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“It’s money they’re entitled to…and it’s worth fighting for.”
Thousands of Georgia residents may be eligible for back pay from employers under federal COVID relief legislation, but lack of information and poor outreach keeps them from getting it.
Sonam Vashi contributed to this report.
Shelly Anand and her team at Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and workers rights organization in Georgia, are worried about an upcoming deadline.
One of the poultry workers they support in Gainesville fell sick in 2020. Her throat hurt and she had been running a fever. There were over 600 COVID cases a day in Georgia then and news organizations were reporting regularly on COVID outbreaks in poultry processing facilities across the South. Still, her medical provider didn’t test her for COVID. She was told she had a throat infection and sent home. She missed a total of four weeks of work and wasn’t paid the entire time.
But Sur Legal thinks she should have been. Under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), signed into law on March 18th, 2020 by Donald Trump, employees could be paid for up to two weeks if they didn’t show up to work for COVID related reasons. They had two years from the time they missed work in 2020, to file a complaint to get the money.
Over 500,000 people in Georgia tested positive for COVID in 2020, and almost half ✎ EditSignof the workforce in the state works for small private employers. Thousands of people could be entitled to this back pay.
The problem is - not many people knew then or know now that they’re entitled to this money, and the deadlines for filing for it are coming up. That’s because employees have two years from when they took leave in 2020 to register a complaint against their employer for not being paid.
There are, of course, caveats. Among them: the employer has to have between 50 and 500 employees; the policy only applies to employees who missed work for COVID reasons between April 1, 2020 and December 31st, 2020; and workers deemed essential are excluded. (Read 285 South's full explainer here.)
Shelly didn’t find out about these aspects of the EPSLA until a client asked if she was eligible for back pay for the days she missed after contracting COVID in January 2021.
“That's when we first looked into the law and realized 1. workers had access to a right that many probably didn't know about and 2. that the benefit only lasted for such a short period of time.”
Eric Lucero is a spokesperson for the federal agency tasked with enforcing the EPSLA - the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. He said, “Many workers were not aware of these protections, or believed that these rights did not apply to them.”
When asked what Wage and Hour was doing in Georgia to let workers know about the EPSLA and their rights under it, he shared the link to a website that listed two people in Atlanta who were community outreach specialists. Their job is to provide education to the public on the protections workers have and how to file complaints.
285 South sent multiple inquiries to the specialists to learn more about what community outreach they’ve been doing around the EPSLA. They haven’t responded with any specifics, though Lucero said, “Individuals can also contact our office directly to ask questions. We can serve the public in many languages.”
285 South also reached out to a number of organizations that support workers and immigrants, and they seemed unaware of EPSLA and the upcoming deadlines.
Community advocates say for many immigrant workers and immigrant-run businesses, there are language and information barriers that make the EPSLA even more out of reach. “I honestly don't think many folks in the immigrant community understand well how to take advantage of this opportunity. I have not seen ANY materials in-language or guidance for small employers which in many cases would be the ones responsible for paying the 80 hours,” said Gigi Pedraza, Executive Director of the Latino Community Fund - Georgia.
But even if they were aware of it - there are still obstacles.
Employees are often scared to file complaints against their employer, and may want to avoid drawing attention to themselves for multiple reasons. Stephanie Lopez-Burgos works at Sur Legal with Shelly, and has been speaking directly to workers in the poultry industry in Gainesville about their right to file for backpay. “We’ve had several workers say no, I don’t want to call or anything, because I’m still employed there.” For workers who are undocumented and may be employed under a false name, there can be reluctance to engage with the government on any level.
And then, there’s the issue of testing. In 2020, testing wasn’t as widespread as it is now, and getting access to a test wasn’t easy. Some workers told Stephanie they had COVID symptoms in 2020, but were never tested, so have no proof.
As a former attorney for the Department of Labor, Shelly could see firsthand the disconnect between federal policies and protections, and the workers they are intended to support. “I was in this bubble of the federal government, litigating these cases. And then when I got out, and I started working in the community again, I was like, wow, no one is doing this work.”
This disconnect between what the federal government passes as law and what's happening on the ground, said Shelly, is especially apparent in the Deep South. “Are they getting to do all these great things that the government is saying it wants to do …in vulnerable communities? That sounds great. I haven't seen it.”
It’s partly what motivated her to co-found Sur Legal. The organization now provides direct legal support to immigrant workers in the poultry and construction industries, who face everything from workplace injuries to safety violations to wage theft.
“A lot of these workers are working paycheck to paycheck, so any money that they're entitled to, that they can get, is worth fighting for.”
Think you might be eligible for back pay? Call Georgia’s Wage and Hour Office: 404-893-4541.
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Top photo: A bipartisan group lawmakers announced a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.