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Impact on immigrants is focus of NLRB chief

U.S immigration laws often work in extreme tension, with federal workplace regulations, thwarting attempts to seek justice for abused immigrant and refugee workers, the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board told a local audience Thursday.

Mark G. Pearce, a founding partner of the Ceighton, Pearce, Johnsen & Giroux law firm in Buffalo, was the guest speaker at a forum at Vive La Casa, a nonprofit humanitarian group assisting refugees seeking protection in the United States and Canada since its founding in 1984.

The NLRB, which was established in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is empowered to investigate and remedy unfair labor practices. Pearce was named chairman of the agency by President Obama in 2011.

"We thought it would be very appropriate for [Pearce] to come to Vive, because Vive has the new Buffalo. Most of the refugees that come through here seeking asylum in this country decide that they want to stay here, in Western New York," said Angela Jordan Mosely, executive director of Vive La Casa.

"So it's critical that they understand what the rules and the laws are, and how important it is for them to know that when an employer hires them, they still have to follow certain labor laws," Mosely added.

Pearce said a 2002 Supreme Court decision prevents the NLRB from pursuing punitive damages against an employer on behalf of undocumented workers, leaving such workers vulnerable to abuse.

He cited several cases investigated by the NLRB, including the recent example of a Brooklyn bakery that knowingly hired undocumented workers and then proceeded to abuse them and violate the law.

"Even with that intention, the Supreme Court decision, unfortunately, denied these employees the right to back pay," Pearce said.

"The bad news is that most of the cases like this -- and there are many -- usually end up dismissed by the agency, because people are unwilling to come forward. Workers have been intimidated to the point that they are afraid to file charges or cooperate in an investigation. They've lost hope," Pearce added.

Pearce said the agency is working around those limitations.

"Part of what we're doing to work around it is to educate, to come to organizations such as this [and] to educate those immigrant workers who could utilize that knowledge and also those people rendering that assistance," he said.

"An immigrant workforce is what made this country great," Pearce added. "Today, as it was when this country was founded, the immigrant workforce continues to grow. Buffalo is a fine example. Buffalo has a rich immigrant heritage, which includes the Irish, the Italians, Polish, Germans, Hispanics and African refugees from slavery."