Fair Work News, February 2017 Edition

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Greetings and welcome to the first edition of the Fair Work News, our new quarterly e-newsletter.

Nicole Vallestero KeenanAs we begin 2017, we do so with the belief that our work is more important than ever. All of us at Fair Work Center know we we’ve got our work cut out for us protecting the gains made over the past eight years. We are in the middle of a national assault on workers and our families, particularly those of us who are most likely to have our rights violated at work: immigrants, people of color and/or LGBTQ workers. I take hope in that our country has a long history of movement builders and lawyers working together to protect our basic civil liberties, and I was buoyed to see that collaboration on display at airports around the country over this past weekend.

Here in Seattle and in Washington State, our community has won some of the strongest labor standards in the country. We will continue to push that needle and ensure that all workers in our region know their rights and have the tools and support to enact them.

In 2016, Fair Work Center talked to more than 9,000 workers about their employment rights, helped recover tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages and supported dozens of wrongfully-terminated workers in getting their jobs back. More importantly, we built collaborations with dozens of movement builders, community organizations and legal advocates who are prepared to work together in the coming years to protect all workers’ rights.

In 2017, we will expand our reach and our capacity to support more workers from across the state, regardless of immigration status. Despite the direction that our country may be headed, we are confident the Pacific Northwest will continue to lead the way in raising standards for workers and defending our civil rights.

Thank you for supporting Fair Work Center, and thank you for your role in protecting each other and our rights.

In Solidarity,

Nicole Vallestero Keenan

Nicole Vallestero Keenan
Executive Director

In this first edition of the Fair Work News:


2016 Annual Report

FWC Annual Report

We are excited to share our first Annual Report. The report highlights some of our successes from 2016 and includes stories from workers and our partners in the Fair Work Collaborative.

Link | PDF

Fair Work Legal Clinic Case Briefs

The case briefs contain a sampling of cases that have come in to the Fair Work Legal Clinic. Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of these workers, but we share them to give .

 


Interview with Founder and President of Fair Work Center: David Rolf

David_Rolf

David Rolf is President of SEIU 775, the union of long-term care providers in Washington that founded Fair Work Center in 2015 and continues to invest heavily in our success. In this interview we talk to David about why he got involved the labor movement, where the idea of Fair Work Center came from, and what he would do to improve the welfare of all working people.


Interviews with Founding Donors

Fair Work Center is incredibly grateful to our Founding Donors: Breskin Johnson & Townsend, Terrell Marshall Law Group, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, and Frank Freed Subit & Thomas. These organizations have all made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center.

In this newsletter we bring you interviews with:

We ask all of these leading employment attorneys how they got into employment law and some of the challenges and solutions they see for workers today.


SAVE THE DATE: Sing Into Spring, March 23 at the Royal Room

Please join us for Sing Into Spring on March 23, 2017 a the Royal Room in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. Sing Into Spring will be a karakoe fundraiser for Fair Work Center and we hope to bring together all of our friends, family, partners and allies in this work to raise the resources we need to continue fighting for the rights of all workers.

 

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SAVE THE DATE: Since Into Spring, March 23 at the Royal Room

Please join us for Sing Into Spring on March 23, 2017 a the Royal Room in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood. Sing Into Spring will be a karakoe fundraiser for Fair Work Center and we hope to bring together all of our friends, family, partners and allies in this work to raise the resources we need to continue fighting for the rights of all workers.

 

Read more from Fair Work News:

Founder Interview: David Rolf, President of SEIU 775

David Rolf is President of SEIU 775, the union of long-term care providers in Washington that founded Fair Work Center in 2015 and continues to invest heavily in our success. David is also the President of Fair Work Center. 

David_Rolf

How long have you been working in the labor movement, and where did that desire to commit your life to this work come from?

I have been working in labor movement for over 25 years. I grew up middle class, in large part because three generations of my family before me were members of labor unions. Whether it is my great grandfather, the distillery work; my grandfather, the auto worker; or my mother, the teacher, American workers having unions gave birth to the middle class.

I became politically active in high school and college and fell in love with the progressive movement. When I thought about how I could make an authentic contribution to that, it was the labor movement that stood out as the best fit for me. I didn’t know where I wanted to end up when I graduated from college, I had been involved in union organizing campaigns by that point, as well as a host of other progressive causes. Until I could find the right direction for my life, I figured I could try organizing for a year. And then a year later I never wanted to do anything else.

