Working-Class Struggle

Three housekeepers and a day laborer take action against deadbeat employers who abuse immigrants

When Loyola and the other volunteers helped launch the La Raza workers' rights program three years ago, they managed to recoup $79,000. As word spread among workers that they can push for recompense from deadbeat employers, the agency's client list has swelled to a point where it is already on target to improve on 2007's $300,000 in recovered wages and damages. And word on the street is circulating that bilking day laborers might not be a risk-free crime.

Ronen, who graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 2003, received a two-year fellowship to help day laborers and domestic workers. "I created a popular education course to train the workers in the laws," she says. "As part of that course, they agreed to work in the legal clinic to put to work what they learned in the class, to help their peers."

Volunteers phone employers accused of shortchanging workers to persuade them to pay up. Failing that, Ronen may file complaints with the California Labor Commissioner's office and place more calls to the employer. For cases where the project has obtained judgments but can't get employers to pay, a collection agency is sometimes called in.

The case of Serralta, the allegedly cheated housekeeper, is a large, dramatic exception to smaller cases that make up much of the Workers' Advocacy Project's caseload. Rather than dealing with millionaires who may have held an elderly immigrant in a modern version of servitude, many of the group's cases consist of half-broke contractors who cut corners by underpaying day laborers.

When I spoke with Ronen last week, she had just tracked down a contractor who owed several thousand dollars to three workers who'd done painting and construction work. He had promised to give her a check for $1,000, a possible, partial success after months of effort by Ronen and her volunteers.

"He stopped picking up the phone," Ronen said. "We filed a Labor Commission complaint. He didn't show up to the [California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement case] conference. We went to his house. He admitted to owing wages, but made some excuse about why he couldn't pay. He said he didn't get paid for the job. A neighbor called the police because we were chanting.

"He told the police to tell me to call him. I called him five or six times, but he never answers," she continued, adding that if the employer doesn't come through with his promised partial payment, she will turn his case over to a collection agency.

For the record, the contractor did not respond to my phone calls, putting him on the Workers' Advocacy Project's list of deadbeat contractors. "They know they're judgment-proof because they're broke with no credit," Ronen says. "So they know they can ignore it." She recounts the story of one San Francisco contractor who disappeared without a trace in lieu of paying a few thousand dollars' judgment. The woman whose house he'd been working on, who'd already paid the contractor in full, felt sorry for the workers and helped make up their wages.

But for every permanent deadbeat, there are employers who eventually cave after phone calls from Workers' Advocacy Project advocates, judgments from the labor commissioner, public protests, or calls from a collection agency. Loyola says the group's success so far has created a virtuous circle where the group becomes more effective with experience, and more workers become aware of that successful work and bring their complaints. Meanwhile, employers, who've learned through the grapevine or through news reports of cases such as that of fugitive contractor Abozaid, become less determined to avoid payment.

Key to the group's gains has been the same sort of interplay between different personalities and legal strategists that you might see in scenes from TV shows such as Boston Legal — if the show were cast from the ranks of San Francisco immigrant housekeepers and laborers. They contact employers and draft demand letters. In situations where such letters require perfect English skills, they draft the points a letter must touch on, so it can be prepared by a staff attorney. These sessions have come to resemble the case strategy sessions one might see in an ordinary law firm. "They meet here until 8:30 or 9 each night, working on these case," Loyola says.

A powerful weapon in the group's arsenal is social pressure — in the form of actual pickets at an employer's office or home, or, more typically, as cajoling, schmoozing, and negotiation between employers and La Raza volunteers.

"For me, it's been witnessing something that's transformative," Loyola says. "It's not just skills building. The role [the volunteers] are playing, it's never something they ever get over. They'll never go back to how they were prior to playing that role."

Lazarte has become the toughest negotiator of the three. She calls accused rip-off artists and lets them know they can either pay or expect to hear from a collection agency. Esteva is the radical ideologue, deft with a megaphone, whose fervency reminds her colleagues of a higher purpose to their work. Peña is the back office whiz — "very efficient, very smart, and very by-the-book and responsible," Ronen says.

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