A New Haven-based home care company is under some fire after the termination of a worker who says that she lost her job for speaking to her fellow employees about unionizing.
Claudina Lara-or, Dina-a home care nurse who has been with Family Care Agency for the past three and a half years, was dismissed from her position last Wednesday. Two days later, a small contingent of protesters-a mix of local labor activists, members of the Working Families Party, and representatives from United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 919-were outside her former employer’s Blake Street offices with a demand for-in their words-“justice for Dina”.
The group-between 15 and 20 demonstrators-picketed outside Family Care Agency’s parking lot on Friday morning.
When she was terminated, her former employers said that they had heard that she had been maligning the company and that a client had complained that she had cursed in front of them, Lara said.
She denies the second allegation, and says that her discussions with fellow employees regarding efforts to unionize and request benefits such as paid sick and family leave were not an attempt to tarnish the company’s reputation, but start a conversation regarding what she feels is long overdue.
“All the common stuff that you want in a company,” Lara said. “I wasn’t speaking for myself-I was speaking for my co-workers who are afraid because this is their only source of income. I guess they [Family Care Agency] feel threatened, but I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”
Lara, who typically worked with up to four patients over the course of an 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. workday, was paid $10 an hour. Lara has been a home care nurse for 28 years.
“In these days and times, employers should realizes that workers rights are human rights,” said Darryl Brackeen, Jr., an Alder who supported the legislative push for a domestic workers’ bill of rights. “An experienced employee such as Dina should have been fairly compensated.”
Lara said that she plans to take legal action, and that the fight to establish a union is not over.
“The union is here to support Dina for standing up,” said Jason Dokla, Director of Organizing for Local 919. “She stood up for what she believed in and the company tried to stifle her by firing her, and that’s wrong and illegal.”
Under the National Labor Relations Act, an employer whose termination of a worker is found to have been an act of retaliation-for wage or abuse complaints, among other reasons-can be ordered by the National Labor Relations Board to reinstate the individual as well as provide back pay for the time in which they were without a job.
“That’s not a very high price to pay,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, a New Haven Legal Services attorney who represents workers in labor-related cases.
Bhandary-Alexander would not comment on Lara’s case specifically because he does not know the details, but said that from his own experiences, retaliation is relatively common.
“The reason it’s so common, even though it’s illegal, is because many employers can’t seem to resist retaliating,” he said. “The other thing is the consequences are too low.”
That and that it’s not the easiest thing to prove, Bhandary-Alexander said.
“It can be pretty hard,” he said. “Only one in a million [employers] would say ‘I’m firing you because you’re talking about a union’. There’s always a pretext.”
So the trick for terminated employees seeking retaliation sanctions is proving that the given reason for their firing is in fact a pretext. They can accomplish that by pointing to aspects of the work environment that indicate that others get away with a given offense, or bring up their own record regarding work efficiency and discipline, Bhandary-Alexander said.
Family Care Agency did not return a message requesting comment. The story will be updated if we hear from them.