A Living Wage: Challenges And Resources In The Job Market

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Assemblyman Francisco Moya introduced legislation
that would crack down on fraudulent employment agencies.

BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Staff Writer

No place knows the grasp for the American Dream quite like Queens.

Queens is not just a Borough of immigrants, but also a Borough of entrepreneurs, employees and students. The Latino community makes up a large portion of the workforce and job seekers, and on the path to a stable career, meets both unique opportunities and challenges.

Saduf Syal is a co-op developer with Make the Road New York (MRNY), a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Latino and working class communities through organizing, education, resources and policy innovation. She said that one of the major problems that the Hispanic workforce faces is job instability.

“Oftentimes, the jobs people find are highly unstable – they don’t have regular work schedules,” Syal said.

As an example, she noted that in retail, employees are sometimes given “on call” as opposed to part-time schedules, meaning they call their place of work each morning to get their hours.

“This means for them not taking other jobs, because of the possibility of having to come in to work, and not knowing,” Syal said. “So what we [at MRNY] try to do is find good, stable employment – permanent jobs for folks in our community.”

Small business owners performed at the grand opening of Grameen America’s Long Island City Center last week. Photo by Jackie Strawbridge

Small business owners performed at the grand opening of Grameen America’s Long Island City Center last week. Photo by Jackie Strawbridge

Another symptom of the unstable job market is fraudulent employment agencies, which promise work that does not exist, or demand exorbitant fees for little or no services provided.

Last month, Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) introduced legislation that would draw up guidelines governing fees charged by these agencies, and cracking down on labor shark practices.

Victims of employment agency fraud can seek legal help or advice from Make the Road New York or other organizations such as Latino Justice, as well as the Dept. of Consumer Affairs.

Even with stable work, one significant obstacle to economic mobility is the language barrier, exacerbated by the lack of Spanish language training available to employees across the City, according to Syal.

“Even if [immigrants] are working and improving their English, that’s something that takes many, many years. That’s a long term goal. But in the meantime, they do work, they do build experiences,” Syal said.

To address the language barrier, “[MRNY] always tries to find or offer trainings on site that are in Spanish, that are linguistically, culturally sensitive,” Syal said.

A 2013 MRNY report also noted that lack of translation and interpretation services in government agencies can inhibit workers, for example, by preventing individuals to secure driver’s licenses they need for commuting.

MRNY commended Gov. Andrew Cuomo for signing Executive Order 26, which required State agencies to translate all vital documents into New York’s top six non-English languages. However, the report recommended increased access to interpretation services, development of guidelines for Spanish telephone and web government services and technical assistance for staff to recognize and access translated documents.

Many organizations and legislators focus predominantly on increasing Latinos’ and immigrants’ access to higher education, the primary key to upward mobility in the workforce.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, only five to 10 percent of all undocumented students who graduate from New York high schools enroll in higher education, due to the costs they face when pursuing a degree.

One particular bill, the New York State DREAM Act, aimed to bring affordable education to undocumented immigrants, who according to the Pew Hispanic Center, come largely from Mexico and Central America. The DREAM Act would provide qualifying undocumented students access to financial aid, scholarships and student loans for higher education.

The bill had Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as supporters, but was voted down by the Senate at the end of the 2014 legislative session.

Syal also noted that many immigrants who have professional degrees in their countries of origin can have trouble translating their credentials to careers in the U.S. This problem is particularly pronounced in the health industry.

“The most accessible job in the health industry is home health aid, for example, and it’s really challenging to move up from that to gain the credentials beyond that,” Syal said.

Syal explained that one way MRNY addresses these gaps in the career ladder is to train “community health care workers.” These positions allow individuals to work as health coordinators and educators in the community, giving them substantial experience in the world of health care and a stepping stone to medical careers.

Since 2009, a major aspect of MRNY’s work has been offering workforce development services, with the objective to connect residents with jobs and training opportunities, and to provide expanded workers’ rights and occupational safety training. MNRY had a direct hand in the formation of Pa’lante Green Cleaning, a small business and worker-owned cooperative aiming to bring stability and fair wages to the cleaning industry.

Grameen America, which was started in Jackson Heights and recently opened a training institute in Long Island City, is another organization geared to immigrant entrepreneurs. This nonprofit microfinance organization offers microloans, training and support to help women in poverty build small businesses – 90 percent of its members are Latino immigrants.

At the Long Island City center ribbon cutting ceremony last week, Grameen America CEO and president Andrea Jung pointed out that gender gaps exist not only in salaries and employment opportunities, but also in access to credit. The new training center will offer apprenticeship training and classroom style educational programs to equip women entrepreneurs with the financial tools to grow their small businesses.

Other Queens-based employment and workplace resources for the Hispanic community include New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Single Stop in Jamaica and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside.

Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, jstrawbridge@queenstribune.com or @JNStrawbridge.