Where did the idea of Fair Work Center come from?

The big idea was: it’s great to have standards, it’s great to have rights, but if people don’t know about them, and if they’re not enforced, it doesn’t do you much good.

If you are lucky enough to have a union, you get your rights enforced through your union contract. There are staff and leaders whose job is to make sure you know what your rights are. There is someone you can call if you have questions or if you feel like you are not treated correctly. But for the vast majority of workers in the low-wage economy who aren’t going to be lucky enough to have a union any time soon, who plays that role? That was the question: how do create a path for these workers to know their rights, enforce their rights, and be connected to organizational support.

We looked at a number of worker centers around the country that were doing inspiring work to try to help workers enforce their rights one on one, but they often struggled budgetarily or lacked sufficient staff capacity to do what we wanted to do, or they were often targeted to a very specific group of workers. We looked at the Brazilian Worker Center in Boston, the Korean Immigrant Workers Association in Los Angeles, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, the Better Builders Program in Austin. All these groups are doing awesome work, but those models didn’t quite fit what we were trying to do. Here in Seattle we wanted to do something that was multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and nonspecific to any one industry. So Fair Work Center is inspired by the work of many others, but it is really the only thing like it around the country.

Why would SEIU 775, a labor union of long-term care providers, invest so much in this new type of worker center?

SEIU 775, as well as other SEIU locals and the international union, have been very committed over the last few years to worker struggles beyond just those of our membership and beyond our industry. SEIU 775 played a leading role in the SeaTac fight, not because there were nursing homes at the airport, but because we fundamentally felt that it was a transformative campaign.

When we formed Working Washington, which is another of our important community partners, that was really in part to address the widespread economic damage that the great recession did and that Wall Street, the big banks and indifferent politicians perpetrated on working America. Throughout our history – and we’re pretty young as unions go, we were founded in the early 2000s – we have always remembered that if other workers in other parts of the country hadn’t committed their dues dollars to help SEIU 775 get founded, we wouldn’t even be here. From early on, we’ve had a commitment to bringing worker power to not just the people that already have it, but to everyone who needs it. It’s really part of the DNA of this organization. This is what we do. We have four goals that guide us, two of which are health care industry specific, but two are much broader. One is to build powerful, sustainable and scalable worker organizations, and the other is to lead the fight for shared prosperity and against inequality.

If you could do one thing (wave a magic wand) to improve the welfare of working people in the United States, what would it be?

Here is the thing, it’s not just one thing that needs to be done! There are a whole host of things that need to be done. Everything from changing the way our financial systems work to changing the way our election system works. From changing the way we think about the social contract to changing the way we think about the employment contract.

I always say that power is the currency of change and that policy is merely frozen power. So if we want to see change in policy, we have to think about how to accumulate and exercise power. The corporate interest and big business interests have been excellent at that for a long time. Working peoples’ interest and poor peoples’ interests have often not been so great at thinking about the accumulation and exercise of power.

As I think about all the ways in which the world conspires to hurt the interests of workers, I think about the fact that the system has been rigged in so many ways against ordinary people expressing power. In response to your question, someone might say, “well if we just had a single payer health care system…” or “If we just had universal free child care…” or “Free higher education…,” Those are all awesome things, and I am for all of those things, but I’m not sure we can ever get there as long as workers don’t have organization. So if I had to pick one relatively narrow thing, I’d say we need new ways for workers to form powerful, scalable and sustainable worker organizations in the US.

If I were to think more broadly about a theme, I’d say we need a government that is on the workers side. And that plays out in trade agreements, in criminal justice, immigration rights, corporate governance and monetary policy, campaign finance reform and certainly in labor law reform.

The reality is that for 40 years, the relatively bloodless revolution that Wall Street and the big banks and big corporations fought against the rest of us, rewrote the rules about how power works in this country. So even if I could wave a magic wand, it will be a long hard struggle to get back a really inclusive and accessible American dream that we can all be a part of.

 

Read more from Fair Work News:

Interviews with Founding Donors

Fair Work Center is incredibly grateful to our Founding Donors: Breskin Johnson & Townsend, Terrell Marshall Law Group, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, and Frank Freed Subit & Thomas. These organizations have all made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center.

In this newsletter we bring you interviews with:

We ask all of these leading employment attorneys how they got into employment law and some of the challenges and solutions they see for workers today.

