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New hotline connects Spanish-speaking workers in Fresno to employment resources

Richard Newton, of the U.S. Department of Labor, cuts the ceremonial ribbon during the launch of EMPLEO in Fresno. EMPLEO is a program that connects Spanish-speaking workers to employment resources.
Richard Newton, of the U.S. Department of Labor, cuts the ceremonial ribbon during the launch of EMPLEO in Fresno. EMPLEO is a program that connects Spanish-speaking workers to employment resources. acastillo@fresnobee.com

Spanish-speaking workers in Fresno can now call a hotline with employment questions or issues and get connected to the right resources.

EMPLEO, meaning employment, is a program started by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2004 in Southern California. On Tuesday the department launched its expansion to the Fresno region.

The program’s fixture is the free hotline: 1-877-55-AYUDA (552-9832). A call center is run by volunteers at the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino who speak Spanish and are trained to help Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Workers are being abused every day and do not know where to turn.

Priscilla Garcia, U.S. Department of Labor

Workers can call with employment questions or issues about wages, workplace dangers or hazards, discrimination, or the need to negotiate better working conditions. The aim is for workers to understand their rights and employers to understand how to comply with the law. Officials said many workers and employers who are undocumented don’t contact government agencies out of fear of deportation or language barriers.

EMPLEO is an alliance between federal and state government agencies, nonprofits, advocacy groups and foreign consulates. Tuesday afternoon in Fresno, representatives from agencies including the Labor Department, California Department of Industrial Relations, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the nonprofit Centro la Familia gathered at Fresno State for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Priscilla Garcia, public relations director of the Labor Department who came up with the idea for the program, told the story of a man named Jose who feared he would be fired if he asked for time off to care for his wife who was dying of cancer. Through EMPLEO, he was able to get the time off granted to anyone under the Family Medical Leave Act.

“Workers are being abused every day and do not know where to turn,” Garcia said. “It is now up to us to band together through this partnership.”

Mario Gonzalez, who manages the victim advocacy program for Centro la Familia, said EMPLEO is a more direct path to connect workers to the appropriate resources. Gonzalez’s current system is to be the middle man himself.

EMPLEO has recovered $15 million in back wages on behalf of nearly 11 million workers.

The program’s expansion to Fresno is important, Gonzalez said, because Centro regularly fields calls about inadequate pay, mistreatment or sexual assault in the workplace. A stronger network increases the likelihood that those issues can be resolved.

“There is nothing more powerful than a person who is informed,” he said.

EMPLEO’s cost is absorbed by the church and the consulates. State and federal agencies are already set up to field questions from workers and have access to phone interpreters.

After workers call the confidential hotline, information taken by the representative is sent to the agency best suited to help. If the problem is severe, the agency may initiate an investigation into the company.

“I like to classify it as one-stop shopping,” said Richard Newman, Sacramento district director of the Labor Department’s wage-and-hour division.

During the past 11 years, EMPLEO has helped recover $15 million in back wages on behalf of nearly 11 million workers and led to $1.4 million in employer penalties.

EMPLEO isn’t just in California. Since last year, the program has expanded to Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Hawaii, Nevada and Arizona. Garcia’s goal is to include Alaska next.

A Tagalog version for Filipino workers launched earlier this month in Southern California. Tagalog-speaking workers around the state can call 1-877-TULONG-1 (885-6641) for help.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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