New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable and precarious immigrant workers in New York, with a focus on day laborers, domestic workers, and newly arrived immigrants. We offer an extensive set of services, community organizing, and leadership development programs.
NICE serves as a safer alternative for workers who solicit employment at day laborer street corners and fraudulent employment agencies, and who have little access to workforce development services. Workers connect with potential employers, collaboratively agree on rules and fair wages, and build a community of support to address their specific needs. Additionally, workers have access to workforce development training, workplace safety courses, rights-based English classes, Know-Your-Rights workshops, assistance to recover unpaid wages, and referrals to critical services. NICE's current organizing campaigns focus on curtailing wage theft through contractor licensing reform, protecting job seekers through employment agency reform, and garnering municipal support for workforce development services in immigrant communities.
NICE builds the individual and collective power of immigrant workers, with a focus on newly arrived immigrants and day laborers, who face some of the most significant challenges in finding safe, dignified, and fair-paying jobs and who are among those at the highest risk of workplace abuse and exploitation. Together with our members and supporters, we work to make New York a place where all people, regardless of immigration status, can live and work with dignity and justice.
NICE’s direct services address our member's most critical needs: basic soft- and hard-skills trainings, health and safety certifications, assistance reclaiming stolen wages, know-your-rights trainings, and job dispatching. On top of these services, NICE seeks to develop the leadership skills of our immigrant worker members to participate in city and state grassroots campaigns to change policies that impact the issues that most affect them, like wage theft and unsafe worksites.
NICE is located in the heart of immigrant-rich Jackson Heights right on Roosevelt Avenue, close to one of the largest day laborer corners in the country. Historically, NICE focused on day laborers who gathered at nearby paradas, or corners where employers come to contract workers. In the last five years, NICE has expanded its membership to include recently-arrived immigrants, immigrant women transitioning into the construction industry, and nonunion immigrant construction workers. These individuals reside primarily in Queens but also come from the other four boroughs and the wider metro area. They are adults, from young to old, with a variety of educational levels and work experiences.
NICE has a purposeful structure within the organization to promote member leadership. Our work prioritizes the leadership and voices of low-wage undocumented immigrant workers who are often excluded and/or marginalized from other spaces. At NICE, members are involved in all aspects of the organization – from a collective search for jobs in the morning, engaging in outreach and participatory action research. By prioritizing the development of leadership skills in our member base, we have seen sustainability and continuity in our member-led organizing.
Problems we address
Our membership includes people of all genders, and our programming includes efforts focused on the growing population of women in construction. The majority of our members face insurmountable obstacles to normalization of status in the U.S. and thus often rely on the informal economy to find work, in industries with low pay and high rates of exploitation. Many workers have families they support financially in their home countries, and some have children here in the U.S., and they are predominantly low-income, under 200% of the federal poverty line. Almost all of our members have experienced repeated workplace abuse and violations, including wage theft, unsafe working conditions, workplace discrimination, and more.
These are some of the obstacles and problems our members tend to face:
Workplace Exploitation. This population faces an array of workplace problems, including exploitative working conditions, rampant non-payment of wages, unsafe conditions, stress, exhaustion, and isolation from overwork.
- Frequently victims of wage theft, immigrant workers are often cheated out of the wages they earn when unscrupulous contractors simply refuse to remunerate them or pay sub-minimum wage rates for days or weeks of work.
- Collecting stolen wages through the Department of Labor or other legal service resources is a long, difficult battle that may be unsuccessful in the end.
Underemployment and Lack of Access to Safe and Secure Jobs. To find work, new immigrants without strong community ties tend to continuously look for work at employment agencies, day laborer street corners, and most recently through unsecure WhatsApp, Facebook and social media groups.
- These strategies are often insufficient: street corners tend to be unsafe and attack scrupulous employers, and most employment agencies fail to find workers jobs despite charging fees. Many employers take advantage of undocumented workers' fear of exerting their rights, hiring them explicitly for unsafe jobs and pay them very little.
- Working conditions can frequently be very dangerous in industries like construction, cleaning, or restaurants, and when accidents happen, employers frequently inhibit workers from accessing appropriate worker’s compensation, preying on these systems' lack of accessibility to workers and workers' fear of immigration enforcement.
Lack of access to basic services and workforce development services. Recently-arrived immigrants are often unaware of their rights to access basic services such as healthcare or financial services; and of their right to access city and state agencies or federal agencies.
