Newsom unveils $4.5 million pilot program to help undocumented farmworkers with legal help
During his five decades providing legal services to the working poor, Chris Schneider witnessed farm laborers get cheated out of pay/overtime or be threatened with deportation when they complain.
“Time after time I saw farmworkers face tough times and discrimination, or the failure of the employer to properly pay wages,” said Schneider, whose career included stints with the United Farm Workers, CRLA, Central California Legal Services and the ALRB.
“I would see times when workers would file complaints and then end up being picked up by the migra,” he said.
Schneider applauds Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pilot program that provides $4.5 million in legal help to undocumented farmworkers.
“I don’t think it will be enough,” said Schneider, “because one of the things that I’ve seen over the years is that when workers do summon the courage to sue their employers for some type of violation, the growers will spend an incredible amount of time and effort fighting the cases.”
Partnering with non-profit organizations to provide legal help is a smart move, he said.
“Farmworkers are the backbone of our economy and we won’t stand by as bad actors use the threat of deportation as a form of exploitation,” said Newsom in a press release announcing the program on Wednesday. “In the absence of Congress modernizing our broken, outdated immigration system, California continues our efforts to support immigrant families.”
The legal help is restricted to farmworkers involved in state labor investigations. This includes case review services, legal advice and representation by an attorney.
Newsom said undocumented workers, who make up at least half of those involved in agriculture, fear retaliation from “bad actor employers,” including deportation threats and difficulties getting other jobs without work authorization.
The fear keeps many farmworkers from filing labor claims or provide information as witnesses, said the governor.
Pro farmworker groups like the United Farm Workers Foundation praised the announcement.
“Undocumented farmworkers – who form such a large and essential portion of our nation’s workforce – must be able to enforce their rights without the threat of immigration retaliation,” said UFW Foundation CEO Diane Tellefson Torres.
Any farmworker who has experienced workplace violations, said Tellefson Torres, should have access to free and low-cost legal services.
María Elena De La Garza, executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, commended the state for the pilot program.
“The time is now for us to ensure that immigrant labor rights are upheld and respected,” said De La Garza.
The pilot program will be administered by the state Labor & Workforce Development Agency and the state Department of Social Services, which will support enforcement of agricultural worker labor rights.
Cases must be under review by the Department of Industrial Relations’ Labor Commissioner’s Office, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health or the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Schneider, who retired in 2021 after five years as ALRB regional director in Visalia, said many farmworkers, even if they have legal status, remain hesitant to seek legal help.
“The law is that people, whether or not someone has legal status, are supposed to get the minimum wage or the protections of CalOSHA and other protected labor laws,” he said.
Schneider said, however, that having that right doesn’t translate into having automatic legal representation. “If I don’t have someone to represent me, that right is meaningless,” he said.
Even if a person files a complaint with CalOSHA or another agency, having a lawyer can be beneficial in making sure the it gets processed correctly, said Schneider.
The pilot program is funded by existing resources and is expected to begin later this year.
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