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New State Law Would Protect Immigrants Who Report Unsafe Work Conditions, Officials Say

The Illinois Work Without Fear Act would make it punishable if employers report or threaten to report whistle-blowing workers to immigration authorities.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul gave his support for the Illinois Work Without Fear Act, that would protect workers who report workplace violations from being threatened with immigration-related retaliation.
Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — A new state bill would protect employees from immigration-related threats when speaking out against workers rights’ violations.

The Illinois Work Without Fear Act — House Bill 361 — would fill gaps in Illinois employment law to ensure companies can be punished if they retaliate against workers by calling immigration officials or making other immigration-related threats when the workers report violations, state leaders and policy experts said.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and state Rep. Lilian Jiménez were joined by members of workers rights’ groups Arise Chicago, Raise the Floor Alliance and United Workers Center to announce the bill Monday morning.

The Work Without Fear Act is necessary because state and federal laws don’t specifically protect workers from retaliation based on their immigration status, including threats to report them to government authorities, officials said.

“What this gives us is the power to act when there’s retaliation for reporting workers rights’ violations,” Raoul said. “We previously had power to investigate workers rights’ violations, but if an employer has the ability to retaliate and therefore quiet workers that would be able to bring forth evidence that would allow us to enforce the existing laws, then it’s difficult for us to carry out our responsibility.”

The attorney general said his office has been working on this issue for years, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to protect essential workers.

Raoul’s office has investigated unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, but many employees were fearful of speaking to authorities due to potential retaliation, he said.

“To encourage people to stand up, we need to ensure they will not be punished for doing so,” Raoul said.

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Jiménez, who’s co-sponsoring the bill, said she saw workers afraid to report workplace violations because of their immigration status. Prior to being a lawmaker, Jiménez was director of the Fair Labors Standards Division at the Illinois Department of Labor.

Jiménez said a woman came to her terrified of reporting sexual harassment because was undocumented and couldn’t afford to lose her job.

“But there was very little I could tell her I could do,” said Jiménez, whose district covers parts of West Town, Humboldt Park and Belmont Cragin.

Policy experts said immigrant and undocumented workers can face employment violations like wage theft or sexual harassment because their immigration status may leave them vulnerable if they speak up about it.

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Isabel Escobar, a member of Arise Chicago, said she experienced thousands of dollars worth of wage theft from an employer who wouldn’t pay her after she had an accident in his home.

Escobar, who’s cleaned homes for nearly 26 years, said when she spoke up and demanded her wages, the employer threatened he could have her deported. It was only after years of working with Arise that she received her wages.

“Many times, people stay quiet because they’re afraid of being deported and they need that money to bring home and give to their kids in order to eat,” Escobar said in Spanish. “This is why I support the law.”

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