EMPLEO: 20 years of fighting worker exploitation

Eleven people in business attire pose in front of an EMPLEO program banner with the hotline.
EMPLEO members representing several organizations, including the Wage and Hour Division, celebrate its 20th anniversary.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Employment, Education, and Outreach, known as EMPLEO — a unique alliance of government agencies, consulates and nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting labor rights awareness among immigrant communities across multiple states.

EMPLEO began in the greater Los Angeles area, where its founders were alarmed by the exploitation of workers who faced labor rights abuses. Immigrants unfamiliar with their workplace rights were often targeted by unscrupulous employers. Staff from the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division and other enforcement agencies faced significant barriers in reaching these workers with important information due to their mistrust and skepticism of government’s potential to help them.

A woman in a bright red business suit signs a document on a table that has the flags of the United States, Mexico and several other countries.
Priscilla Garcia-Ocampo signs the 10-year renewal of the EMPLEO alliance with the Wage and Hour Division.

We reached out to the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, California, a trusted source of information and support for many immigrants. The diocese, along with other community and faith-based organizations, had established strong bonds with these workers. By collaborating with these organizations, we hoped to build a bridge to gain workers' trust and provide the assistance they needed.

In 2004, EMPLEO was officially formed with consulates from countries in Central America, with nonprofit agencies (including the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce), and with federal and state government agencies. Together, we were able provide essential outreach and education about worker rights.

A toll-free hotline also was set up for Spanish-speaking immigrants to inquire about their rights and report workplace abuse. The EMPLEO hotline – 877-555-AYUDA – has proven to be a crucial resource for workers unsure of where to turn. Our Southern California partner, The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), is now leading the development of a new EMPLEO website and answers incoming hotline calls, which are referred to the appropriate organization, consulate, or state or federal agency.

Since it began, EMPLEO has grown to include a wide range of partners and has expanded its geographical reach across the country. In Southern California, EMPLEO Pinoy was established and provides a separate hotline for Tagalog-speaking immigrants: 877-885-6641.

Through the EMPLEO hotline, the federal Wage and Hour Division has recovered more than $15 million in back wages for nearly 15,000 workers. EMPLEO has played an important role in uncovering violations such as employers’ failure to pay the minimum wage and overtime, and issues of worker retaliation. 

We take immense pride in how this alliance has grown into a powerful collaboration to protect the rights of workers. Today, we all stand united to address exploitation and empower workers to exercise their rights on the job.


Priscilla Garcia-Ocampo is the deputy director of enforcement for the Western Region in the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and a founding member of the EMPLEO program. Follow the division on X at @WHD_DOL and on LinkedIn.