Catholic Migration Services Files An Unfair Labor Practice Charge With the National Labor Relations Board Against Brooklyn-Based Company, Art to Frames
Whistle Blower Employees Fired in Retaliation for Requesting Masks
Brooklyn, NY (September 21, 2020) – Catholic Migration Services filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (Region 29) against the Brooklyn-based employer, Art to Frames on Thursday, September 17th. The charge alleges that Art to Frames fired an estimated thirty-five workers after they collectively requested that their Employer provide masks to employees for protection from COVID-19.
“These workers only earned minimum wage at Art to Frames and after their termination, they have struggled to make ends meet and find other employment,” said Magdalena Barbosa, Managing Attorney – Workers’ Rights Program, Catholic Migration Services. “Many of these workers also contracted COVID-19 and suspect that they were exposed to the virus at work.”
The COVID-19 public health crisis is creating many challenges for immigrant workers and their families. An estimated six million immigrants are in essential jobs at the front lines of the response to this pandemic. Immigrants, women, and people of color disproportionately fill many of these low-wage jobs and find themselves at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 while at work.
Although New York has some of the strongest laws on the books to protect workers, these workers are NOT protected by New York’s current whistleblower statute, New York Labor Law Section 740,” said Miriam Clark, former president of the National Employment Lawyers Association/New York. “The current law fails to protect employees who blow the whistle on anything that is not both an actual violation of a law, rule or regulation and also creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety. These cramped provisions make New York an outlier among the states: employers can even fire whistleblowers who complain about coronavirus-related violations, unless the employee can prove that there is an actual violation of law, rule or regulation, which is rare.” Catholic Migration Services and the National Employment Lawyers Association/New York call on state lawmakers to amend New York Labor Law Section 740 to ensure that whistleblowers are protected
“I worked at Art to Frames for about two years,” said Luis Jacome, Former Employee, Art to Frames who was fired after joining his colleagues in requesting protective personal equipment while on the job. “When we began learning about COVID in early March, my co-workers and I became scared. People were coughing at work and we were afraid of getting sick. All we wanted was for our employer to protect us, but they took zero precautions. No masks, no safe distances – there wasn’t even soap in the bathroom. Instead, we were fired. A few days after my termination, I went to the hospital because I was very sick with COVID symptoms.”
“I’m a single mom and while I was devoted to my job, my kids have always been my number one priority,” recalled Digna Rivera, Fired Employee, Art to Frames. “I reported to work at Art to Frames every day for five years to provide for my family, not to bring home dangerous germs. All we asked for was for our employer to provide a safe environment to work, and simply for that we were fired! We seek justice and to send a message to Art to Frames that our safety and our lives are not expendable.
The Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services works towards strengthening the enforcement of workers’ rights through affirmative litigation, policy reform, individual representation, and community education. In collaboration with workers’ centers and community-based organizations citywide, the Workers’ Rights Program provides advice and representation to hundreds of low-income and immigrant workers each year facing a range of problems.
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About Catholic Migration Services
Since 1971 Catholic Migration Services, an affiliate agency of Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, has been providing quality legal services in Brooklyn and Queens, and currently provides free legal assistance and Know Your Rights education to low-income individuals in need of immigration, housing, and workers’ rights legal services. As the first office of its kind in the country, Catholic Migration Services has served tens of thousands of immigrants regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, or immigration status.
Peze la pou tradui nan Kreyol Ayisyen
On July 28, 2020, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a memorandum partially rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. This memorandum was in response to the June 18, 2020, Supreme Court decision, which found that the Trump administration’s initial attempt to rescind the DACA program was done improperly. USCIS was then ordered to restore all aspects of the DACA program, including accepting first-time applications and advance parole requests.
USCIS’ July 28 memorandum rescinds portions of the DACA program and lays the groundwork for rescission of the entire initiative. The memorandum announced the following changes to the DACA program:
- USCIS will reject all first-time applications for DACA. This includes any first-time applications currently pending as of July 28, 2020 or filed in the future. Any USCIS fees submitted with first-time applications will be refunded to the applicant.
- Previously, those eligible to renew their DACA received two-year renewals. USCIS will now issue only one-year DACA renewals to eligible applicants. The application fee to renew DACA will remain $495 despite the shortened renewal period. The memorandum does not appear to change the eligibility requirements for renewal applicants. It also states that USCIS will continue to comply with its policy of refusing to share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for enforcement activities.
- USCIS will deny virtually all applications for advance parole based on DACA. Any such advance parole applications currently pending will be denied and any USCIS fees paid will be refunded. USCIS has left open the possibility that it will approve advance parole applications in “exceptional circumstances”. The memorandum does not describe what qualifies as exceptional circumstances. Any advance parole approvals issued before the July 28 memorandum will remain valid.
