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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    



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Working for Justice: Beginning with Inspiration


Written by Emily Miron, Policy Intern

In the beginning of the summer, my mother gave me a beautifully framed poem about justice and finding one’s passion by author and artist, Mary Ann Radmacher.  The opening stanzas pose important questions: “What is a voice if it does not raise against injustice?  What is a voice if it does not sing for change?”  I hung the poem on the far wall of my bedroom so that before I go to bed and when I wake up I can read it and be reminded of what I believe in.  The questions Radmacher raises have been reverberating in my mind since I took a college course titled “History of Justice and Equality” my first semester freshman year at the University of Rochester.

     



The course, without exaggeration, has influenced the rest of my education and outlook on the world in general.  Throughout the small seminar-based course we read works by Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, to try and answer broad questions like: What is justice?  What is equality?  How are they intertwined and are they universal?  Throughout the class I became more aware of my own privileges and the ways that society is deliberately organized to favor some groups over others.  Additionally, the course brought into focus how the lack of justice and equality has manifested in the contemporary world through segregation, systematic racism, racial profiling and socioeconomic inequality.  I was taken aback by the severity of these issues and their implications.

My major at the University of Rochester is in public health, and more specifically, “Health, Behavior and Society.”  I chose this major to learn how social determinants of health, like poverty and access to resources, impact one’s health outcomes throughout their lifetime.  I want to combine my passion for public health and advocacy in a proactive and meaningful way, and I feel very fortunate to be able to intern at Empire Justice Center this summer with the policy team to be able to engage in the political process to make important changes for New Yorkers.

During my second week with Empire Justice Center, I was able to see the impact of grassroots activism during the SWEAT lobby day.  SWEAT stands for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft.  The purpose of the proposed SWEAT legislation is to help workers and New York State collect the wages they are rightfully owed from unscrupulous employers.  Wage theft is a problem across all of New York State that predominantly affects low-wage industries, resulting in over one billion dollars in stolen wages per year.  These lost wages impact their housing, food, lifestyle and, ultimately, their health.  The lobby day was a day for all members of the SWEAT coalition to come together, as activists, workers, policy makers and legal representatives alike to advocate for the SWEAT legislation and educate various Senators and Assembly Members on the merits of the proposed bill.  It was quite remarkable to witness activism in action and see what can be accomplished.

   



I continued to work on SWEAT through the end of the legislative session by passing out memos of support to members of the legislature and participating in meetings with the Senate and Assembly legislative staff with the rest of the Empire Justice Center policy team.  We shared high hopes for the passage of the SWEAT bill, and even though neither house ultimately passed it, I could tell that momentum was building in both houses.  The groundwork has been laid for success in the next session.

I have learned so much this summer about the political process, the hard work that goes into legislative advocacy, and most importantly, that all the efforts by Empire Justice Center, the SWEAT coalition, and workers themselves is extremely beneficial.  Even though the SWEAT bill did not pass and become law, important strides were made in spreading awareness about how extensive this problem is in New York State.  Overall, working on the SWEAT bill during the legislative session surrounding has confirmed my passion for social justice and how I can be a voice in the world to fight against injustice and for vital change.

Emily Miron is a senior at the University of Rochester pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Public Health with a minor in History. She hopes to get a Master’s in Public Health with a focus in health equity following graduation. 



Tags: wage justice | intern | justice | sweat





Giving Tuesday is November 29!


     

Looking for ways to take ACTION?
 
On Tuesday, November 29, 2016, come together with other people, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world for one common purpose: to support organizations that DO GOOD.
 
The day has many names—internationally known as #GivingTuesday, we also have the stateside  'New York Gives' , and #ROCtheDay in Rochester.
 
Often lumped together with Black Friday during the holiday season, #GivingTuesday encourages people to invest in their community by donating to organizations that defend the values that they believe in. There's no rules for participation, just go to the website for the nonprofit(s) that you'd like to support and make a donation.
 
It's a chance for everyone to take part in supporting the values and ideals that you care about most. For us here at Empire Justice, it's laws and policies that make sense, community empowerment, and fairness for all in the justice system.
 
And that's what you get when you invest in Empire Justice - together with your help, we make the law work for all New Yorkers on a systemic level through policy advocacy, class actions, on-the-ground advocacy for individuals, and capacity building through training and support to other organizations around New York State.
 
