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Wage Theft Whistleblower Turned Key Witness Deemed U Visa Eligible by Department of Labor

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Antonio Vanegas, a food court worker who became a labor activist when he spoke out against wage theft, has been granted authorization to work in the United States through October 2014 by the Department of Labor (DOL).  After blowing the whistle and participating in a one-day action organized by Good Jobs Nation, Vanegas was investigated by the federal employees he served Quick Pita to daily.  But the DOL now says Vanegas may be eligible for a U visa, typically granted to immigrants who have been the victim of a crime. This will likely help his case agaisnt his employer.

Dave Jamieson provides background on the situation:

Vanegas worked in the Reagan Building food court at a shop called Quick Pita. In a complaint submitted by his lawyer to the Labor Department, Vanegas said he was often paid under the table and below the legal minimum wage. During his first year, he received $6.50 per hour; during his second, $7 per hour, he said. The minimum wage in Washington is $8.25. Vanegas also claimed he regularly worked more than 40 hours per week — sometimes up to 70 — but didn’t receive overtime pay as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

An organizer with Good Jobs Nation schooled Vanegas on labor law earlier this year, and the immigrant took part in a one-day strike and protest in May. At the demonstration, Vanegas publicly accused his employer of breaking the law. He was featured in a story in In These Times magazine shortly before his immigration troubles began…

Generally speaking, it’s rare that someone would gain certification for a U visa in a case of alleged wage theft. Immigration officials issue only 10,000 such visas each year, and they require an approved agency like the Labor Department to show a petitioner was the victim of a qualifying crime. The U visa is intended, in part, to allay fears that an undocumented immigrant may have about speaking up about a crime because of their immigration status, and is more frequently used in cases involving violent crimes or human trafficking.

Vanegas’ U visa eligibility is tied to threats made by his employers which could qualify as “witness tampering.”  The final decision is now in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security.


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