SAN JOSE, Calif. – Former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman agreed Wednesday to provide her former housekeeper with $5,500 in unpaid wages to settle a dispute that erupted after it was revealed the woman was an illegal immigrant.
Whitman and her husband Dr. Griffith Harsh IV did not admit any wrongdoing while agreeing to the settlement at a two-hour closed meeting at the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.
"The larger message is that if you're Meg Whitman or a small employer or anyone else — if you hire someone, you need to pay them the wages for the hours that they worked. And there are no exceptions," said Gloria Allred, the celebrity attorney representing Nicky Diaz Santillan, Whitman's housekeeper for nine years.
Whitman did not attend the hearing. Harsh was present with a family lawyer and left afterward without talking to reporters.
Whitman family attorney Dennis Brown said the settlement was a compromise reached for economic reasons. A document outlining the deal states his clients do not admit owing the wages.
"It's just very routine, and it's settled for significantly less than even the wages that she claimed," he said.
Allred had sought between $8,000 to $10,000 for the housekeeper, who was paid $23 an hour.
Brown said Harsh attended the hearing to make sure Diaz Santillan believed her claim.
"One of the conditions that we asked, that she look him in the eye and say that this is a true claim: 'I was not paid these wages,'" Brown said. "They refused to do that."
The settlement reimburses Diaz Santillan for unpaid wages but not the mileage she said she was owed when she ran errands for the family, including picking up their dry cleaning and driving Harsh to the airport. It also does not call for any penalties that could have been assessed for late payment.
During the campaign, Whitman denounced the allegations as a "baseless smear attack" by Democratic challenger Jerry Brown and the unions that supported his campaign. She said she would vigorously defend against Diaz Santillan's claim for back pay.
The revelations became a major distraction for Whitman in what was then a dead-heat contest in the governor's race.
Whitman was forced to spend days answering questions about whether she had known for years that her former housekeeper was an illegal immigrant, rather than talking about issues such as the state budget deficit or education.
The issue also dominated a gubernatorial debate, with both candidates engaging in a testy exchange about the matter. It also cost Whitman support from the voters she needed to compete with Brown — independents, Latinos and the GOP base.
The former eBay CEO had portrayed herself as tough on immigration and had proposed fining those who employed illegal immigrants, opening her to criticism that she set different standards for herself. Whitman fired Diaz Santillan when she said she discovered that she was an illegal immigrant — just months after announcing her gubernatorial intentions — but did not turn her in to immigration authorities.
Whitman then refused to offer help when Diaz Santillan asked about how she might be able to gain legal status.
Diaz Santillan told reporters Wednesday that she came forward so other housekeepers would not face discrimination.
"As housekeepers, we clean toilets, make beds, mop floors, do laundry, iron, mend their clothes and often we are asked to care for our employer's children, as well," she said, her voice breaking. "We do our best for our employers, and in return all we ask is to be treated with respect and to be paid for all the work we do."
She is pursuing residency status with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ultimately hopes to become a citizen, said her San Francisco-based immigration attorney, Marc Van Der Hout.
He said Diaz Santillan was not in danger of deportation and said the fact that she had falsified documents as she sought work was not unusual in such cases.
"The immigration laws recognize that, and there is forgiveness and humanitarian considerations," he said.
Van Der Hout would not say where Diaz Santillan and her family are living, nor would he say how she was supporting herself after being fired by Whitman.
Associated Press writers Tom Verdin and Samantha Young in Sacramento contributed to this report.