March 30, 2017
Immigration crackdown enables worker exploitation, labor department staff say
Trump policies have caused panic among undocumented workers, preventing labor officials from conducting investigations and enforcing employment laws
By Sam Levin
Undocumented workers are refusing to cooperate with US Department of Labor (DoL) investigations due to deportation fears, in some cases even declining to accept back wages owed to them and running away from staff who show up at their workplace, according to agency employees and internal emails.
Multiple current and former DoL employees told the Guardian that Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric have caused panic among exploited undocumented workers across industries, preventing labor officials from conducting investigations and enforcing employment laws.
The lack of cooperation by immigrant workers threatens to disrupt a key function of the labor department, which is supposed to operate independently from immigration authorities. The federal government has long claimed that undocumented workers will not risk deportation if they speak up about violations or give the DoL personal information so they can collect stolen wages.
But as the Trump administration has increasingly instilled fear and anxiety in immigrant communities, the DoL’s Wage and Hour Division has struggled to communicate with undocumented workers, according to two DoL sources, who described an atmosphere of low morale and frustration within the agency. As a result, it is becoming easier for employers to mistreat and underpay workers, said the DoL employees, who were not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
“They’re not just refusing to talk to us. They’re running away from us,” said one employee, recounting stories of undocumented employees fleeing when DoL investigators arrive at a worksite. “It just shows you how fearful they are.”
Even when staff clearly identify themselves as Wage and Hour representatives, “employees just run for the doors”, said another DoL staffer. “This means that those employers who are working with these very vulnerable populations could feel even more empowered to exploit them.”
When the DoL completes an investigation and secures stolen wages – from denied rest breaks or overtime pay, for example – the agency will work to get the funds to the underpaid workers. But since Trump’s inauguration, there have been numerous reports of immigrants declining to accept money because they don’t want to communicate with the federal government, according to the DoL employees.
“I’ve never seen or heard of this before,” said one of the DoL sources, who is a longtime employee of the agency. “They don’t want any back wages. They say, ‘Please don’t calculate anything for me.’” The source said Wage and Hour is also receiving fewer complaints from workers.
The Guardian obtained DoL emails confirming that staff in multiple regions of the agency have raised concerns about workers refusing to accept back wages. The problem was first reported by the Daily Labor Report.
DoL spokesman Stephen Barr said in an email that the department “is not aware of any widespread pattern of workers refusing back wage checks” and cited the Wage and Hour division’s longstanding policy of protecting information of workers. He added: “We remain committed to ensuring workers receive all the wages to which they are legally entitled.”
The DoL also has a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) stating that immigration officials will not interfere with labor investigations, recognizing the importance of “proper wages and working conditions regardless of immigration status”.
But some DoL staff and labor rights’ groups fear that the Trump administration won’t honor the MOU or will fail to take proactive steps to maintain and rebuild trust with immigrant communities.
An Ice spokesperson said the MOU remains in place.
With no permanent labor secretary in place, there has been a lack of leadership addressing the growing challenge of immigrant cooperation, said one DoL source. Trump’s pick Alexander Acosta, a law school dean, has a Senate hearing on Thursday after the president’s first pick, fast food CEO Andrew Puzder, withdrew amid numerous scandals.
As a result, there’s a lot of confusion and anxiety among DoL employees, the source said.
“Investigators feel committed to protecting people, protecting worker confidentiality, but are concerned they are going to get different orders from above,” the employee said. “They’re really frustrated. They really feel for the communities.”
The other source added: “It’s demoralizing and nerve-wracking. The reason why people work for the government is we really believe in what we do.”
The internal complaints from staff who served under Barack Obama and previous administrations echo ongoing tensions reported in numerous agencies since Trump’s inauguration, including the State Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the CIA. In recent months, there have also been growing reports about undocumented crime victims refusing to go to police because they fear immigration consequences.
Tia Koonse, legal and policy research manager at the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center, also said she has heard from DoL contacts that some agency officials are encouraging staff to collect as little information as possible about workers and destroy identifying documents after investigations are complete in an effort to minimize risks to undocumented workers.
Koonse said she has learned of multiple recent cases of undocumented workers withdrawing claims of labor violations out of fear. “They do not want their status to be used against them … It just breaks your heart.”
One undocumented worker from Mexico, who is a member of the Clean Carwash Campaign in Los Angeles, said he and his coworkers are underpaid but are scared to organize and file complaints because of their immigration status.
“I feel fearful. And I’m angry at the fact that I cannot talk,” the 57-year-old worker said in Spanish, speaking through a translator. He requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“I would like to tell people the things that are happening,” he said, “but it’s better for us to stay quiet.”