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Q&A: Taking a Stand Against Immigration-Based Retaliation at Work

April 27, 2022 Perspective

Author

Palyn Hung

Palyn Hung

Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Palyn Hung

Staff Attorney, Workers' Rights

Palyn’s legal career spans two legal services programs, the National Employment Law Project, and the New York Civil Liberties Union. She has advocated for disabled clients in administrative hearings and abused clients in protective order, custody, and divorce proceedings. At NELP, she was co-counsel on a class action that recovered back wages and overtime for grocery store and pharmacy delivery workers. Following the 2004 Republican National Convention, as a staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, Palyn represented peaceful protestors caught up in mass arrests, ultimately leading to a large group settlement. Most recently, she was a volunteer at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, helping achieve a trial victory in a national origin discrimination case challenging a hiring question on prior use of other Social Security Numbers. After graduating from Harvard College and Columbia Law School, she clerked for a federal magistrate judge in Brooklyn.

As immigrant workers continue to endure disproportionate financial, food, housing, and health insecurity during the pandemic, a San Francisco family recently celebrated a victory affirming the right of workers in California to be free from immigration-related retaliation.

Since 2018, the Asian Law Caucus has represented S.R., a community member who immigrated from Indonesia to the U.S. with her family in 2005. Today, S.R.’s daughter lives outside of the U.S. but when they all lived in San Francisco, she remembers, they loved “eating together, trying to do everything together.” Today, over Zoom, the family is quick to support each other and make each other smile.

In 2017 and 2018, S.R. worked as a loan assistant but was never paid her full wages. After several months, S.R.’s boss still owed her thousands of dollars, and so she decided to quit. Her daughter and husband had worked with ALC staff before and recommended she reach out to understand her rights. Through that support, S.R. filed a claim with the California Labor Commissioner’s office for her unpaid wages, but after the Labor Commissioner’s office notified S.R.’s former employer of her claim, she and her family got messages from the boss threatening to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and claiming that he had.

With help from ALC, S.R. learned that California is one of just a handful of places in the country that prohibits employers from reporting or threatening to report an employee’s citizenship or immigration status because that employee exercises their labor rights.

Last month, S.R. finally received a settlement for her unpaid wages, penalties, and damages suffered as a result of her former employer’s wage theft and retaliatory and illegal threats. We spoke with S.R. about her decision to hold her former employer accountable for both the unpaid wages and immigration-based retaliation.

Why did you bring your case to the Labor Commissioner’s office and reach out to the Asian Law Caucus?

I was owed back for hours of working without pay and after consulting with my daughter and husband, I decided to go to ALC for help. At first, I was scared, but because my daughter and husband had a history with ALC staff, I felt more confident and comfortable with sharing my case.

Then, after the Labor Commissioner mailed notices about my wage claim to my boss, he left voicemail messages telling my husband that he was going to call ICE. I became more anxious. Fortunately, ALC continued to provide support by filing a claim for immigration-related retaliation. It’s been a long journey and I’ve been scared throughout it, but I’ve had a lot of support to keep going.

There are few other states that prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who have asserted their workplace rights by reporting or threatening to report their immigration status (or that of their family). What do policymakers need to understand about the protections people and families need to be safe at work?

They need to give people space to report violations safely and to have support so that people aren’t afraid to report cases. Policymakers and government officials need to make sure that people who report unlawful behavior by their employers are protected from threats and harassment.

There were many times where I felt like I wanted to give up because I was so scared. I wanted to just go back to my native country. But, ALC gave me the support and protections to keep fighting and build a better life here for me and my family. More workers need that support from government, too.

What would you tell someone else if they were experiencing a situation like you did?

I have friends who have gone through similar situations. There are times where I almost convince them to share their story with organizations like ALC but they are so scared. I wanted to share my story because I hope others can find the conviction to go to organizations who can help them get support and hold people accountable. At the end of the day, this is about protecting our freedom and rights to go to work, be paid fairly, and be with and care for our families.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope I can help other people try to speak up and share their stories. Employers shouldn’t be able to abuse workers by exploiting their fear of being deported or detained or separated from their families. I’m glad I got help. I am hopeful that my family will eventually be reunited and that I can work at a place that respects their employees’ rights.

If you or someone you know is being facing retaliation or discrimination because of your citizenship or immigration status, please contact Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus at (415) 896-1701 or the Labor Commissioner’s Office at 833-LCO-INFO (833-526-4636). Under California law, you may be able to file a claim for unpaid wages or harm incurred as a result of retaliation. You may also qualify for a visa provided to people who experienced certain crimes.

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