Alexandra Sossa came to the United States from Colombia nearly 20 years ago.
Around that time, she was at the DMV to get her driver’s license and saw a woman that didn’t speak English getting discriminated against for it. She knew then that she had to get involved to help people like that woman, and herself.
Sossa is now the executive director of the Farmworker & Landscaper Advocacy Project, which has been advocating for Latino workers in Ogle County and 23 other Illinois counties since 1999 through community outreach, education and litigation work.
Along with farmworkers and landscapers, FLAP also works with snow plowing workers, packinghouse workers, cannery workers, restaurant workers and meat and poultry workers.
“It’s a population that’s invisible,” Sossa said. “People need to consider where their food comes from.”
FLAP has recovered more than $4.7 million in back wages and illegal deductions since its inception. Its services come free of charge to clients and are funded by donations from foundations and the public.
Sossa cited violations that impact workers such as illegal deductions, overtime violations, uniform and equipment expenses and discrimination.
“The population is very low income, like $10,000-$14,000 a year,” Sossa said. “They don’t notice the deductions. There’s violations like discrimination if you’re a woman, old, pregnant, or spanish-speaking, Injuries happen and they’re told they don’t have to pay injury damages since they’re not citizens.”
Those on work visas are sometimes not paid for their travel expenses or passports are taken away. FLAP holds informational sessions to help the workers know their rights. More than 16,000 of those presentations have been made, averaging four per day.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought on more work for Sossa and FLAP.
“They don’t have the privilege of working from home,” Sossa said. “Those in the food industry, they’re the most affected. There’s no proper protection, it’s 14 hours a day and they can’t stay apart. They can’t take days off.”
FLAP averages about 12 calls a day from workers reporting violations or looking for information. When the pandemic started, it was receiving over 100 calls a day from workers wondering about rights and unemployment.
Some workers were asked illegally to buy their own protection equipment. FLAP, in conjunction with the Rochelle Area Community Foundation and local United Way organizations, distributed COVID-19 information and resources.
FLAP also offered and gave $500 cash transfers to supplement lost wages to those that were laid off like restaurant workers.
“They really are invisible,” Sossa said. “We don’t realize how important it is that someone is preparing our food, landscapes and roads. What would happen without them? That’s why they’re essential.”
As far as how people can help FLAP, it is currently looking for two board members in Ogle County. It takes monetary donations and other types including cell phones, paper and water bottles which are distributed to workers on hot summer days.
To help, call 847-668-2114 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.