The Importance of Health Care Workers, As Told by One of Their Daughters

I’m an assistant district director at the Wage and Hour Division’s Sacramento, California, District Office. I’m also a leader of the division’s Care Workers Initiative, which is focused on Fair Labor Standards Act enforcement and outreach to educate health care workers about their rights to minimum wage and overtime pay. This initiative is important to me at a personal level, as somebody who knows a lot of health care workers.  

My mom’s a nurse, my aunts are nurses, and my Filipino friends’ moms are nurses. When I was growing up, if I metPatricia Nario Canites and her mother someone else who was Filipino, there’s a good chance that their mom was a nurse. Many of those nurses, including my mom, were trained in the Philippines and came to the U.S. in the 1970s to fill a gap caused by a shortage of nurses. We still see a strong presence of Filipinos working in health care today. In fact, Filipinos account for more nurses than any other immigrant group in the U.S. – approximately 28% of all foreign-born nurses, according to the Migration Policy Institute

Working for the Wage and Hour Division in Sacramento, I’ve participated in multiple health care investigations that involved Filipino workers. One investigation that stands out was a 2012 case that went to court where I was asked to provide cultural context to statements provided by Filipinos who worked in residential care facilities. Although an interpreter was there to provide literal translations, I was able to provide additional context to the phrases the workers used that didn’t translate easily from Tagalog to English. That helped the department’s attorneys with the case, and we ultimately obtained $850,000 in back wages for dozens of workers. 

In another recent investigation, we found willful overtime violations that shortchanged several Filipino employees who worked in residential care homes. We achieved a good outcome that helped vulnerable workers and put a stop to willful violations. We hope that the news of that case and others like it will encourage more workers across the country, including Filipinos, to bring wage and hour violations to our attention.  

More recently, our office in Sacramento hosted a listening session for the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies at UC Davis. Multiple representatives of Asian American organizations attended and gave valuable feedback on how the Wage and Hour Division can improve its outreach to Asian American workers, particularly Filipinos, using better messaging and social media tools. These were valuable insights that we couldn’t gather on our own, so the event really demonstrated the importance of building relationships with the Filipino community and other Asian American stakeholders.  

Our outreach and enforcement efforts to protect the rights of Asian American health care workers in California are just a small piece of a much larger initiative to achieve the agency’s mission. Our Essential Workers – Essential Protections Initiative aims to ensure that workers of all backgrounds know their workplace rights across the country, whether they work in health care, agriculture, restaurants, or other industries. 

Our diverse and multilingual staff at the Wage and Hour Division is a good representation of the country’s diversity, which enables the agency to communicate effectively with people nationwide. Knowing Filipino culture and understanding Tagalog helped me gain the trust of Filipino workers and employers in investigations over the years. I’ve been able to build bridges with the Filipino community in my work. I think that illustrates the importance of the Department of Labor’s work to advance equity. We must be able to communicate and build relationships with vulnerable worker populations who need us to protect their rights. At the same time, it’s important that we provide compliance assistance to diverse employer groups who need to understand their responsibilities to pay workers correctly under the law. All of this involves recognizing the diversity of America’s workforce, and meeting workers and employers where they are. 

Patricia Nario Canites is an assistant district director in the Wage and Hour Division’s Sacramento, California, District Office. Follow the division on Twitter: @WHD_DOL.