Recently, I sat down with Mavi and Laura, a student and staff member from the Latino Academy of Workforce Development. All throughout the history of our country, those with Latinx heritage have been an integral, and often underappreciated, part of our workforce. Parsley is committed to uplifting their voices and addressing the needs of the Latinx community as we develop our technology solutions. And so naturally, we’re curious what it’s like, when you’re new to the U.S., to navigate your first paycheck, sign up for health insurance, and pay taxes. Our conversation with Mavi was energizing and it reminded us why we do what we do.
LANA: Thanks for being willing to share a bit of your story with us, Mavi. How long have you lived in Madison and what drew you to come here?
MAVI: I’ve lived in Madison for almost two years. I was drawn to Madison for the job opportunities, the safe city, nature, the landscapes, friends and the people. In my country it is different, because what you study is more generic and after university–after the degree–it is difficult to find a job. And in the United States, whatever course you study is valued.
LANA: How did you find out about Latino Academy and what did you study there? From what I understand, you're still studying there, right?
MAVI: I heard about Latino Academy on Facebook. I’ve studied for a forklift license, bilingual manufacturing training, and Women’s Mentorship in the Workplace Program
LANA: So basically, everything they offer?
LANA: That's awesome. How long have you been studying at Latino Academy?
MAVI: For two years.
LANA: Two years? You've done all of that in just two years? Wow. Tell me about the Women’s Leadership Program you are a part of, or Laura, if you’d like to chime in, please do.
LAURA: Yes, Mavi is part of the Women's Workplace Leadership Program. The core of that program is to help our former or current students to figure out what their work goals are. Whether it's advancement and leadership, or if it's trying to change their careers. We pair them with a mentor, someone in the community who can help give them that opportunity to grow. Mavi is the exception being virtual. We were able to get most people an in-person mentor.
LANA: What is your mentor’s background and how is he helpful? What kind of insight or knowledge does he bring?
MAVI: His name is Pablo; he is from Argentina and lives in New York. We meet every month. Every meeting is different, and you learn different things and discuss different topics. The people in the Women’s Workplace Leadership Program are very nice and helpful.
LANA: So, tell me, what is your job?
MAVI: My current job is in quality assurance for an ice cream company. I’ve been there eleven months.
LANA: Do you get to eat a lot of ice cream?
MAVI: Every day. It is my obligation every hour to taste for flavor, but the flavor is another conversation. The most important things are the weight, keeping it cold and the “Best By” date.
LANA: Were any of the classes at Latino Academy directly applicable to this job?
MAVI: I studied manufacturing with Latino Academy in the class they offered with Madison College for five months. My first position at my current job was working with the machines that made the ice cream using my CMC training. After two months they transferred me to quality assurance.
LANA: I hear that your job is very male dominated. What has that been like?
MAVI: When I started, I faced a lot of discrimination, not for only being Latina, but because I was a female, and because of the language barrier. But the ones who discriminated against me were not Americans. And they weren't the ones working beside me. But people saw what a great job I could do and the quality of my work was good. That’s why I was able to get a promotion, a raise, and more training for the position I have now.
LANA: That's great. Were there things about either the job itself or the environment, working with mostly men that were surprising to you?
MAVI: What surprised me the most is that I do things that I never thought a woman could do, things I thought only men could do. I realized that we’re basically on the same level as men.
What surprised me the most is that I do things that I never thought a woman could do, things I thought only men could do.
LANA: When you were first learning and getting into manufacturing did you face any pushback from your own community of family and friends?
MAVI: No, but this is all new to me. My previous job in Colombia was very different. I was the owner of a business. I imported produce from China and Panama. In Colombia there isn’t as much manufacturing, it is more buying and selling, verses here, in the U.S. I am more hands on, actually assembling something, so that is different for me.
LANA: When did you come to the U.S. from Colombia?
MAVI: Twenty-one months ago.
LANA: Wait… Just twenty-one months ago?
LAURA: She's accomplished a lot in twenty-one months.
LANA: I’ll say! What has it been like learning English? Any specific challenges you’d like to speak to?
MAVI: My biggest challenge is that English is very difficult for me. I am trying to study all the time and taking different courses at Madison College, Literacy Network, and Latino Academy, but it is very difficult for me. In Spanish it is better because the pronunciation is always the same. In English pronunciation is different even when things are spelled the same way.
LANA: So, you've been studying at Madison College, working with Literacy Network and the Latino Academy. How did you learn about these organizations?
MAVI: The internet.
LANA: As you know, Parsley is all about helping people understand employer benefits, public benefits and the taxes in their paycheck. Did you find it was very different here than how it works in Colombia – how healthcare and taxes connect to your work?
MAVI: In Colombia, they pay in salary, they don't pay per hour, and they would pay you monthly. Here in the US, you know, how they take money out for taxes and for benefits and things? In Colombia, they do it in liquidation form, and it depends on how long you’ve worked. If you’ve worked a full year, you get all your benefits liquidated in your paycheck, and your vacation hours all liquidated into your paycheck. So, it is a little different. 16% of your salary goes toward health insurance.
LANA: Automatically for everyone?
