONCORD — A crew of federal officials wandering into a day labor hiring zone used to mean one thing: It’s time to leave.

This wasn’t the case Thursday morning on Monument Boulevard. Armed with coffee, not handcuffs, investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor chatted warmly with Latino immigrant workers about how to find jobs without being exploited.

“We’re the feds, but the good ones,” said Paul Ramirez, speaking in Spanish inside the Michael Chavez Center, a gathering spot for day laborers. “We’re here to help workers.”

The unprecedented visit was part of a campaign to bring long-established workplace protections to the nation’s most vulnerable and underpaid workers, including those who have no legal right to be living in the United States.

“Documented or not, the law is: If you work certain hours, you are owed certain money,” Ramirez told the small crowd. Met at first with apprehension, the Brentwood native captivated his audience of men from Mexico and Central America as he told of tending tomatoes, onions, asparagus and cucumbers as a young California field hand. Now an enforcer of workplace rules, he advised what to do when contractors skirt the law.

“We already knew some of these things, but now we feel more comfortable, more support,” said laborer Gilberto Villanueva, who came to the East Bay eight years ago from southern Mexico. “It’s good that they came.”

There was nothing new about the standards Ramirez mentioned: minimum wage, overtime, sick leave. But none of the workers had heard this before from a federal agent. “We’ve always been very active in the community, but now we’re becoming more vocal, more transparent,” said Susana Rincon, Bay Area director of the labor agency’s wage and hour division. “Other than that, the message is the same.”Ramirez made the same speech recently to workers who gather outside a Home Depot in Pittsburg. And it’s not only a message for day laborers; it was delivered Thursday at the Chinese Newcomers Service Center in San Francisco.

The awareness campaign, called “We Can Help,” is being led by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a former Southern California congresswoman who joined the Obama administration early last year.

Solis inaugurated the campaign Thursday in Chicago with a speech at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, a 19th century landmark of labor reform and social welfare movements. She said she has added more than 250 field investigators, bringing the total to nearly 1,000 nationwide, about the same as at the beginning of the Bush administration.

The investigators have no jurisdiction over homeowners who hire day laborers for temporary landscaping, moving and domestic work, but they do have authority over contractors who make at least a half-million dollars, Rincon said. If workers with a problem call investigators, usually the issues are resolved by phone within 24 hours, Rincon said. In rare cases, the investigators will visit work sites or take employers to court.

Day laborers “know laws are out there to protect them, but they don’t always believe it, or know that it can be enforced,” said Mike Van Hofwegen, director of the Concord work center. Van Hofwegen was as surprised as his clients when the labor department team called to say they wanted to visit.

“This is the first time we’ve had this kind of connection,” he said. “Someone asked me, ‘Is this an April Fools’ thing?’”

Such a discussion between federal employees and workers who are, for the most part, illegal immigrants, is likely to engender controversy, but could also do everyone some good, he argued.

“It helps U.S. citizens because they’re not being undermined by abusive labor practices in the community, because things are more competitive,” Van Hofwegen said.

Source: Contra Costa Times

No Free Speech for Cops

By ADAM KLASFELD, Thursday, April 1, 2010

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CN) – A police lieutenant claims Suffolk County forced him to retire early after 27 years on the force because he told Newsday about a racist policy in which unlicensed drivers were arrested, rather than merely cited, only “in areas with large populations of Hispanic day laborers.”

In his federal complaint, Lt. Raymond Smith says he was disciplined, transferred and eventually forced to retire on charges of “improperly communicating with the media” on this and another case.

The other case involved a man who was convicted of killing his parents in 1990. Smith says he his superiors retaliated against him after he speculated to other officers that there may have been a police conspiracy to convict an innocent man in that case.

Smith says that after reading news accounts of the trial of Martin Tankleff, a Long Island resident convicted of murdering his wealthy parents, he became convinced that there was credible evidence of a conspiracy that “challenged the integrity of a broad cross-section of Suffolk County’s legal community, from the Department’s Homicide Squad, to a County Judge, to the District Attorney.”

Tankleff’s conviction was overturned in December 2007.

“At the time Mr. Smith was corresponding with others about the Tankleff case, the official position of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and the Suffolk County Police Department was that it was a ‘closed case’ that would not be re-opened,” Smith says.

Smith says he drew heat from his bosses again by speaking against the policy of targeting unlicensed drivers in Latino neighborhoods, which local press and legislators also had denounced “as a hateful and intolerant plan to eradicate immigrants from Suffolk County.”

After initially withdrawing the policy, Suffolk County Police told Newsday that the police would be reinstated because the American Automobile Association reported that unlicensed drivers were more dangerous than licensed ones, Smith says.

When Smith downloaded that AAA report, he says, he found that the police department had misrepresented its findings and Newsday had printed the distortions. Smith says he emailed Newsday reporter Christine Armario twice to seek a correction.

Months later, in late 2007, Smith says, the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau began investigating him, transferred him to another department, disciplined him for “improperly communicating with the media,” and eventually forced him to retire. He says the pretext he was given was unauthorized use of the Internet – a restriction that is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

He seeks reinstatement and punitive damages for retaliation and constitutional violations from Suffolk County and its Police Commissioner Richard Dormer.

He is represented by Steven Morelli of Carle Place, N.Y.

Source: Courthouse News Service