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Hempstead nonprofit embroiled in turmoil

The Workplace Project has been known for its advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers' rights against unscrupulous employers.

But the Hempstead nonprofit is entangled in some workplace problems of its own.

The group dismantled its board of directors and fired longtime community organizer Carlos Canales over the past several weeks, causing some members to leave it in protest.

Canales, 58, who was escorted out of the group's office by police on May 18, has filed an age and gender-discrimination complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, the former organizer and group members said. He blames Workplace Project director Omar Angel Pérez for the group's problems.

"He is doing to his workers the same things that the organization fights when they are done to other workers," said Canales, of Uniondale. "We are about defending the human rights of workers."

While group officials said they could not discuss the case because of the pending complaint, they defended their actions in a statement. "These decisions, taken by an attentive and committed membership, were required to immediately protect the organization, its principles and its members," the statement said.

Pérez declined to comment further, except to say that this was "an internal matter."

The infighting emerged as the Hempstead-based Workplace Project marks 20 years of advocacy. Besides helping immigrant workers claim their wages and fight discrimination, the group has been involved in advocacy for immigrant communities and in organizing day laborers.

It also runs the annual May 1 immigration march in the Village of Hempstead. The night before this year's march, though, members had ousted the board of directors and elected new members as infighting escalated.

Former board member Nubia López, who was among those ousted, said the group had fallen into disarray. Officers were yelling insults; some volunteers quit on the spot and officers called a hasty vote to kick out the board.

"We told the director that he was the one in the wrong because he is bringing chaos to the organization," López said.

Luis Nicho, the current vice president, said the previous board should have resolved the conflict before it escalated.

"We are going to be able to overcome this," Nicho said. "The membership has given us the support we need to continue doing our work."

Patrick Young, director of the Central American Refugee Center, where the Workplace Project started, said he hopes the group can get past these problems for its mission's sake. "The community that the Workplace Project serves is one of the most exploited on Long Island," he said. "They tend to be low-wage immigrant workers, often without much recourse, so any disruption in their work would hurt a vulnerable community."

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