Chicago's new Office of Labor Standards seeks to expose employers taking advantage of workers

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The leader of Chicago's new Office of Labor Standards hopes people will help expose employers taking advantage of their workers, from not paying minimum wage or overtime to controlling housing and identification documents.

Ania Jakubek took part in an au pair program, moving from Poland to a small town in Indiana in her early 20s.

She said her living quarters were the size of a small closet with no window.

"I think that was terrifying for me. Like she said, 'No this is how it is. This is your room.' I had to realize after awhile, no, that wasn't OK living in that condition," Jakubek said.

Jakubek left the program after three months but said her experience inspired her to help workers demand rights they are guaranteed under the law.

"The question is, if you want to leave that day, could you? Could you just pack and go? And often, people say no because they live there, because no, they are my landlord, no because they owe something or they have my passport," said Jakubek, who now works with workers' rights nonprofit Arise Chicago.

Shelly Ruzicka, Arise Chicago's communications director, said, "Labor trafficking can be very hard to prove legally because you have to meet certain criteria."

According to the FBI, to be considered labor trafficking the person has to be exploited through force or coercion. That could mean working grueling hours for little pay, being unable to leave because traffickers are holding identification documents or not having access to transportation to leave.

"So we know there are both people experiencing labor trafficking in Chicago as well as people on the brink of it," Ruzicka said.

Concepcion Malinek is accused of labor trafficking. Prosecutors said she held 19 adults and 14 children from Guatemala hostage in the basement of her Cicero home and forced them to turn over most of their wages from the factory jobs she got for them, according to a superseding indictment.

She was arrested last March and is locked up awaiting trial in federal court. She has pleaded not guilty.

Juan Sandoval moved to Chicago from Mexico 15 years ago, seeking a better life.

"There was no option, I needed to earn money, so I had to do it," Sandoval said.

He said he has been underpaid and taken advantage of at various restaurant and printing jobs.

"We are so vulnerable because they don't want to respect us as a person, they don't appreciate us as a human being," Sandoval said.

Arise Chicago helped Sandoval retrieve half of the wages he was owed from a restaurant owner.

"Wage theft is any time a worker is not paid what they are owed. In Chicagoland, low-wage workers have over a million dollars a day stolen by their employers, and so when you add that up that's nearly $400-million not going into the pockets of workers," Ruzicka said.

Chicago Office of Labor Standards Director Andy Fox told ABC7's I-Team in an exclusive interview that "the goal is to get people to come out of the shadows."

The newly created office will be focused on enforcing the minimum wage and paid sick leave laws in the city.

"Retaliation is real. People are worried about making claims. We believe that they are getting underpaid their rights are getting violated and they need to come to us if they work in the city," Fox said.

A new website is simplifying the process of filing claims, and the plan is to soon add forms in additional languages.

"Places where immigrants are taken advantage of, or where they might have a language barrier, so, nail salons, construction industry, non-English speakers might not be comfortable with making a complaint," Fox said.

Arise Chicago hopes to partner with the new city office to protect workers' rights, from wage theft to alerting federal authorities if labor trafficking is suspected.

"These are the types of things that people don't think are happening in our own backyard, but they are," Ruzicka said.

And it's happening in Chicago's backyard with regularity, according to experts who are fighting this problem.

Arise Chicago has supported workers to recover nearly $9 million in owed wages and compensation.
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