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Know Your Rights
Source: WPIX - CW11
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Employment Agencies Peddle Empty Promises

Seven years
ago 39-year-old Adela Valdez began a job hunt that spanned from Central Mexico
to Central Queens.Fresh out of an abusive relationship and
needing to send home money to support her 4 children, Valdez
took a job making craft lamps in Lower Manhattan.She worked for less than minimum wage.For 2 years her boss promised back-pay, but
eight months ago Valdez
walked away empty handed.

To find a
new job, this Mexican mom turned to an employment referral service.She paid an agency on 37th Avenue more than 100 dollars for a
job lead that turned into a dead end.

“She went
back again to the employment agency and explained to them what happened,” says
Julissa Bisono, a workers advocate with the
immigration non-profit,
Make the Road NY.“[She] asked for her refund and they told her that the guy who took her
money is no longer there.”When Valdez went back a few
days later, the agency was no longer there.

Speaking in
a disheartened Spanish dialect, Valdez
said, “I felt really depressed because those 100 dollars were the last 100
dollars that I had, and I wasn’t going to be able to recover.

Valdez is still trying to recover, and so
are hundreds of other immigrant job seekers.Since 2007, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs has closed
50 employment referral agencies located in the Jackson
Heights, Corona,
and Elmhurst neighborhoods of Queens. It’s not clear how many unemployed immigrants
have been swindled, but
Bisono says the referral services in her
neighborhood are having wild success preying on undocumented Latin
Americans.“ We’re seeing even more
situations now where people are told to pay up-front and we’ll pick you up at a
certain corner or avenue or street.Then
the person shows up, sometimes as early as 6 in the morning waiting to get
picked up and they never do.So this is


job seekers are particularly vulnerable because they have little access to language
skills and are often unaware of their rights.The agencies routinely collect up-front fees, but deny refunds if job
leads don’t pan out.Article 11 of New York’s General
Business Law specifically bars employment agencies from withholding refunds.

to Section 185:

“… all of
such deposit or advance fee shall be returned immediately upon demand
therefore, if at the time of the demand such employment has not been obtained.”

To see if
employment agencies are following the law, PIX News gave $120 to Adela
Valdez.On a sunny April day, she
scouted 5 storefronts on Roosevelt
except one offered to take the cash up-front in exchange for a job
opportunity.When Valdez
walked into the Patricia Agencia de Empleos, agents eagerly told her about a
laundry folding job at a Manhattan
laundromat.The job, they said, paid $8
per hour.There would be no refund if
the interview didn’t pan out, though.Valdez forked over twelve
$10 bills, and off she was to what was supposed to be a sure bet.She has plenty of experience in the laundry
business.Soon after she arrived to the US, Valdez
worked at two cleaners.In one case she
washed, dried, and folded 460 pounds of clothes per day.


When Valdez arrived to the Charles Cleaners on Manhattan’s
East Side, a manager asked her to fold a few
clothes, walked away to attend to a customer, then came back and informed the
job seeker she didn’t need her services.When confronted with a PIX News camera, Luis Ruiz, owner of Patricia Agencia
de Empleos, said he runs a legitimate business and never promises jobs – only
job interviews.“I have a good
reputation and this is the first time you guys have come here.The first time.”

New York
Assemblyman Jose Peralta believes businesses like Ruiz’s are the spirit of the
law, if not the letter.“If you’re
sending them to places that don’t exist or places where people aren’t looking
to hire than you’re violating that trust.”

Peralta has
proposed a bill to raise fines against employment referral services that charge
up-front fees.Currently the agencies
face maximum $100 fines.“The penalty is
very low.It’s the cost of doing
business,” says Peralta.“I’m charging
you $150 or $200 I’m making money per violation.So I can strip you of all the rights you
deserve, but I’m making money.”Peralta’s bill would raise the fines to $500 and create a job seeker’s
bill of rights.


Back at the
Patricia Agencia de Empleos, owner Luis Ruiz ultimately decided to return Adela
Valdez’s $120 payment, though his agents initially told her there would be no
refunds.It was of little comfort
though.She still has no job.As she concluded her interview, her reddened
eyes welled up with tears.Valdez needs to send
tuition money home to put her 17-year-old through college.She’s dejected, but determined to find work.

“If I don’t
find a job soon, I’m going to start picking up cans in the street,” she
says.“There are good jobs out there,
but there has to be a stop to bad people.”