Labor Department starts Hispanic worker program

Goal to reduce injuries, fatalities

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), in conjunction with the Mexican and Salvadoran consulates in Dallas and other community, faith-based, and governmental organizations, has launched the Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program of Dallas. The program seeks to educate workers on their rights and responsibilities, as well as provide an avenue for non-English speakers to report violations of laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Wage and Hour Division, and Office of Federal Contract Compliance.

"We started the program in October 2001," recalls John Miles, OSHA’s regional administrator for Texas and the four surrounding states. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics data came out in August and showed a significant increase in fatalities among Hispanic workers, even as other groups were showing a decrease."

Miles chaired the task force that reviewed the existing data on worker fatality to determine the best way to proceed. "A lot are over-the-road accidents and homicides (60%), over which we don’t have a lot of influence," he concedes. "But we decided to find out what percentage of fatalities were immigrant workers."

The program seeks to educate Hispanics and recent immigrant workers on their rights and responsibilities, as well as encourage them to report violations of laws.

Miles says he also reviewed the programs and the 800-number for complaints, which at the time was only in English. Since his review, the programs, 800-number and the web site have been made available in Spanish. That has since been changed, as has the OSHA web site, which now is available in Spanish. In addition, a new booklet, All About OSHA, now is available in Spanish as well as in English.

"We have also started a clearing house — a database of training courses in Spanish," he says. "Each of our 10 regions had done something on their own, and now we can draw down on that data."

Additionally, a telephone line will be dedicated to receive inquiries from the public and channel those calls to the appropriate federal or state agency. OSHA, Wage and Hour Division and OFCCP will conduct training sessions and provide assistance the Mexican Consulate in Dallas with the tools necessary to refer complaints to appropriate DOL agencies.

Program participants include the U.S. Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the U. S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, in collaboration with the Mexican Consulate of Dallas, the Consulate General of El Salvador in Dallas, the Catholic Charities of Dallas Inc., The Dallas Concilio, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Dallas Police Department Office of Community Affairs, Casa del Immigrant, and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Local programs set pace

There was much to emulate in existing local programs, Miles notes. For example, Atlanta’s compliance assistance specialist (CAS), Marilyn Velez, provides training each morning for day workers. "If they do not get work, she provides training in safety and health and construction, and they also get lunch," says Miles. "Also, there is a local radio program where they can call in with questions for Marilyn Velez [who is fluent in Spanish]."

The CAS in Ft. Worth, TX, Mike Rivera, sponsored a one-day program in partnership with the Mexican consulate and the Hispanic Contractors Association. It had 12 different stations, covering topics such as electrical safety and fall protection. "If the worker completed eight of the stations, we gave them a card they could show contractors when they applied for work," says Miles. The program also included lunch for the whole family and a playground for the children, in recognition of the importance of family in Hispanic culture.

The program has already begun to pay dividends. The Houston Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program, which was created in July 2001, has already aided the Wage and Hour Division to recover over $1.3 million in back wages for 1,900 workers as the result of investigations initiated by referrals from the partnership. Nearly 70% of all calls at the Houston program were referred to the Department of Labor.

"Our overall goal is a 15% reduction of all fatalities [for all workers] over the next five years," says Miles. "With the immigrant worker population representing a quarter of that number, this will make a big difference."

[For more information, please visit www.dol.gov or call toll free: (866) 4-USA-DOL.]