Low-wage immigrant women workers in Tucson are often overworked, abused, underpaid and labor under unsafe conditions, according to a report by the University of Arizona’s Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program.
The report is based on interviews and surveys filled out by 90 women, mostly from Mexico, working in jobs that are part of the “underground economy,” or workplaces that are exempt from most legal protections.
Almost 60 percent of the immigrant women surveyed were in the country legally. Most respondents were employed as domestic workers in private homes or as caregivers.
Many of them said they were not asked to fill out a W-4 or provide proof of legal authorization to work, and almost half were paid in cash or by personal check. Some women also reported abusive practices that ran from salary withholding to violent treatment.
Among the stories shared by the women interviewed were cases of caregivers who were working with the elderly and had to be on-call 24 hours a day, six days a week, for $250, or cleaning hotel rooms for a little more than $3 per room.
Arelina Lopez, 28, said she was making $7 an hour selling raspados and initially had no problems with her employer, who hired her even though she knew Lopez was not legally authorized to work.
She said she saw several women stop by the business looking for her boss, claiming she owed them money. Eventually her employer stopped paying and strung her along with excuses until she was owed $900.
She told Lopez to take a week off and they would call her to pick up her check. They never did. When a member of the law clinic she had gone to for help called her employer, they were told Lopez had been fired because she was working illegally.
Ultimately, the employer paid what was owed, but Lopez believes none of the women who she had seen looking for her boss were ever compensated.
Stories like Lopez’s are the reason why the report was prepared, said Nina Rabin, associate clinical professor of law at UA and co-author of the study.
“The report is an effort to try and bring that to light, to let people know what it’s like for these women,” she said. “Particularly because so often they are working in places that are unseen, in private homes or very small-scale employment settings.”
Although Rabin admits the number of survey participants was small, their responses reflect the results of larger studies that have found the same patterns in metropolitan areas across the country.
“I would have hoped that some of it would have been somewhat better in Tucson, since we think of ourselves as an immigrant-welcoming city and as a progressive place,” she said. “It was somewhat disappointing to see it’s the same here as anywhere in the country.”
The report includes a series of recommendations at the state and local levels to improve conditions not only for low-skilled immigrant workers, but for the larger, low-wage worker population, as well.
While the report praises Chapter 17 of the Tucson City Code, which prohibits workplace discrimination and broadly protects workers, it proposes that the city expand enforcement, pass a domestic workers bill of rights, set minimum-wage requirements for all employees, and increase the minimum wage.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said that, while he is open to starting a discussion on raising the minimum wage — and potentially creating a registry for domestic workers, along with a place where they could receive aid — it is with worker education that any change should begin.
“Many of these women are in a situation where they don’t know what their rights are or how to get to them,” Rothschild said.
The mayor said the public, private and nonprofit sectors should come together to give low-wage workers access to that knowledge.
“That looks like the most critical need, because a lot ... are things that are going to be hard to change. But if people can individually come in and point out the issues, then the law can begin to deal with them.”
Rabin said that while lack of information is definitely a real issue, so is fear of coming forward to seek it out.
For women working illegally, the fear of deportation is clear on its face. But even for women who can legally work, many are in mixed-status families, and are not willing to take the risk.
“It’s also a tough employment situation right now, and people don’t want to lose their jobs, whether they have papers or not,” she said.
The report, said Rabin, is intended as a first step.
“A number of the local recommendations are very doable. With community support, they could gain some traction and continue to set Tucson apart as a place that’s more sensitive to the needs of low-wage and immigrant workers.”