Founding Donor Interview: Breskin Johnson & Townsend

For this interview, we spoke with Dan Johnson from Breskin, Johnson & Townsend. Founding Donors have made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center.

Why did you choose to practice employment law?

 Dan JohnsonDan Johnson: “I worked at the Employment Law Center in San Francisco in law school, and also volunteered at the workers’ rights legal clinic at my school in Berkeley California, where I went to law school. From there, I knew I wanted to do employment law, and I knew I wanted to work on the employee side. My values have always been to look out for the little guy.

What are some challenges you see for workers today?

DJ: “So often the employer has all the resources on their side. What we see happening more and more in cases we represent is employers using their resources to take unreasonable stands, dig in their heels and stretch things out as long as possible, trying to wear down the employee or employees making a claim. These cases impact employees’ entire livelihood – it’s about their jobs and how they support their families – but they get fought for a long, long time. And I think sometimes justice delayed is justice denied.”

What change would you like to see to improve the welfare of all working people?

DJ: So many things! This legal clinic is one. I think there are dozens of people walking around in every neighborhood in this city that every day have some sort of legal issue in their workplace. Most of them probably never get any legal support. So community clinics like this one are great opportunities for people to get their questions answered and hopefully to get some relief for wrongs they experienced. Another is the minimum wage. Thankfully we’ve raised it here in Seattle and now Washington, but we’ve got a long way to go in most places around the country.

Why does your firm support Fair Work Center?

DJ: “Since I moved back to Seattle after law school, I really wanted to see something like the Worker’s Rights Clinics in California started here. But I couldn’t do it on my own and was too busy trying to build my own firm. So, I am really excited it has finally happened here with the Fair Work Legal Clinic.

There are so many people walking around with questions about their work or problems in their workplace that could probably be resolved if the right connections were made. I think that’s what the Fair Work Legal Clinic is doing, connecting people with answers and solutions to the problems they are having at work. And the bigger impact the Legal Clinic can have is that employers may be more inclined to do the right thing knowing that their employees now know their rights and have access to free legal services.”

 

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Founding Donor Interview: Terrell Marshall Law Group

For this interview, we talked with Toby Marshall from Terrell Marshall Law Group. Founding Donors have made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center. 

Why did you choose to practice employment law?

Toby MarshallToby Marshall: “I grew up in a working-class family, and I know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck. I also know that employers hold a great deal of power over employees. These circumstances leave many workers vulnerable to wage and hour abuses. One of my first cases as a lawyer involved a large company that regularly required its employees to work several hours without pay each week. The employees tolerated this for years because they were afraid to lose their jobs, which would mean losing their ability to put food on the table each day and pay rent each month. I practice employment law to fight for those who find themselves in this situation. Nobody should have to work without pay for fear of being unable to provide for his or her family.”

What are some challenges you see for workers today?

TM: “Workers face a variety of challenges, but one that seems to be on the rise is mandatory arbitration. Increasingly, employers are requiring workers to sign agreements with arbitration clauses that bar class and collective actions. The obvious goal is to prevent workers from banding together, to bar them from the courthouse, and to keep complaints confidential and violations hidden. Some courts have found such agreements to be illegal, saying they violate the right of employees to engage in concerted activity. Other courts, however, have allowed these agreements to stand (and ultimately serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for employers).”

What change would you like to see to improve the welfare of all working people?

TM: “Greater access to justice. Wage theft is a serious problem in this country, affecting workers in all industries. One large-scale study found that two-thirds of the employees who were surveyed experienced at least one wage-and-hour violation in the previous workweek. The average wage loss per worker was 15 percent. Class and collective actions are helpful, but more resources are needed to assist individual employees who are being cheated on pay or subjected to unlawful working conditions. We are fortunate to live in a state that has strong wage and hour laws, but those laws don’t enforce themselves. Workers need advocates, whether it’s individual attorneys, agencies like Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries or Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, or legal aid organizations like the Fair Work Center.”

Why does your firm support Fair Work Center?

TM: “The Terrell Marshall Law Group wants to support access to justice and to us, that’s what the Fair Work Center is all about. Our class action practice helps large groups of employees, but we know that’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other workers out there who aren’t getting any help whatsoever. By educating workers about their rights and providing them with greater access to the courts, the Fair Work Center is making it more likely that employers will do the right thing and follow the law.”