The July 28, 2020 memorandum is almost certainly the Trump administration’s first step in attempting to rescind the entire DACA program. This partial rescission will likely be challenged in court. However, unless and until a judge decides that this memorandum is unlawful, it will remain in effect. For now, those who previously had DACA and remain eligible to renew may still do so.
All DACA eligible individuals should consult with a legal service provider for information about, renewing their existing DACA and/or getting screened for eligibility for other, more permanent immigration benefits.
To make an appointment with Catholic Migration Services for free legal assistance renewing DACA, please call our office Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. at (718) 236-3000 (Brooklyn office) or (347) 472-3500 (Queens office).
Download this update as a PDF.
During a time when going to work has the possibility of threatening our lives, organizations fighting on behalf of low-wage workers are facing cuts in funding. Our Workers’ Rights Managing Attorney Magdalena Barbosa comments in a recent article by the New York Daily News, “I’m kind of dumbfounded. There is no rationale to completely eliminate funding for a service that is just so essential right now in the midst of a pandemic.”
Read the full story in the New York Daily News: Faced with NYC funding cut, over 100 low-wage workers poised to lose legal help
Catholic Migration Services filed two cases in Queens County Supreme Court on behalf of tenants who allege that their landlord charged them more than the legally permissible rent for many years. Along with pro bono counsel from Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett LLP, we recently obtained a favorable ruling from an appellate court that will permit our clients’ claims to proceed.
In 2015, Beatriz came to Catholic Migration Services seeking one-on-one consultation because she believed that her rent was too high. After learning about her housing concerns, the Catholic Migration Services Tenant Advocacy Program agreed to represent her and her son with the expertise of Senior Staff Attorney, Mariam Magar.
In the course of researching the records for the apartment maintained by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR), Mariam discovered that a rent reduction order was issued by DHCR in 1987 (and effective May 1986) had remained in effect through September 2015. This meant that Beatriz and Angel should have been paying only $348.04 per month, an overcharge of almost $1,300 per month, until then.
In February 2016 Mariam filed overcharge cases for both Beatriz and Angel in Queens County Supreme Court, asserting that they were overcharged because (1) the rent in their 2006 vacancy lease, which was more than double the rent paid by the prior tenant, was excessive, and (2) the 1987 DHCR rent reduction order limited their rent to $348.04 per month through September 2015. After filing the cases, Mariam learned about a second rent reduction order that was still in effect.
Initially, the judges in each of the two cases dismissed them, finding that the tenants had filed them too late, but with the help of pro bono counsel from the law firm of Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett LLP, we appealed to the Appellate Division, Second Department, and in June 2020, the Court issued orders reversing the two Supreme Court decisions, holding that the tenants had not filed their cases too late.
As of July 2020, the two cases are now headed back to the Supreme Court, where the tenants may once again pursue their overcharge claims with continued representation from Catholic Migration Services and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Beatriz and her son Angel, this will enable mother and son to remain in their long-time home for years to come.
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Peze la pou tradui nan Kreyol Ayisyen
On June 18, 2020 the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Trump Administration’s termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017 was unlawful, thus allowing almost 800,000 DACAmented community members, including 45,000 residents of New York, who call the United States of America home to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the program has not been eliminated and continues to stand.
What does the decision mean?
- The Supreme Court’s decision specifically takes issue with the way the Trump administration ended the program in 2017. The Court held that the way the program was terminated was improper. It did not hold that DACA was lawful or good policy.
- The Supreme Court’s decision means that the DACA program should be restored completely, which means that first time applicants should be able to apply. It is unclear when the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will begin taking on new applications. Individuals currently with DACA continue to remain eligible to renew their DACA for two more years.
- It is possible that Advance Parole may again allow DACA recipients to travel outside the United States and return. However, details of this are still unclear, and the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may limit the ability to travel.
- All DACA eligible individuals should consult with a legal service provider for information about applying for DACA for the first time, renewing their existing DACA, and/or getting screened for eligibility for other, more permanent immigration options.
This decision is an enormous victory for our immigrant communities and their allies who mobilized to protect the DACA program. However, it is important to keep in mind that the Trump administration can again attempt to end the program through other means, and that only an act of Congress can afford DACAmented community members true permanent status in the United States.
We will continue to update our website with more information as it becomes known.
To make an appointment with Catholic Migration Services for free legal assistance applying for or renewing DACA, call us at (718) 236-3000 (Brooklyn office) or (347) 472-3500 (Queens office).
Download this update as a PDF.
By Thomas Power
President Trump’s April proclamation suspending entry of certain immigrants during the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery formed another example of the federal government’s enduring antagonism of immigrants. It specifically highlighted the incongruence between America’s reliance on–and treatment of–immigrant workers, especially during times of crisis.
