Article 25

Those Clever Immigrants

In Uncategorized on 08/26/2011 at 2:42 pm

Employer screws them, and they fight back

By Jesse Call

Two of the immigrant workers who stood up against threats of termination and deportation at Hamilton Avenue and Sycamore Animal Hospitals are speaking out about how they revealed illegal employment practices in Cincinnati. Their efforts led to the payment of $85,000 in back pay and damages to 21 employees.

Jose Luis Acquilar and Salvador Martinez teamed up to use video to catch their employer taking back overtime pay from its workers.

When the two men took jobs at the animal hospital, they said, they didn’t understand that they would be expected to pay back the overtime pay that they had earned. Yet their employer demanded that portion of their paychecks back, according to Acquilar and Martinez. When they objected, the two men say, the animal hospital claimed that they had agreed to the arrangement when they were hired.

Acquilar says he refused to go along with the demand.

“Its my money,” he says. “I’ve been working for my money.”

Acquilar and Martinez say the animal hospital threatened to terminate their employment if they did not pay back the overtime wages.

The two men complied with the company’s demand but began working to get their money back.

“It’s not like we were trying to get back money that we stole,” Martinez says.

Yet, he says, the animal hospital treated him and the other Hispanic workers that way.

“They used to tell me, ‘You’re illegal,’ ‘You have no rights,’ and things like it,” Acquilar says.

The pair eventually teamed up for a video sting that shocked people across Cincinnati.

The owners of the Hamilton Ave. and Sycamore Animal Hospitals refused to respond to Article 25’s requests for comment.

 Caught on camera

Acquilar, who lived in an apartment above the animal hospital’s office, says he used a mini-camera, purchased online by Martinez, to record sessions at which he was forced to pay back money he had earned by working overtime. These videos provided the proof that led the U.S. Department of Labor needed to take action.

The hidden camera, however, wasn’t the employees’ first attempt to acquire evidence to present to federal authorities. Acquilar had already presented documents to Labor Department investigators.

“He had everything in order and he had the pay stubs and all the stuff he gave to her,” Martinez says.

Acquilar began using personal checks instead of cash to pay back his overtime wages, until the animal hospital demanded he stop. When he presented those checks and his other evidence to the Labor Department, they said they would need more proof.

That prompted their plans for the video sting. After work hours, the two men installed a camera through the floor of Acquilar’s apartment so they could record the money exchanges. The camera was remote-controlled and connected to a personal computer. The cameras didn’t run continuously but had to be activated, they say.

Despite their preparation, the process of recording the sessions was not free of snafus. On Acquilar’s first attempt, the remote control for the camera failed to activate it. But that didn’t stop them from trying again. They finally got it: a video of the cash being exchanged from their hands to the hands of their employer.

Acquilar says he believes the animal hospital’s administrators never suspected that their illegal behavior would come to light, especially at the hands of immigrant workers like him.

“The last person they thought would do something like this was me,” he says.

With the evidence in hand, the two said they knew they would get their wages back. Part of their confidence resulted from support from the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, they say. The center backed the workers and took a group of workers and supporters to the animal hospital to demand back pay for all workers.

In retaliation, the animal hospital first threatened to work to have them deported from the United States, according to Acquilar and Martinez. After they handed a demand letter to one of the owners, they say, he responded by saying, “Ok, if we pay you guys, does this come with an order of deportation?” Martinez says his response was, “We’re not here to talk about getting deported.”

‘We never doubted’

For a while, the owners of the animal hospitals denied engaging in illegal activity – despite the video evidence – and threatened to countersue for invasion of privacy for the use of the video camera, the two men say. The company continually brought up deportation in an effort to dissuade the workers from suing, according to Martinez and Acquilar.

The two men say they never lost sight of the goal or the hope that they would win back their money.

“We never doubted we weren’t going to get the money back,” Martinez says.

He also says they did not take the threats of deportation seriously.

“We were confident that we had all the evidence we needed to get all this approved,” Martinez says. “If we ever would’ve gotten deported, then that would mean they were gonna let them get away with this.”

Martinez says the Interfaith Workers Center assured them that they would be protected and helped them make the fight public.

“We decided to make it public to get all the attention we needed to make this happen,” he says.

The workers attribute much of their success to the Interfaith Workers Center, which helped them and 19 other victims.

“By listening to them … that’s how we got everything settled,” Martinez says.

The workers said they trusted that the U.S. government would not allow the animal hospital to get away with what they had done.

Federal authorities were quick to take credit. U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis spoke June 30 at the League of United Latin American Citizens Unity Luncheon in Cincinnati.

“This case was particularly outrageous,” Solis said. “The hospital clearly understood its legal obligations, but it took advantage of workers they believed wouldn’t stand up for their rights. Well, today, we’re putting a stop to it.”

The faith that workers like Acquilar and Martinez put in the U.S. government to protect workers’ rights was well founded, according to Solis.

“We’ve signed an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security stating that the INS or ICE agents will not intervene in on-going field investigations we are conducting on behalf of vulnerable workers, many times prosecuting unscrupulous employers that are cheating people out of their wages,” she said.

Solis said that ending this practice nationwide is a priority for President Obama’s administration.

“Our commitment to ending this type of exploitation is an important part of our economic recovery,” she said.

The Hamilton Ave./Sycamore Animal Hospitals paid back all the wages they had taken in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor. Acquilar and Martinez say they have now gotten their money.

They now encourage other exploited workers to seek help from the Interfaith Workers Center.

“I would tell the (Hispanic community) to help each other, if they know anybody that needs help, to help them out,” Acquilar says.

People need to know they have rights, Martinez says.

“Take all this as an example,” he says. “You can actually have rights, and there is justice for all.”

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