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Advocates seek additional protections and support for Connecticut's undocumented workers

US President Joe Biden speaks with US Customs and Border Protection officers as he visits the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on January 8, 2023.
Jim Watson / AFP
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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks with Customs and Border Protection officers as he visits the border with Mexico in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 8, 2023.

Immigration activists are urging legislators to offer more support the Connecticut Department of Labor and called on the Biden administration to further expand whistleblower protection for undocumented workers.

The recent meeting, at New Haven City Hall, was part of a nationwide effort. The Biden administration shared updated guidance for the Department of Homeland Security to provide an “expedited deferred action request process” to undocumented workers who are either victims of, or witnesses to labor rights violations.

But activists are hoping for more protections and support.

Immigrants are the backbone of the economy in the United States, said Megan Fountain, coordinator of advocacy and partnerships for Unidad Latina en Acción. Fountain says that since the 1980s, there have been no fundamental immigration reforms, leaving workers unprotected from abuse.

"They are experiencing wage gaps, and they are experiencing sexual harassment; they experience health hazards in the workplace,” Fountain said in an interview. “We've seen workers die because of unsafe working conditions."

Data from the Economic Policy Institute shows that undocumented workers are victims of workplace abuses, from substandard health and safety procedures to human trafficking. Most of these immigrants don't speak out, fearing retaliation and deportation.

"They will almost certainly be fired; the boss calls the police and then calls immigration to get the workers deported," Fountain said.

The Connecticut Department of Labor receives complaints from all workers regardless of their immigration status. However, Fountain says that DOL needs more staff to deal with the number of undocumented workers filing complaints.

"The DOL wants to enforce the minimum wage and overtime roles. They don't care if you are an immigrant. If you work, you have to be paid for your work. Slavery is illegal," Fountain said.

People who suspect a labor law violation should file a complaint with the Connecticut Wage and Workplace Standards Unit, Juliet Manalan, communications director for the state DOL, wrote in an email.

"They handle labor law violation investigations, audit employee and payroll records; in certain circumstances they can issue Stop Work Orders to shut down a non-compliant site until remediation; they can require the employer to issue back pay to eligible employees; and/or levy civil penalties on the employer," Manalan said. "A Wage and Workplace investigation includes employer payroll and other financial records; immigration status is outside of that purview and not at issue."

Manalan said the Wage and Workplace Standards Unit investigates about 4,000 cases annually. In 2022, those investigations recovered more than $3 million in wages for workers and led to more than $1 million in civil penalties. In 2021, investigators recovered more than $4 million in wages and more than $850,000 in civil penalties.

When asked about advocates' concerns that the department needs more staff to process claims regarding alleged abuse, Manalan said she "can only clarify comments made by CTDOL."

Advocates are pushing the Lamont administration and the legislature to support the DOL with additional resources to handle workers' claims more quickly.

"It's important for Gov. Lamont and Connecticut legislators to fully fund the Connecticut Department of Labor,” Fountain said. “And it's important for the Biden administration to create whistleblower protection."

Advocates hope to meet next at the state Capitol to continue their efforts.

This story has been updated with comments from the Department of Labor.

Updated: January 20, 2023 at 11:37 AM EST
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