Calling in the feds - Page 2

Hotel sought immigration audit of workers asserting their right to a living wage

Advocates have successfully invoked these guidelines to terminate deportation proceedings and prevent raids in the past, but immigrant workers are still incredibly vulnerable.

ICE Special Agent's Field Manual section 33.14(h) requires that agents use restraint where a labor dispute is in progress and the complaint about employees' immigration status "is being provided to interfere with the rights of employees to ... be paid minimum wages and overtime; to have safe work places ... or to retaliate against employees for seeking to vindicate those rights."

Additionally, a 1998 memorandum of understanding between the Department of Labor and ICE (then known as the INS) directs immigration agents to "avoid inappropriate worksite interventions where it is known or reasonably suspected that a labor dispute is occurring and the intervention may, or may be sought so as to, interfere in the dispute."

Guizar confirmed that these regulations are still in place under ICE. Monica Virginia Kites, a spokesperson for ICE, declined to comment on these internal regulations.

At a noisy Saturday-morning picket in front of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites, Luz, a 42-year-old from Mexico City, told the Guardian that managers never questioned her immigration status during the three years she was a housekeeper at the hotel — until she started working with EBASE to enforce Measure C.

One day, Luz told us, her manager rushed her and other workers into the hotel's attic, because "ICE was driving around outside and could come." According to Luz, the manager told them that "this could be a result of us supporting Measure C or working with EBASE."

The measure mandates a $9 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers and requires overtime pay for employees who clean more than 5,000 square feet of floor space during a shift. The Woodfin contributed $27,500 to an anti–Measure C campaign committee, filed two unsuccessful lawsuits that challenged its constitutionality, and then simply failed to comply with the law.

"They said we weren't entitled to rights because we were immigrants," Luz recalled. "They started to say that our Social Security numbers didn't match and that we would have to leave. This problem never came up until we asked for our rights."

In September 2006, Woodfin workers filed a class-action lawsuit seeking back pay. The Woodfin finally agreed to come into compliance with Measure C the following month, but it also told almost 30 workers that it had found problems with their Social Security numbers. On Dec. 15, the Woodfin suspended 21 workers and gave them two weeks' notice that they were to be fired.

On the extensive Web site the Woodfin has devoted to the dispute, the hotel claims it was "forced to move to terminate their [workers'] employment" after receiving Social Security Administration "no-match" letters for them. "Today," it claims, "failure to act appropriately on a no-match letter may be considered evidence of an employer's conscious disregard for the law."

This is false, according to Social Security Administration spokesperson Lowell Kepke. It is in fact "illegal for a company to fire an employee based solely on a no-match letter," he told us.

Because it has been so often abused, the letter itself states that employers "should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee....

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