PASO West Suburban Action Project is well-known for fighting and protesting for the rights of immigrants in the Proviso Township area. But recently, the Melrose Park nonprofit has itself been the subject of scrutiny after some of its employees went on strike on Monday, protesting what they say has been a toxic work environment — a claim that PASO’s board of directors and executive director has disputed.

The workers — Mary Albarran, Jessica Arellano, Luceli Hernandez Mena, Mariela Mendoza, Esmeralda Montesinos, Tatiana Munoz and Estela Vara — released a signed statement on March 2 explaining the reasons for the work stoppage.

“We, seven out of eight PASO non-management staff members, issue this public statement to announce an indefinite absence of work to address the toxic work conditions we have been facing internally and to demand the immediate removal of Mony Ruiz-Velasco as PASO’s Executive Director,” the workers stated.

The workers claim that under Ruiz-Velasco, an Oak Park attorney, they’ve “encountered various forms of intimidation, abuse of power, deceit, disrespect, and overall inferior treatment that does not mirror the values we hold at PASO.”

The workers claim that for the past two months they had tried to “remedy this situation internally” by raising their concerns with PASO’s board, Ruiz-Velasco and the management team, but have been denied a meeting with those entities and have been subject to a series of retaliatory measures.

“The internal culture for workers is one of intimidation, demeaning, trying to pit workers against each other,” the statement explains. “We have been screamed at, harassed and intimidated, mocked when we have shared our deep hurt of how we are being treated, and our concerns for our wellbeing have been continuously dismissed.”

The workers said on Friday, Jan. 3, when a former coworker “was called in and fired during his last day off, despite being on vacation and having his child with him and no immediate childcare available.” That was last straw.

The workers said that four PASO board members have resigned within the last month as a result of the controversy, including Lily Ibarra, who issued a statement on Feb. 13 explaining her resignation. Ibarra wrote that she was “dissatisfied with how our role as board members has been reduced to fiscal responsibilities and legal parameters that are still vague to me.”

When reached for comment, a representative group of the seven workers declined to talk about the situation on the record. 

In separate statements released last week, PASO’s board and Ruiz-Velasco said that they had recommended the use of an independent mediator to help resolve some of the organization’s challenges, but that the workers refused to engage the process.

The board explained that PASO has “grown as an organization over these last few years and as a result have implemented additional structures that we feel are necessary to meet the needs of the community for the sustainability of our organization and staff.”

According to the board statement, the workers went on a two-day work stoppage last week, with multiple staffers calling in sick at the same time before announcing earlier this week that they were going on an indefinite strike.

“We respect and support our staff’s right to organize collectively and are committed to working diligently to achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution,” the board said.

In a press conference held March 5, Betty Alzamora, a PASO board member and Forest Park resident, said that the board has met “many times’ over the last two months to discuss how to help resolve the conflict between the organization’s staff and leadership.

“We respect and honor the rights of the workers to organize as a collective. We also know there is crucial work and commitments to be met, for our communities and clients,” she said. 

“There have been no findings of mistreatment or abusive labor practices by any governmental agency,” said Ruiz-Velasco. “PASO board members and management have made many efforts in good faith to work together to resolve the issues.”  

The recent conflict within PASO comes as the organization is attempting to mobilize against a range of anti-immigrant measures by President Donald J. Trump, who last month announced that he was deploying the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit, or BORTAC, to sanctuary cities across the nation, including Chicago.

During a Feb. 25 press conference at their Melrose Park offices, PASO leaders said that the measure was an attempt to discourage immigrants from completing the upcoming 2020 Census.