Workers’ Right Interview with LRCL Attorney, Alejandra Cuestas-Jaimes

La Raza Centro Legal provides ongoing legal aid for increasingly marginalized community members in the midst of a global pandemic. Learn more about a recent win in our Workers’ Rights department.

In what ways have you seen COVID-19 affect the community that La Raza Centro Legal (LRCL) serves? 

Alejandra Cuestas-Jaimes: As you can imagine, unfortunately, we in the Workers’ Rights Program (WRP), have witnessed a never-before-seen number of employment terminations in our community. The majority of the population we serve are also undocumented workers. They have been placed in an inconceivably vulnerable position given that they do not qualify for unemployment insurance, even though the majority contribute to the EDD. As a result, when many of these workers lost their jobs, they were left with nothing: no income replacement, no stimulus checks, no health insurance. Nothing.

In 2020, San Francisco created an ordinance prohibiting Employer discrimination based on COVID status. How do you see this affecting our local immigrant community? 

AC: Unfortunately, the ordinance you are referring to expired. But, it will be replaced by a permanent ordinance with the same goal that will take effect on March 7, 2021.  This ordinance (let us call it “the COVID Anti-Retaliation Ordinance”) will have a positive effect not only on the immigrant community, but also on the general San Francisco worker population. Because workers will know that if they are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19, their employers will not be able to retaliate against them due to their need to take time off to recover or isolate. This ordinance will also protect the rest of San Francisco’s population because it will reduce the chance that people will go to work sick.  

The weakest link currently are workers who are employed with companies that have less than 500 employees (the majority of our clients at LRCL). This is because they do not have wage replacement during the approximately 10 days they need to recover or isolate – unless they have available accrued paid sick leave to be used for this purpose.  Sadly, the FFCRA (the Families First Coronavirus Response Act) also expired on December 31, 2020. This piece of federal legislation provided up to 80 hours of paid leave for workers who were sick with the virus or isolating. The current situation now is that aside from paid sick leave, workers can submit a workers compensation claim or a disability claim.  But, they can only do this if they were infected at work or they need a prolonged time to recover.

I understand you won a recent case prosecuting under this ordinance. Can you tell us a bit about this?

AC: Yes, my pleasure. In December of last year, a worker came to LRCL seeking legal aid.  She was terminated by her employer after getting sick with COVID-19.  This was the first case brought before the OLSE (San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement) to enforce this ordinance.  As I mentioned earlier, this ordinance prohibited retaliation (meaning taking adverse employment actions) against workers because they were isolating for being sick or exposed to COVID-19.  The OLSE started an investigation and determined that this worker was retaliated against by her employer, leading to her termination, after learning of her illness. Thus, the employer was ordered to reinstate our client in her position and pay her for her lost wages. This all happened in a record time of 8 days. The work of the OLSE was impeccable.  

We also determined that this worker had been subject of wage theft since she had not been properly paid for overtime hours.  After settlement negotiations with her employer, we reached a settlement for our client also in less than a week. As a result of the OLSE’s work and our efforts, our client got her job back, and was paid for her lost wages and overtime violations.  A huge win for our client and the community!

What do you hope to see more of coming out of this win?

AC: One of my biggest hopes is to see greater job security for workers who are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19.

If there’s someone facing employee discrimination or retaliation based on their COVID status, what advice would you share? 

AC: Beginning March 7, 2021, they should talk with their employers, letting them know about the existence of this Ordinance and the consequences of violating these regulations. Of course, if needed, to seek assistance with La Raza Centro Legal.

How is Centro Legal serving an important purpose in the community at this critical moment?

AC: We are providing free legal representation and outreach to workers in San Francisco.  During this pandemic, our work is indispensable to safeguarding the workers’ rights – one of the most vulnerable populations in the city.