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Labor-Law Enforcers Launch Spanish-Language Hotline For Oregon Workers

<p>Juan Coria, with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, at the Oregon launch of EMPLEO, a Spanish-language hotline to report labor law violations.</p>

Eric Tegethoff

Juan Coria, with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, at the Oregon launch of EMPLEO, a Spanish-language hotline to report labor law violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor is making a Spanish-language complaint hotline available to workers in Oregon who may be the victims of wage theft, health and safety violations, or discrimination.

The hotline, called EMPLEO, launched in Southern California in 2004. People can call 1-877-552-9832 to ask questions about their employment rights and to report problems.

The goal of the hotline is to provide a single portal that Spanish speakers can use to report workplace problems, which are then routed to an appropriate investigator with the state or federal government.

"One caller may not realize that they have five or six complaints at one time," said Priscilla Garcia, director of public relations for the U.S. Labor Department's wage division.

"We know that most recent immigrants that arrive to this country don't know their rights," she said, "and they don't want to be given the runaround by calling agency to agency to agency."

Garcia said the hotline is staffed with volunteers, based in Southern California, who try to return calls within 24 hours.

About 12 percent of Oregon's population is Hispanic. Officials attending the Oregon launch of EMPLEO said that among the industries most often associated with complaints are restaurants, construction, forestry and agriculture.

"We have a very important need to have different resources for persons to get benefits, and to get to know their rights," said Helietta Gonzalez, a consul for protection and legal affairs with the Mexican Consulate in Portland. The consulate is a partner in EMPLEO.

Gonzalez said she helps Mexican nationals in Oregon with labor issues, including injuries on the job, wage theft, minimum wage violations, and she helps people who have been trafficked by gangs and forced to work.

"I think one of the top issues that we have complaints about is that they are not being paid for their salary," Gonzalez said. "Sometimes employers say, 'I am going to pay you just half of the minimum salary, and since you do not have documents, you cannot complain because you're going to be be deported.'"

The Labor department is also promoting the EMPLEO hotline in Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona and Washington.

The agency hopes the hotline will encourage undocumented workers to report wage theft and other forms of exploitation, but acknowledges that population may be disinclined to seek help from the federal government.

In 2008, with the help of EMPLEO, the U.S. Department of Labor won a case against the Southern California-based Maid Services and Carpet Cleaning, and ordered the company to pay $3.5 million in back wages to nearly 400 employees.

"If you're working in the U.S., you have rights and protections, regardless of your status," said Juan Coria, deputy regional administrator with the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. "I want to be clear, we don't ask for immigration status. We don't know. If we come across it, it's confidential."

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.