Read more from Fair Work News:

Founding Donor Interview: Schroeter Goldmark & Bender

For this interview, we spoke with Lindsay Halm, Jamal Whitehead and Adam Berger from Schroeter Goldmark & Bender. Founding Donors have made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center. 

This interview was conducted as a group over lunch and includes summaries of the discussion that we had.

LindsayHalm

Lindsay Halm

Why did you choose to practice employment law?

Lindsay Halm: At some point during law school I became convinced that I was going to be a public defender or a plaintiff’s attorney.  I wanted my career to focus on helping people who really need it. I am truly thankful to get to do the work that I do.

Jamal Whitehead: As someone who is part of several protected classes, I want to make sure the playing field is fair for all.

Adam Berger: Marty Garfinkel at our firm pulled me into employment law.  I became really involved in the Brink’s

Home Security case and have been hooked ever since. We set some exciting precedent that allows delivery drivers to

What are some challenges you see for workers today?

Jamal Whitehead

Jamal Whitehead

Discussion among all: The changing nature of work in our country today is one of the biggest challenges facing workers, and we see that taking many shapes: misclassification of workers (when employers classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees to avoid having to comply with labor standards employees are entitled to), more part-time jobs with little to no benefits, and the rise of the gig economy. The nature of work today makes it nearly impossible for low-wage workers to build a better future for their families and achieve the ever-elusive American dream.

Another issue we see is increasing fragmentation of the workplace. Many people don’t know who their employer is or who they technically work for, given the prevalence of subcontracting today. If you clean the offices at a tech firm downtown, is your employer the tech firm or the contractor they hired to clean? It is incredibly difficult to hold your employer accountable to following the law if you don’t know who, exactly, is your employer.

We’ve also seen a steep decline of unionized workforces in the last few decades, which leads to depressed wages for both union and non-union workers.  It also means, of course, that workers don’t have the power they need to negotiate better wages and working conditions.

What change would you like to see to improve the welfare of all working people?

Adam Berger

Adam Berger

Discussion among all: We really see Seattle as the testing ground for implementing and enforcing multiple cutting edge laws aimed at lifting up and protecting workers. We hope Seattle continues to lead the country in this regard.

Everyone in our employment group recognizes that there is a huge outstanding need to support the high volume of small claims that many private firms like ours do not have the capacity to take on. Workers need greater access to justice, so the work of Fair Work Center and the Seattle Office of Labor Standards is incredibly important.

Why does your firm support Fair Work Center?

Discussion among all: We support Fair Work Center because it is helping to fill this hole in our local legal community by supporting Seattle in implementing its new labor laws and providing support to workers with small claims and other issues on the job.  And the fact that Fair Work Center provides hands-on training and mentoring to students at our local law schools helps shape the future generation of lawyers into allies and advocates for workers. Bravo!

 

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Founding Donor Interview: Frank Freed Subit & Thomas

For this interview we spoke with Mike Subit from Frank Freed Subit & Thomas. Founding Donors have made deep, lasting investments in the success of Fair Work Center.

Why did you choose to practice employment law?

Going into law school, I knew I wanted to practice some sort of civil rights or constitutional law when I got done. At the time, I would have guessed I’d go into a career with someplace like the ACLU. And I actually did work for the ACLU for a couple of years early in my career, but it was as a summer associate at a labor and employment firm in the Bay Area that I got a taste for plaintiff-side employment law. So I took more labor and employment courses and by the time I was done with law school and after two federal clerkships, I knew it was the area of law I wanted to focus my career.

For so many of us, our work is fundamental to who we are. When people are stripped of their rights at work or aren’t getting fairly paid for their work, it can be devastating for them and their families, both economically and psychologically. I’ve always felt that practicing employment law enables me to do that public interest work that I went to law school for in the first place.

What are some challenges you see for workers today?

Elections matter. Changes in the courts matter. I have been through some different administrations, but we are now dealing with the greatest challenge we have seen since the New Deal. We are going to have an administration that will be the most anti-worker, anti-union administration since Calvin Coolidge. I think workers are in for a host of challenges – from gutting labor standards to attacks on unions to undoing some of the good work the Department of Labor has been engaged in under the Obama administration.

Thankfully we are in a region and a state with relatively strong laws for workers, so we will devote our time to improving lives of workers at state and local levels over the next few years.

