Category Archives: Advocacy

Advocacy Day to Stop Wage Theft: April 23rd – Please join us to support the Oregon Corporate Accountability Act!

NWJP is part of a powerful coalition working to pass a major piece of legislation in Salem this session.  Alongside the Working Families Party, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the Oregon Trial Lawyers’ Association, Service Employees International Union Locals 49 and 503, and the AFL-CIO, and other members of the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, NWJP is working hard to pass the Oregon Corporate Accountability Act (OCAA).

Working families have won important victories on a range of workplace rights in the past five years: a dramatic increase to the minimum wage, paid sick leave, fair scheduling and equal pay guarantees.  However, these victories need to be meaningfully enforced if workers are to benefit from them, and that is where OCAA comes in.

How Does it Work?  The Oregon Corporate Accountability Act will deputize whistleblowers who identify violations to bring cases on behalf of the state.  Briefly, the process goes like this:

  • A worker files a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries.  Whistleblowers who fear retaliation can also authorize a nonprofit community organization to file the complaint.
  • BOLI decides whether to bring an action or let the whistleblower manage the suit on the state’s behalf.  If the whistleblower proceeds, the state continues to oversee the litigation.
  • If a judge finds that the company broke the law, the company is ordered to pay penalties based on the number of impacted workers – so, small businesses will pay small fines and multinational corporations will pay large ones.
  • Most of the penalty revenue goes to the state, with a portion rewarding the whistleblowers.  The state can use the revenue to hire more investigators, invest in technology to streamline enforcement, or partner with community organizations to educate consumers and workers about their rights and identify violations.

We are happy to report that OCAA was voted out of the Senate Workforce committee this week, clearing its first major hurdle.

OCAA is a bill about enforcing our worker protection laws, and on advocacy day this year, we will share stories of under-enforcement and encourage our elected leaders to pass this important bill.  We will have a training and orientation before any meetings take place, so don't worry if you haven't done this sort of thing before.  Now is the time to get involved!  Please RSVP by filling out this form.

We will be advocating together from 10 AM to 3 PM at the State Capitol on April 23rd.  Lunch is provided.  Please reach out to Kate Suisman at kate@nwjp.org, or 503-525-8454 with questions.  We look forward to seeing you there.

NWJP Helps Kick off the Campaign Against Measure 105

Over three decades ago, in 1987, Oregon passed a law which established a clear priority for state and local law enforcement with respect to enforcement of immigration law.  Oregon’s law protects against police profiling: it asserts that officers cannot arrest people based only on the suspicion that they may be in the country illegally.

Today, this law is in jeopardy. Many Oregonians are shocked to discover that Measure 105, a measure championed by white supremacists, will appear on the ballot this November. Measure 105 would eliminate this long-standing law, and permit local police around the state to squander local tax dollars to enforce federal immigration law.

The anti-immigrant measure was spearheaded by Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), as well as the Federation of Immigration Reform (FAIR), whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group. In contrast to these two groups, however, immigrants’ and workers’ rights groups have been springing into action to block their efforts.

Among those jumping in to help is NWJP. On Saturday, July 28, our staff joined the No on 105 Campaign Kickoff Rally.  With allied community groups we canvassed local businesses to raise awareness and to gather support to oppose this dangerous and detrimental measure. The goal was to collect 100 signatures from local businesses pledging to stand up to profiling and vote no on 105. Organized by Oregonians United Against Profiling, a coalition formed to oppose Measure 105, the event proved to be an overall success. More than a hundred volunteers packed into the Oregon AFL-CIO basement at 10 am on a Saturday morning, ready to hit the pavement. Shoulder to shoulder, united in common purpose, folks practiced canvassing techniques and role-played how to approach local businesses. The atmosphere of the room was one of promise, as speakers such as Joann Hardesty prepped canvassers with remarks, and OUAP staff passed out clipboards, water bottles, and posters to hang at each stop.

Surfing along the corner of SE 82nd Ave. & SE Powell Blvd., our staff passed out posters, engaged in lively conversation, and received a plethora of signatures (from businesses such as GenX, Cat ‘n Doggie Do’s, Cindie’s, and even Pizza Hut). After talking to over thirty businesses and running out of pledge forms, we were able to collect over ten verbal and written promises to stand with us in defeating Measure 105.

Through and through, keeping Oregon police focused on investigating crimes, and otherwise leaving immigrant communities alone, serves Oregon’s population well. Extensive research shows that cities that have sanctuary status thrive over those that do not: in sanctuary cities, crime rates are lower, the median average income is elevated, and the employment-to-population ratio is statistically higher. Local economies are strengthened when households remain intact. Our communities are better when immigrants feel safe and welcomed, and do not have to live in fear.

Laura, Pati, and Maggie canvassing for No on 105

This November 6, 2018, remember to vote NO on Measure 105. Together, with enough feet on the ground, we can change the tides of hate and ignorance.

NWJP Opens New Clinic on Forced Arbitration

If an employee and an employer “agree” to submit disputes that arise in the workplace to a non-judge arbitrator and agree that they will be bound by the arbitrator’s rules and decision, the employee will be forced to use this process and will be shut out of court, even though the employee would otherwise have the right to sue the employer in court. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that 55% of all U.S. workers are now covered by forced arbitration agreements.  This means a majority of all workers have lost their right to a day in court, and instead must resolve disputes in a non-public setting where the employer picks the arbitrator and writes the rules.

Many workers are unaware when they sign an employment contract (or sometimes, even a job application!) that they are agreeing to arbitrate any disputes that arise with their employer.  They may not see the fine print that requires them to pay arbitration fees, or to fly to a jurisdiction across the country, or that prohibits class and collective actions by workers.  These factors add up to a deck that is heavily stacked against workers.  Once workers realize this, EPI estimates that only 2% of workers choose to pursue their claims.  Making matters worse, low-wage, women and minority workers are more likely to be subject to forced arbitration than their counterparts.