So whatever way you choose to participate, #GivingTuesday, #ROCtheDay, or through New York Gives, choose fairness for all and help us make the law work for all New Yorkers.



Tags: civil rights | Giving Tuesday | Rochester | Albany | social justice | legal services | legal aid





Working for Workers: Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow takes on wage theft, bolsters workers' rights


Don and Koo lobbying


Empire Justice Center is excited to welcome the 2015-17 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow Elizabeth Koo to the Workers’ Rights Project. Elizabeth, a community organizer-turned-community lawyer, credits the unjustifiable experiences and stories of our clients with energizing her passion for change.

Prior to earning her J.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Elizabeth served as a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). During her five years at AALDEF, she was entrusted with personal, painful experiences—of stolen wages, working in extreme and unsafe conditions, and persistent barriers that kept her clients from asserting their legal rights. It’s this institutional injustice that motivated Elizabeth in her work as a Community Organizer for five years, and what inspired her to go to law school to gain more tools and skills, in order to bolster the movement for workers’ rights.

Now at Empire Justice for just over six months, she’s building relationships with local workers’ centers and community organizers. She’s also providing legal support to workers themselves, in order to empower them through litigation, education, and policy change.  And it’s this model—comprehensive legal advocacy and cooperation between organizers, lawyers and individuals—that Elizabeth believes in.

“The legal system can be a source of empowerment if a worker can access it, tell their story, and achieve their goals, but it can also be slow, rigid, and unfair,” she said, noting that together, organizers and attorneys are able to support the client in alternate ways.

In addition to representing low-income individuals in wage theft and discrimination cases and providing know-your-rights workshops and community legal education trainings throughout the Rochester community, Elizabeth is advocating on a statewide level. Namely, she is building coalition strength around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill (A.5501 [Rosenthal]/ S.2232 [Peralta]), which will provide essential tools to victims of wage theft and help workers collect on court-awarded judgments for stolen wages.

In wage theft cases, exploitative employers hide or transfer their assets to avoid paying wages they stole from their employees.  Even when workers win a court-awarded judgment, they are unlikely to collect the money owed to them.  And when they are unable to collect the wages they earned, the minimum wage and overtime laws are rendered useless.

This proposed legislation would prevent employers from simply refusing to participate in the legal process by defaulting and selling the business or shutting it down, thus effectively insulating themselves from liability.

“Even after a worker stands up for their rights, wins and gets a judgment against their employers, oftentimes they can’t collect the wages that were stolen at the end of the day because the employer has  filed for bankruptcy, transferred their assets, or closed down the business, only to operate a new one,” Elizabeth said.

This legislation will strengthen New York’s law, providing workers with legal tools to ensure payment of their earned wages once they are awarded a judgment. For example, the bill would allow workers to place a lien on the employers’ property if the employer refuses to comply with a court order to pay the  earned wages. Momentum has been growing around the SWEAT bill, as workers’ rights issues come to the fore. And in July of this year, Governor Cuomo created a Statewide Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse.

This is part of why Elizabeth believes it’s an exciting time in Western New York, as there are many people from this area on the Statewide Task Force. “It’s a good moment for us to build on recent attention to these issues and keep workers’ rights on the map.”

Coincidentally, Western New York is one place on the map that this Queens-native never thought she’d be living. That was until she was introduced to Jerry Wein, and thus the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship. She and Wein met at the Feerick Center for Social Justice of Fordham Law School, where Wein (Hanna Cohn’s husband) served in the emeritus attorney program and where Elizabeth interned after her first year in law school.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded every two years to a dynamic, new attorney. The fellowship was established in 2002 in memory of Cohn, who was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project (VLSP) in Rochester for 20 years. The fellowship allows the attorney to design and implement a project to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income individuals and families.

The fellows are often already leaders in their field—Elizabeth won the esteemed Samuel M. Kaynard Memorial Law School Student Service Awards, presented by the New York State Bar Association in 2015. She was also presented with the Haywood Burns Graduate Fellowship in Civil and Human Rights while in law school.

But Elizabeth admits that when Wein first mentioned the Fellowship, she wasn’t sure it was for her. It was “the perfect opportunity and dream job,” she recalls, but not in the city that she loved to call home. She grew up both on Long Island and in Queens, raised by newly emigrated parents who owned their own small business.