What change would you like to see to improve the welfare of all working people?

I would like to get rid of employment at will – the employment law principle that allows employees to be discharged for no reason. I believe ending it would help both employers and employees. It would improve both the appearance and the reality of fair treatment in the workplace. I would like to replace it with some sort of cause provision, similar to what you see in union contracts. I think it would help lead to faster resolutions for both sides, help avoid costly litigation, and, as we see among workers with cause provisions in their union contracts, it makes a big difference in the empowerment of workers to have greater control over your conditions at work.

Why does your firm support Fair Work Center?

There are so many unmet needs in terms of resources for workers to exercise their rights, particularly fair wages. Private law firms don’t have enough lawyers to do the work, and even with the current system that encourages attorneys to take such cases on, a lot of cases still don’t make sense for a firm to take on financially. A clinic has different goals and orientations and can provide more resources to the people who need it and to people who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Also, we fully support the Legal Clinic’s role in training the next generation of lawyers that will devote their lives to help working people achieve their rights.

 

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Fair Work Legal Clinic Case Briefs

Below are a sampling of cases that have come in to the Fair Work Legal Clinic since officially opening in September 2016. Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of these workers.

Intake Cases

Abdirahman recently arrived in King County as a refugee from Somalia. Somali Community Services, a Fair Work Collaborative partner, referred Abdirahman to Fair Work Center after he was offered a job as a security guard only to have it rescinded. A routine background check falsely reported he had criminal convictions from another state. Abdirahman needed that job and he knew it was a case of mistaken identity. The same day he came into the Fair Work Legal Clinic, we accompanied him to the King County Courthouse and cleared his record. Abdirahman didn’t need a lawyer, he needed an advocate, and he found one at the Fair Work Legal Clinic.

Leticia worked as a delivery driver for a small company that contracts with Amazon to make its Prime deliveries. Leticia was injured on a delivery and discovered that because her employer treated her as an “independent contractor,” she was not entitled to Workers’ Compensation. She was also paid substantially below minimum wage. The Legal Clinic helped Leticia sort out her Workers’ Compensation paperwork and find a lawyer to support her case. The Legal Clinic also referred her case to the US Department of Labor, which is investigating the minimum wage problems.

Chelsea worked for a manufacturing company in Seattle. After becoming pregnant, her doctor said that she needed light duty work assignments or risk a miscarriage. Chelsea’s employer told her that light duty was reserved for workplace injuries and not available for pregnancy. Chelsea was left without a job and was forced to move in with her mother in Alabama. Worse, she lost the baby. She knew her employer was in the wrong and that there must be something she could do. She came to the Fair Work Legal Clinic after exhausting every other possible route. The Legal Clinic persuaded the Washington Attorney General to take the case on and file a lawsuit against Chelsea’s employer.

Community Clinic and Direct Representation Cases

Maria worked for a dry-cleaning company on the night shift.  She became sick and was not able to go into work. Upon calling in sick, her manager told her to “not bother coming back in” and withheld her final paycheck. Maria knew this wasn’t right and came to Fair Work Legal Clinic seeking support. The Legal Clinic took on individual representation of her case and demanded payment of that final check. We were successful in getting Maria paid and continue to pursue additional penalties and remedies for retaliation.

Kim is an immigrant from Korea who worked as an assistant to a hairdresser. She answered phones, greeted customers, swept up hair, and provided tea and snacks.  She worked 45 hours per week but was paid just $1,000 per month, less than $5.50 per hour. Her employer thought that she could take advantage of Kim’s uncertain immigration status and her desire to break into the personal care industry, telling her that she was not an employee but an “independent contractor.” Kim knew this was unfair and was referred to the Legal Clinic by 21 Progress, one of our Fair Work Collaborative partners. The Clinic took on representation of Kim and filed a charge on her behalf, which is currently under investigation by Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries.

 Jose worked as a painter for a large construction firm. The firm told Jose that he was an “independent contract” and, therefore, not entitled to any overtime. Jose found a lawyer to sue the employer for wage theft, but the lawyer abandoned the case, leaving Jose to navigate the court system on his own. After Jose did not respond to one of the employer’s motions, the suit was dismissed and fines were imposed on Jose. He sought help from other lawyers without success. The Legal Clinic has been able to negotiate with the employer to resolve the case and help Jose recover some of his losses.

 

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