Houston

Workers rights case highlights the struggle immigrant women face in the workplace

Employees at Houston Shutters claim they suffered sexual harassment and unjust firings. Now, they’re filing a federal complaint.

ORganizers have started a petition for Home Depot to end its contract with Rockwood.
Photo courtesy of Change.org petition
Organizers have started a petition for Home Depot to end its contract with Rockwood.

Maria Del Rosario Lopez spent nine years with Houston Shutters.

"She loved her job," her daughter, 21-year-old Rosalina Flores, told Houston Public Media. Lopez only speaks Spanish so Rosalina acted as her translator during the interview

Lopez says she supervised workers on the manufacturing floor where she and other employees helped to create shutters which often went into the homes of Home Depot customers. The company, which also conducts business as Rockwood Shutters, is listed on Home Depot's website as its local authorized independent service provider (since 1998).

"Her last year that she was there, that’s when the problems started," Rosalina translated.

Lopez said she was laid off after organizing with other employees to address sexual harassment and labor violations at the company.

And she's not the only one.

Maria Gomez also worked there and says she was laid off after trying to organize against the sexual harassment she says she experienced.

Gomez's daughter, Leniz Romero, also translated for her.

"They didn’t give her a reason either. They just told her she was fired," Gomez's daughter translated.

Gomez and Del Rosario Lopez say their experiences there showcase the unique pressures placed on immigrant women in the workforce.

"It is really unfair that because women don’t want something with a man they have to suffer and lose their jobs and struggle with life and things like that," Gomez said.

Fighting Back

Gomez, Lopez and at least four other women are now taking legal action.

The Equal Justice Center in Houston has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Daniel Pham is their attorney. He says his organization helps workers like Lopez and Gomez when their rights have been violated at work.

"When certain groups of workers started banding together or trying to make complaints to management about the sexual harassment, and also about a few other issues that were happening in parallel, kind of one by one, each of them were terminated," Pham explained.

The EEOC is not able to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, but we were able to get a copy of the NLRB complaint which shows the agency is asking Houston Shutters to cooperate with its investigation. The company didn't respond to our request for comment.

"For some of these workers, they suffered some pretty severe sexual harassment," Pham said. "And the statute can call for emotional distress damages and punitive damages in cases like that, where the damage and the suffering that they went through was very severe."

Pham says many victims of workplace harassment don't ever seek legal aid.

"I think the general consensus amongst practitioners in this field is that the issue is very likely, even bigger than what it may seem from the claims that actually go forward."

Fear of Reporting and Steps to Safety

Casey Swegman is the Public Policy Director at the Tahrir Justice Center, a non-profit that provides support to immigrant women facing sexual violence.

She says the already difficult decision to report exploitation to a boss or law enforcement can be even harder for immigrant women.

"They fear reporting and they fear reaching out for help because of that fear of threats of deportation, which are very real to them now more than ever," Swegman said.

Pham says immigrant workers should know they have the same protections as other employees- no matter what their employer might lead them to believe.

"The employer will make some sort of crazy claim saying that law doesn’t apply to you because you’re not a citizen, or it doesn’t apply to you because you’re undocumented," he said. "And that’s just completely incorrect."

Pham says the best thing someone who is currently facing harassment at work can do to protect themselves is document their experience.

"Everything that’s on your phone, everything that’s in your email, don’t delete anything, don’t throw anything away." Pham said.

He says this evidence can be crucial if an employee decides to take legal action.

"You might be able to find text messages from your harasser that show their icky behavior," Pham said.

Swegman says women in these situations should remember that there are organizations equipped to help them safely navigate the immigration system while seeking justice.

"There is hope," she said. " And there is a pathway to safety out there. There are organizations and advocates available to help."

She says, while there are still risks to coming forward as an undocumented person, advocacy groups like the Tahrir Justice Center can help women make informed decisions about how to handle harassment.

"I would always encourage an immigrant survivor of gender based violence to reach out to an advocate who is expert in helping them, an immigration attorney, who can walk them through their options," she said. "Whether or not they report to law enforcement, or report up the chain at work is going to be an individual decision based on the safety that they feel and the resources that they feel that they have."

For the women who have filed a list of labor complaints against Houston Shutters, Daniel Pham wants to help them get what they feel they're owed.

"We want to have our workers and our clients to feel empowered and use the power of the justice system to vindicate their rights," he said.

Lopez and Gomez hope their case will help to create better working conditions for women like them.

"Just because you’re not from here doesn’t mean you have to be quiet," Lopez's daughter translated. "There’s a lot of people there’s a lot of support out here. Just because you’re not from here doesn’t mean you can't do something about it to see a difference."

"She just wants a lot of women to stop feeling the same way she did," Gomez's daughter translated.

The People First Workers Organization El Pueblo Primero has petitioned Home Depot to stop its work with Rockwood due to the harassment allegations.