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California Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 263 on October 11, along with several other bills protecting immigrants.

California Protects Wage-Theft Whistleblowers

A newly passed bill is especially crucial for undocumented workers.

BY Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul

Now, any employer in the state that punishes or threatens to punish employees for filing an oral or written complaint over unpaid wages will be fined up to $10,000 per employee

In a victory for both immigrant laborers and California workers as a whole, Gov. Jerry Brown signed bill AB 263 last month, protecting workers against employer retaliation for wage-theft claims.

Now, any employer in the state that punishes or threatens to punish employees for filing an oral or written complaint over unpaid wages will be fined up to $10,000 per employee. The bill also offers specific protections against “unfair immigration-related practices,” which include contacting immigration authorities in retaliation against worker complaints, among other measures.

The Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that there are more than 1.8 million undocumented workers in the state. Some employers have responded to employee grievances by using such threats as deportation to “hold workers hostage,” says legislative advocate Caitlin Vega, of the California Labor Federation (CLF), which has lobbied for AB 263. 

But it doesn't always stop there, as Orange County day laborer José Ucelo Gonzalez learned in 2012: Gonzalez, who is undocumented, landed in the custody of immigration officials when he was falsely accused of robbery after seeking compensation for a paving job. “Existing law simply wasn't enough to protect this portion of the workforce,” says CLF spokesman Steve Smith.

While amending California law, AB 263 also recognizes that low-wage immigrant workers “have the greatest number of work-related injuries and fatalities” and that they “are the most frequent victims of wage theft and are also exposed to the greatest hazards at work.”

AB 263 passed in the California Senate on September 9 and in the Assembly the next day. As the bill sat at Gov. Brown's desk, Assemblyman Roger Hernández, who sponsored the legislation, and groups such as the CFL and the AFL-CIO called on him to sign it.

Gov. Brown finally signed AB 263 in October, along with several other bills protecting immigrants. Among them was AB 4, also known as the Trust Act, which prevents undocumented immigrants changed with minor crimes from facing deportation.

“While Washington waffles on immigration,” Gov. Brown declared, “California's forging ahead.”

Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul is a Fall 2013 intern.

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