MAVI: Yes, and health insurance includes everything. For retirement they take 18% of your salary, and if you are self-employed, you still have to pay the 18%. In order to get that retirement fund, you have to at least have worked 1,200 weeks. Women can retire as early as 57 years old, whereas men can retire as early as 62 years.
LANA: So, when you came here, and you started learning how our system works. Was it hard to understand? And were you surprised by anything?
MAVI: It’s been very different for me. Especially at my current job. I started at $9 per hour and now, with a raise I am at $12 per hour. When I did the math, I didn’t assume right away about taxes and everything that they would take out until after I got my paycheck. I was asking myself, “Why are they taking this money out?”
LANA: It's shocking to a lot of people. So, did you feel comfortable asking questions to learn how it all works here? And who did you ask?
MAVI: In my experience, sometimes when you go to HR to get help understanding your benefits they are not in the mood, and you just don’t want to bother them with those types of questions.
LANA: So, who did you ask instead? How did you learn?
MAVI: I would look to the internet for advice about what taxes are and find places to go that do taxes and ask questions about whether or not I should file taxes. There were times I was hesitant. But once I got myself more informed about it then I thought, “Well, definitely.” I got more informed about what an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) is. I also found out about how you can get discounts for federal tax and state tax and I realized, “Oh, I can benefit from filing taxes.” I’ve been figuring out for myself all the ways to not have to pay so much, like having dependents and getting those discounts.
I also found out about how you can get discounts for federal tax and state tax and I realized, “Oh, I can benefit from filing taxes.”
LANA: Yeah, if you don’t know and you don’t file, you can miss out on significant tax credits. It’s so complicated. Some of what you described from Colombia sounds similar, but it sounds like it's just done for everyone very uniformly. So maybe it's easier to understand, whereas here it seems like each person’s situation is different? Does it seem more complicated in the U.S.?
MAVI: Actually, I like the system here. It is more organized. Whatever your status is, whether you’re undocumented or not, you still have to pay taxes no matter what. The ITIN helps your financial history if you move on to getting a Social Security Number. From there you can purchase a home or get loans, which benefits you and motivates you.
In Colombia it is corrupt. If a person puts in a law that you have to pay taxes, another person can put in a different law that will eliminate you from having to pay, or certain people from having to pay. It is more equal here in the U.S., no matter what your status is, you have to pay taxes. There it’s like there is favoritism around who pays taxes and who doesn’t. It’s not as obligated as it is here.
LANA: Interesting perspective. I think a lot of people here might think that people unfairly get out of paying taxes too, because of loopholes written into the policies. But that’s another topic altogether! You said that you learned a lot by using the internet and going to tax places and asking questions. As you have been getting to know other people in the Madison Spanish-speaking immigrant community, how do you think other people learn about insurance, benefits and taxes?
MAVI: A lot of people don’t know about what benefits are available to them. I’ve noticed a bit of favoritism at some employers. Certain people can get a discount on work boots, for example, but not everyone does. Same goes for the 401k. For some people, they require to have a year at the workplace before they can get it. Whereas other people can get it right away. I don’t agree with these different types of treatment and favoritism.
Most people don't even know. Everyone has a right to figure out whether or not they get benefits or insurance, because not everyone is told that. So I sometimes try to help people out by figuring out their benefits, or if they do get a benefit or insurance. But I don’t know exactly how I can find that information, especially who actually does get the benefits and who doesn't.
Most people don't even know. Everyone has a right to figure out whether or not they get benefits or insurance, because not everyone is told that.
So I sometimes try to help people out by figuring out their benefits, or if they do get a benefit or insurance. But I don’t know exactly how I can find that information, especially who actually does get the benefits and who doesn't.
I don’t know whether or not it's legal to give this sort of information. Everyone's company is different when it comes to vacations and benefits and stuff. So I can’t give a full explanation to people.
LANA: You’re explaining exactly why Parsley exists, because everyone deserves to know what benefits and tax credits are available to them when they are working hard for them. It's awesome that you try to help other people in their careers. So what are your career goals moving forward?
MAVI: I want to buy a house and to have my family closer to me. And there is a lot of English I still don’t know. I want to continue to advance in my career and really feel like I love my job.
LANA: What is your idea of the American Dream? Has that changed for you over time?
MAVI: My intentions were never to stay here. I was just going to come to work for a couple of months and leave, but I fell in love with Madison. I like living here. I’ve visited other cities, but I always like Madison better. It is calmer here.
LANA: Well, we’re lucky to have you. Mavi, thank you so much for sharing about your experience with me and our readers. It’s very eye opening to think about benefits, taxes, deductions, and all the rest of this complicated system from the perspective of an immigrant. I’m so impressed with your grit and resourcefulness. And thank you, Laura for helping us out with interpretation and communication today, and for everything you do at Latino Academy.
About Latino Academy: The Latino Academy of Workforce Development’s mission is to strengthen our diverse communities by providing linguistically and culturally competent adult education programming that advances opportunities to ensure that individuals and families thrive socially, economically, and civically. They serve the Greater Madison region with English language classes, computer and financial literacy, bilingual industry-certified training in manufacturing, construction and commercial driving, and Spanish-language GED preparation classes. The Latino Academy is a founding partner to Parsley and continues to serve on the Product Advisory Council.