Carmen Garza still can’t talk about it without shedding a tear.
For five years, she worked as a home health provider through IPH Primary Home Care in McAllen. Garza alleges that someone living in the patient’s home repeatedly sexually harassed her during her time there, and wasn’t paid adequately for overtime work.
When Garza told her employers about her situation, she was told to leave.
“I’ve never left a job on bad terms, ever,” Garza said in Spanish. “I told myself I had to make a decision because it was directly affecting my life, my health.”
After attending a meeting with Mujeres Unidas, an organization that protects victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, she realized she could seek legal counsel through Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
In May, legal aid staff attorney Kathryn Youker filed a lawsuit on behalf of Garza against IPH Primary Home Care. The suit accuses IPH of paying Garza and other workers their regular wage for overtime work instead of time and a half, which is required by law.
IPH declined to comment on the case.
IPH is also accused of not appropriately handling workplace harassment. Youker said in cases like these, an employer can often mistakenly believe that they are not liable for harassment by non-employees or customers. Under state law, if they are made aware of harassment, they are responsible for addressing it.
Youker also said it is a misconception that undocumented workers are not entitled to the same rights as those with documentation.
“Once someone is employed they’re covered by the same employment laws whether they are here legally or not,” she said. “We want all workers to understand and all employers to remember that once you engage someone to work you need to abide by the employment laws in this country… The laws apply to all workers equally.”
However, threats of violence, being blacklisted and deportation can still keep some from reporting their case, and lack of finances and uncertainty can keep them from seeking legal action.
“Clients like Carmen are very brave for sharing their stories and bringing to light those issues,” she said. “The #MeToo movement hasn’t really trickled down to the low wage workforce yet. But we’re hoping that that changes.”
Youker said employment law violations are more common in the Rio Grande Valley than in other parts of the state, and of those cases, she estimates less than 1 percent are settled in court.
These cases are handled by the Texas Workforce Commission or the U.S. Department of Labor. According to a 2018 report by TWC, in fiscal year 2018, the commission’s Labor Law department received 13,074 claims of employers not paying their employees due wages. Of those, the department completed 11,537 investigations, ordered more than $9.1 million in unpaid wages to be paid and collected $5.9 million in unpaid wages.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid does not advocate for specific policy changes, but Youker said an increase in funding and resources in those government agencies could help curve instances of labor law violations.
Garza, one of the few who are able to reach settlements, was given $16,500 from her former employer.
“For me the most important part was to find justice, not so much the amount of money,” Garza said. “The most important part was to not stay quiet.”
Garza is now self-employed, finding solace in the control she has in her employment situation. Her experience impacted her mental health, having gone through at least six anxiety attacks while working there.
“I would constantly get dizzy, and all of a sudden I would get panic attacks,” she said. “I would be doing my job and I would feel something take over my body, and I just wanted to collapse. It was too much; it was insufferable.
“For me, the most important part is to take care of my life, of my health. I’ve always been a worker but I need to move forward while taking care of myself first.”