By Michelle Threadgould
Did you know that 43 million Americans can’t afford to take sick leave and that the most affected population when it comes to worker’s rights are Latinos? Not only do four out of 10 workers not have access to sick leave, but for the majority of low-wage workers, they fear losing their jobs if they take care of family emergencies and basic healthcare needs.
To improve the plight of low-wage workers, the nonprofit A Better Balance is dedicated to fighting for workers’ rights and ensuring that the public is educated on the inability of many workers to get sick leave or maternity leave, and to educate the public about the fight against worker discrimination. It runs a hotline for people to file complaints of workplace abuses and provides free legal services for those who have suffered from workplace discrimination.
We spoke with Patricia Garcia Rodriguez, a Policy Analyst at the organization, about why Latinos are one of the groups most affected by workplace discrimination, and what her organization is doing to help vulnerable communities.
(Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish, so this conversation is transcribed to most accurately reflect the views of the speaker; it is not a word-for-word translation.)
Your organization is involved in making paid leave and paid sick time accessible to all. Why are these issues particularly important to the Latino community?
Basic protections and rights that many professionals with higher salaries take for granted are practically nonexistent for less-qualified workers. The lack of access to certain labor protections, even the most minimal, has an enormous impact on vulnerable communities. The Latino community is one of the most vulnerable groups, because the majority of my clients are immigrants or they do not speak the language. The types of problems we work on are very evident with low-wage workers, usually in their use of sick time to take care of a family member or themselves, which can lead to all kinds of retaliation in the workplace, including being fired. We have clients that have to send their kids to school sick because they are afraid of losing their jobs if they spend the day at home with their kids. And one day without working is very significant for a person who is living paycheck to paycheck, since it can result in total financial ruin.
Can you give an example of a case that you recently worked on?
One of our clients was a delivery man, and he was on his bike to deliver a recent order. He suffered from a heart attack while he was on his bike, and he had to go to the hospital to be treated. Because he wasn’t able to go back to his job immediately, he was fired. Some of our clients are fired because they’re pregnant, which leads to very difficult situations since they’re left without a paycheck when they most need it. These are just a few examples of the types of situations that we confront.
This is the reality that lots of low-wage workers live in. A Better Balance fights to pass legislation that covers and protects all workers, regardless of their income level, so that no one has to choose between their family and their job.
What is your focus as an organization and what are some of your concerns for low-wage workers and the Latino community?
From September 2016 to January 2017, I’ve received 101 calls from Latino clients regarding workplace violations. Members of the Latino community have called me about not being able to receive sick pay (despite having this legal protection in New York City). We’ve spoken to pregnant women who are fired for such small things, like having to go to the bathroom more often or needing to sit on a stool to avoid problems with the pregnancy because they stand for so many hours. These types of situations affect many groups, and they disproportionately affect Latinos.
I want to make sure that the Latino community knows about our services, what we offer, and that we can help them. A Better Balance can provide a helping hand and a reference point. The services we offer are free and the information clients give us is confidential. I want Latino workers to know that they have labor protection.
Right now there is a lot of fear in the Latino community, but I’ve noticed that lately there has been a decline in phone calls, both in reporting workplace abuses and of people asking for help. Since January, it’s like the Latino community has disappeared.
What kind of outreach is A Better Balance doing so that Latinos know about the services that you offer?
We’re putting a lot of information on our website in Spanish to facilitate the distribution of knowledge in the Latino community. We’re holding training classes for Latino workers on their rights under federal, state and local labor and discrimination laws. We want workers to know their rights and help them assert them.
Also, our referral program is very important, as is gaining the trust of Latinos. I always tell my clients that no matter how many problems you are currently facing, like immigration, disability, family law, whatever you are going through, you can still call us, and we can help you, and you’ll get more information to better your situation.
Often, the Latino community has less access to these kinds of resources. My clients are from Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, and El Salvador, where they’ve experienced so many types of discrimination in their home countries. They don’t even realize that they are being discriminated against in the U.S., and that it is against the law. And so it’s hard [but essential] for many of my clients to get informed.