Whistleblower bill would protect workers from threats to check immigration status

The new bill will allow the attorney general’s office to investigate and fine employers that threaten to check a whistleblower’s citizenship status or ask them to produce immigration documents.

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Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul promotes the Work Without Fear Act in Chicago on Monday, March 20, 2023.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul promotes the Work Without Fear Act in Chicago on Monday, March 20, 2023.

David Struett/Sun-Times

A new bill could give Illinois one of the nation’s strongest protections for whistleblowers against retaliation from employers threatening to investigate their immigration status.

The Work Without Fear Act, pending in the statehouse, would also expand protections for workers who report sexual harassment or file complaints outside of official channels.

“For immigrants, threats of deportation or repealing immigration status can influence a worker’s willingness to voice concerns about their workplace,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul told reporters Monday.

The bill will give the attorney general’s office the power to investigate and fine employers that threaten to check someone’s citizenship status or ask an employee to produce immigration documents.

Employers sometimes intimidate workers with threats to silence reports of labor violations such as wage theft, discrimination and unsafe working conditions, authors of the bill said Monday. Low-paid and immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

“Fear of retaliation is the single greatest factor to discourage victims of labor abuses from seeking justice,” Raoul said.

Raoul’s office wrote the bill with community organizers from the Chicago-based Raise the Floor Alliance. The bill is modeled after whistleblower protections already in place in California, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington.

If the bill becomes law, it would be “among the strongest” labor protections in the nation, said Kevin Herrera, legal director at Raise the Floor Alliance.

Newly elected state Rep. Lilian Jiménez, a Chicago Democrat, said she is sponsoring the bill to fill a gap in worker protections she saw first-hand while organizing laundry workers in West Town years ago.

An undocumented worker had told her an employer was withholding wages and sexually harassing her, Jiménez said.

“I told her the things she could do,” Jiménez said. “But I couldn’t tell her whether she’d be protected, that she wouldn’t be retaliated against.”

Isabel Escobar is a domestic worker whose employer illegally withheld $10,000 in wages and threatened to call immigration authorities if she filed a complaint with the state.

Escobar, who now works with the community group ARISE Chicago, said it took her three years to recover her money.

“Many other domestic workers suffer ... wage theft,” Escobar said through a translator. “We need to have protection while we fight against these employers.”

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