- They rarely report instances of wage theft, unsafe workplace conditions, consumer fraud, or other problems they experience, for fear and/or ignorance about how to interact with government agencies.
- In addition, this community lacks access to substantive workforce development programs, which could make a huge difference in their ability to find and retain better jobs. In the construction field for example, skills-development often happens through unions or private academies, both of which are generally inaccessible to day laborers.
- In addition, publicly funded workforce development programs are generally mandated to place participants into long-term work to show their success, proving inaccessible to undocumented workers.
Abusive and fraudulent services. Fraudulent practices by employment agencies and by immigration service providers are pervasive in our communities.
- Workers receive bogus addresses from employment agencies or enter, through these agencies, into exploitative work situations resulting in unpaid wages. Employment agencies also refuse to reimburse workers for services not rendered and many agencies have disappeared, only to open shop again under a different name. Because our membership is continuously looking for work, the impact of employment agency fraud can be quite severe.
- Likewise, fraud by Immigration Service Providers, lawyers, non-lawyers posing as lawyers, and notaries also continues to be widespread and increases with any news of immigration reform. Immigrants can often be robbed of hundreds to thousands of dollars for no service at all, or for the filing of applications that they do not qualify for (with consequences as drastic as deportation).
How we address these problems
To address these problems, NICE employs a variety of work-centered programming, along with community organizing and leadership development strategies to raise the consciousness of immigrant workers and seek systems-level change for the problems they face. NICE:
- Operates a Job Center, where immigrant workers engage in a collective job search and meet with employers for short- or long-term positions.
- Trains workers in health and safety training for the construction industry, ensuring that they have the licenses to work and the training to stay safe and to understand their rights. NICE licenses 90-100 workers per month in 30-hour OSHA construction training.
- Trains workers in basic construction skills trainings, which allow them quick access to the industry. NICE trains 150-300 workers per month in three-hour skills trainings. We have also adapted our trainings to target women transitioning into the construction industry and other recently-arrived immigrants without significant experience in construction.
- Assists workers in collecting stolen wages from employers. NICE attends to 40-60 cases per month, small and large, individuals and groups.
- Provides navigation to immigrant workers seeking a variety of services: referrals to partners; rights-based training about various topics like employment rights, immigration rights, worker’s compensation, access to medical care, and more.
Because our model addresses the various barriers to safe, dignified work that recently-arrived immigrants face, NICE is able to immediately lift individuals out of the conditions in which they arrive, and to ensure that, if they continue to engage the organization, they build their skills and meet new opportunities to flourish. Given the volume of our work, new immigrants from throughout NYC seek us out as a place to come for help--finding a job, dealing with a workplace injury, getting a training certification--and they discover that they can stay and engage in a variety of other services and programs.
NICE distinguishes itself both in scope and scale of services. We are the only organization of its kind in Queens and the only one in New York City with consistent, weekly skills trainings for this community of workers, training 150-300 people monthly. We provide free health and safety trainings for almost 1500 workers per year, far and away the most of any organization in the five boroughs. We attend to double the number of wage theft cases as our closest peer, and over 1500 jobs were dispatched from our job center in the last year.
NICE is seeking increased levels of funding, in particular from major individual donors, to be able to provide the necessary programs for this community of workers, building on a thriving service model that both meets the immediate needs that workers present and gives them the tools to fight the pervasive exploitation in their workplaces and wider communities.
Our base of current supporter include The New York Foundation, The New York Women's Foundation, The Northstar Fund, The Mertz Gilmore Foundation, The New York Community Trust, The City Council of New York, NYCOSH, Hispanic Federation, TakeRoot Justice, and generous individual donors.
NICE has an incredibly diverse staff with a range of experiences serving immigrant workers in different contexts. Out of 13 full-time staff members, all of whom are bilingual, 12 are immigrants or children of immigrants from Latin America. Our staff members bring concrete experience in community-based work and popular education techniques, which we employ throughout our services.
New immigrants in New York work in some of the most dangerous and precarious industries, with some of the highest rates of workplace violations, injury, and death. Because this community is often denied access to traditional workforce development programs, they rely on day laborer corners and fraudulent employment agencies to find work.
In response, NICE operates a worker center for new immigrants, where workers can meet with potential employers, access workforce development, support services, and community organizing programs. Our work ensures new immigrants are not only able to find better jobs but also provides a base of empowered workers and an organized immigrant leadership in New York and within the industries that abuse and exploit immigrant workers, as we seek to change the systemic injustices.