But as she advanced her legal career through clinical work and internships, representing clients in Workers’ Rights, consumer rights, public benefits and housing justice cases, doing the work that she loved in a new city didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’m so grateful to the family members and friends of the Hanna Cohn Memorial Fund, for giving me this tremendous opportunity to do work that I love.  It’s been exciting to learn about and explore Rochester through social justice work with the community here.”

“To be in a position of learning is a really humbling experience and to be doing community lawyering work right out of law school is a tremendous privilege,” she said, keenly aware of the challenges that face her in navigating a new place—not just the physical layout of the city, but the “community landscape.”

Empire Justice is thrilled to bring on an attorney with such a commitment to empowering low-income individuals. Like many of the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellows, we believe her impact will be a great one.



Tags: Workers' Rights | Wage Theft | Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship





The SWEAT Bill: Protect Workers from Wage Theft


While Empire Justice Center applauded Governor Cuomo for the administrative mandate requiring bonds for nail salons as an important first step, the need to protect all workers from businesses which regularly fail to pay their employees spans all industries and is a crisis across the state. 

The SWEAT bill – Securing Wages Earned Against Theft, A.5501a (Rosenthal)/S.2232c (Peralta) - operates similarly to a bond by creating a lien against an employer’s property when there is a case of unpaid wages.  This will ensure that a business can’t unload or transfer their assets, leaving workers empty handed when a court issues a judgment in the workers’ favor or when the Department of Labor issues orders in their favor. 

The challenges of finding bond companies willing to issue bonds to businesses known for their unscrupulous practices underscores the need for alternative methods to protect immigrant workers.  The SWEAT bill provides a critical tool to protect workers and good businesses against those businesses that exploit workers and steal salaries without facing any consequences.

Empire Justice Center looks forward to working with Governor Cuomo and the Legislature to pass this bill to protect all workers at risk of wage theft.









No Pay No Way: Stop Wage Theft in Port Chester


The No Pay No Way campaign in Port Chester, NY is an initiative created by the Communication Workers of America Local 1103 and Don Bosco Workers' Center.  The goal of No Pay No Way is to make the village of Port Chester a no tolerance zone for wage theft.  Port Chester businesses are asked to put a “Good Workplace” decal in their storefronts, pledging that they follow all wage and hour laws. 

Empire Justice Center provides legal representation to members of Don Bosco Workers’ Center who are victims of wage theft, and values and supports the No Pay No Way campaign as an important preventative measure and a way for the whole community to come together to combat wage theft.  No Pay No Way educates businesses and consumers about wage theft to ensure that businesses who exploit their workers no longer profit from unfair advantages and cause damage to the community.  

To learn more about No Pay No Way, check out their Facebook page and this video:



Tags: wage theft | Port Chester | CWA Local 1103 | Don Bosco Worker Center | No Pay No Way





Nurturing a Passion for Lawyering

Issue Area: Employment

It’s hard to believe it has been a year since I moved to Rochester to start my career as an attorney and the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow.  I can still remember getting the call from Kristi Hughes on the last day of my final exams, offering me the fellowship position.  It was exhilarating then and still is now.  I am so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to start off my legal career developing a project that integrates my passion for economic and racial justice and my practice values: community lawyering, law and organizing, and systems change.

 

Rochester has been so welcoming and warm to me. I have grown to love it here. The sense of community I have developed in a smaller city has been refreshing and nourishing, and has made it that much easier to build relationships with low wage workers, stakeholders, community members, and organizations who share my passion for worker justice and support the Wage Justice Project.

 

The work has been extremely challenging and rewarding, I’ve conducted wage theft outreach and trainings for workers and advocates, developed a wage theft survey, negotiated settlements for workers, filed Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law actions in federal court on behalf of low wage workers, and built the groundwork for the formation of a grassroots Worker Center here in Rochester.

 

I would like to encourage all third year law students who have a passion for justice, a thirst for adventure, and a vision for an innovative legal services project to apply for this fellowship. It has been an amazing adventure thus far and I can’t wait to see what the second year of my fellowship has in store for me!



Tags: Fellowship | Hanna Cohn | Community Lawyering | Wage Theft | Employment Law | Legal Services