New California law protects immigrant workers from threat of deportation for exercising employment rights 1

By Michael Marsh

Did you know that, nearly one in ten workers in California is an undocumented immigrant? That a majority of undocumented immigrants work in hard-labor, low-wage occupations where health and safety laws are often ignored? That twenty nine percent of California workers killed in industrial accidents are immigrants?

These sobering facts are among those reported in a recent study by the National Employment Law Project, which also found that immigrant workers are often cheated out of their wages. Seventy six percent of those surveyed worked “off the clock” without pay, and eighty five percent did not receive overtime.

How can this be? Unscrupulous employers, who ignore workers’ undocumented status when hiring, use the threat of deportation to intimidate employees from exercising basic workplace rights. This cut-throat behavior not only hurts their employees, it also adversely affects the economic well-being of their law-abiding competitors and of the citizens and lawful permanent residents whose wages and working conditions spiral downward in response.

Late last week, Governor Brown signed into law a bill sponsored by Senator Darrell Steinberg. The new law makes it illegal for an employer to report or threaten to report the immigration or citizenship status of any worker or member of a worker’s family who complains about unsafe working conditions, refusal to pay earned wages, sexual harassment or other illegal employment practices. The law expansively defines “family member” to cover not only immediate family, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, from such threats.

Penalties for violation are substantial, and may include fines of up to $10,000 per incident, as well as suspension or loss of one’s business license. Furthermore, attorneys who report the immigration status of parties, witnesses or family members of employees involved in an employment rights lawsuit, risk having their law licenses suspended or being disbarred.

With the signing of this law, Governor Brown has made it clear that knowingly hiring undocumented workers, benefiting from the fruit of their labors, and threatening them with deportation for asserting California employment rights will no longer be tolerated. It’s about time.

Michael Marsh

About Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.

One comment on “New California law protects immigrant workers from threat of deportation for exercising employment rights

  1. Reply Rehan Sheikh Oct 22,2013 5:16 pm

    Thanks for the good summary.

    As the claimed goal of this Bill is to prohibit certain retaliation against undocumented workers. Given that,
    i) State and Federal laws already prohibit Retaliation (FEHA/Title VII)
    ii) State laws already prohibit Retaliation for workplace safety issue

    1) I’m curios to hear whether this Bill would provide any additional protection for workers?
    2) Are there any protections in place for the undocumented workers who could face deportation or potential jail time for the immigration status?

    Punitive Licensing Action
    =======================
    I’m concerned of the possibility of increased punitive licensing/ disciplinary actions both against business and attorneys.
    Given our recent licensing experience and potential use of professional license as a tool of state sponsored oppression, such measures are very concerning.

    But… Perhaps, I’m reading a little too much…?

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