Federal and state pandemic relief measures have explicitly exempted many immigrant workers. Instead of “staying at home” or “sheltering in place,” low-wage immigrant workers throughout this pandemic have been forced to risk their lives delivering groceries, tending to the sick and elderly as home care attendants, and producing our food in factories and warehouses. For undocumented workers, loss of wages during this pandemic has not been a viable option.
Catholic Migration Services’ Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program has received hundreds of COVID-related calls these last three months from immigrant workers. Most can generally be divided into two distinct groups: individuals who lost their jobs due to the viral outbreak and shutdown of the City, and those who continue to work or have returned to work during the pandemic and have either contracted COVID-19, or have expressed significant fear or contracting the deadly virus.
After the virtual shutdown of New York City in mid-March, an unprecedented number of workers were laid-off or furloughed due to the outbreak. In response to the record numbers of newly unemployed, the federal government’s rollout of the CARES Act was lauded as incredible progress for the unemployment insurance (UI) framework. Not only did the new legislation temporarily expand benefits to independent contractors and freelancers, recipients could now receive up to 13 more weeks of benefits, and the benefit rates were increased across the board by $600 per week. The CARES Act also designated for “Economic Impact Payments,” direct aid to individuals under a certain income threshold. Despite the progress, individuals lacking valid work authorization in the United States do not qualify for any UI relief, and those without social security numbers did not receive a penny in direct aid. Over the course of this pandemic, we’ve spoken to countless workers who qualify for neither type of relief and cannot afford rent or groceries. Many of them continue in a daily struggle to survive.
Diego, 31, a server at a Queens restaurant, is one of those workers. He was laid off in late March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He lives with his extended family of seven, all of whom have been without work since late March and do not qualify for UI. Already stretched thin financially, Diego and his family have not been able to pay rent since the outbreak and have been reliant on local pantries and social service agencies for food. They face imminent eviction after the city-wide 90-day moratorium is soon lifted, and are left without any meaningful options for their other needs.
Those who continue to work, or have returned to work, are genuinely frightened of contracting COVID-19, yet have no choice but to continue working during this crisis. These workers have been branded “essential” and are some of the real heroes of this pandemic, risking their lives to deliver necessary food, nourishment, and care to New Yorkers on a daily basis. Many of them, however, were explicitly exempted from wage replacement programs like UI and “Economic Impact Payments” because they are undocumented. This creates a truly grotesque paradox: survival depends on an ability to continue working, yet exposure to a deadly virus through work is a grave risk.
Luz, 60, a home care worker, finds herself in that paradox. She routinely logs round-the-clock, 24-hour shifts caring for a series of patients in their homes throughout the City. Constantly entering those patients’ homes makes her especially susceptible to the virus. The close quarters of her workspace, a New York City apartment, and the demands of her work, make social distancing impossible. To make matters worse, Luz’s employer won’t provide gloves and masks, so she’s forced to bring her own. Despite the risk, Luz is tethered to her job; her family’s well-being depends on her ability to keep a steady paycheck.
A recent report from the Center for Migration Studies of New York highlights America’s reliance on immigrant workers during this crisis. The report found that 74% of undocumented workers have labored during this pandemic in “essential” industries. It further estimated that in New York State, immigrants comprise 33% of health care sector workers, while across the country, 31% of agricultural workers, 21% of workers in warehousing, distribution, and fulfillment, 23% of transportation workers, and 28% of janitors and building cleaners (those who are doing disinfecting work) are immigrants.
Diego and Luz’s stories are unfortunately representative of many immigrant workers struggling to survive this pandemic. They highlight a terrifying dilemma for those who are undocumented, where they must risk their safety and health to keep their homes and put food on the table during this crisis.
As we pass three months of quarantine, immigrant workers are the enduring heartbeat of the City, sustaining New Yorkers who have been heeding the advice to self-isolate. They deliver groceries despite many feeling unsafe in stores. They work in the cramped factories that produce our food. They brave the confined quarters of the laundromats. They care for our ailing loved ones. It is through their labor that New York City has been able to flatten and bend the curve in the right direction.
In the coming weeks and months, workplaces throughout the City will begin to reopen. Now is the time for us to stand up for the immigrant workers who have sustained us during the pandemic. We must call for immediate action to ensure that employers are required to provide their employees the necessary protective equipment to keep our workers safe. Localities must provide adequate wage replacement for undocumented workers who have lost their income. Finally, to prevent massive displacement, we must immediately forgive unpaid rent from tenants struggling financially during this crisis. If we’re going to call workers “essential,” we must actually treat them as such.
* Although the stories are real, the names have been changed to protect the privacy of Catholic Migration Services’ clients.
Thomas Power is a Staff Attorney with the Immigrant Workers’ Rights Program at Catholic Migration Services.