In response to this disturbing trend, NWJP is launching a new legal clinic focused on forced arbitration in employment contracts. The clinic will address the denial of public justice in cases where forced arbitration requires employees to resolve disputes in this unfair forum. The clinic will:

  • Answer workers’ questions about forced arbitration agreements;
  • Offer free legal representation to challenge forced arbitration or in arbitration proceedings to selected workers with employment law claims; and
  • Collect workers’ stories to illustrate the perils of forced arbitration and the dangerous effect it has on workers’ rights and communities as a whole.

NWJP is pleased to welcome attorney Todd Albert to coordinate the clinic. Todd practiced law for over a decade as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in New York City. He joins NWJP after spending time in government service, including advising on the fair and effective administration of the court system at the Oregon Judicial Department, and representing state employees in litigation at the Oregon Department of Justice. Todd is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and has a BA in Anthropology from Boston University. He is a member of the Oregon and New York Bars.

If you have questions about an agreement you have signed, or have experienced being bound to arbitrate a violation of your rights in the workplace, please reach out to Todd at todd@nwjp.org or 503.525.8454.  We are also looking for volunteer attorneys and law students to assist in this important project.

Update on ICE Presence at Local Courthouses

On January 10th, ICE released a directive outlining its civil immigration enforcement actions at federal and local courthouses. The enforcement policy outlines what we already know---ICE will continue to target undocumented individuals at courthouses “with criminal convictions, gang members, national security or public safety threats, [individuals] who have been ordered removed from the United States but have failed to depart, and [individuals] who have re-entered the country illegally after being removed.”

According to the directive, family members and friends of the targeted undocumented individuals will not be targeted at courthouses. The directive also states that ICE agents are supposed to avoid enforcement actions in areas that are non-criminal, including family court and small claims court, unless otherwise approved by the respective field office director.  

Nationwide, courtroom appearances by ICE agents have had an impact on immigrants too afraid to attend court proceedings. These tactics instill fear in immigrants, including our clients, who go to courts to enforce their employment rights, to access orders of protection and to defend themselves against criminal charges.

In our local courthouses, we know for sure that ICE is targeting undocumented individuals who attend criminal and DUI diversion hearings.

Despite the risks described above, NWJP hopes that this knowledge doesn’t dissuade our clients from attending their court hearings. Avoiding the courts will only complicate the lives of community members and will prevent access to the system of justice to vindicate important rights in the workplace. To serve as a support network, we currently work with partner organizations who will show up at courthouses as legal observers, and who will monitor and record ICE arrests at courthouses in an effort to assess legality and respond rapidly.

NWJP Participates in Oregon Women’s Equity Coalition’s Special Panel on Sexual Harassment

What do you get when you combine a social services director, an attorney, a local representative, and a state worker from the Bureau of Labor & Industries, with a room full of powerful women? The Oregon Women’s Equity Coalition panel discussion on Friday, January 19th. NWJP’s Deputy Director and attorney Corinna Spencer-Scheurich was a poised and informative presenter on the panel. Speaking to employment rights in general, and more specifically women in the workplace, Spencer-Scheurich joined BOLI Civil Rights Division’s Amy Klare, Representative Andrea Salinas of District 38, and Kristin Schlotterbeck of Clackamas Women’s Services.

The women on the panel kicked off the discussion by each presenting a short but informative bit on their roles within their workplaces. Klare discussed the approximately 200 sexual harassment cases that are assessed in BOLI Civil Rights Division every year. She pointed out that females without work authorization are provided the same protections. Schlotterbeck enumerated a myriad of useful statistics and findings on the #MeToo movement, and explained the social services Clackamas Women’s Services offers to the community. Representative Salinas spoke about being a woman of color in a political role. She said she is “most proud of” her work on HB 3391, the Reproductive Health Equity Act (providing all Oregon women with access to the health care they need), which she helped pass.

Finally, NWJP’s Spencer-Scheurich detailed the often painstaking reality of litigating cases involving sexual assault violations in the workplace, noting that it was often a “long and arduous process”—one which many women fear to undertake. However, she did not to leave us feeling hopeless in the wake of her presentation. “We need to celebrate women who stand up for themselves,” she said. “There is power in what the #MeToo movement is doing to make women feel supported. When workers come together to support each other in the workplace, that’s where the real power is. That’s where I see hope.”

Thank you, Corinna, for speaking on behalf of those women who have been brave enough to come forward. Here’s to those who overcome their fear and let their voices be heard. NWJP is here to say: “We hear you!”

New Anti-Wage Theft Law with Real Teeth Starts to Take a Bite out of Wage Theft in Construction

In our March eNews, we wrote about filing suit on behalf on Tomas and Matthew.* Tomas and Matthew worked for a small construction labor contractor, who hired them to perform manual labor on a general contractor’s projects. After a few months of work, their paychecks started bouncing, and then the boss started avoiding them. Ultimately, they were left unpaid for months of work.

When we last updated you on their case, we were hopeful about the impact that a law we worked hard to pass in 2013 might have on their case. And we are excited to announce that we were right!

HB 2977 amended an existing law that protected farm and forestry workers to also include the construction industry. This law, called the Oregon Contractor’s Registration Act (OCRA) now requires lower level construction contractors—those that supply workers but don’t provide building materials or heavy equipment and don’t take out the building permit—to get a license from BOLI. (We call these contractors “labor brokers.”) To get a BOLI license the labor broker must post a bond, which unpaid workers would be able to tap to collect their wages. But labor brokers are notorious for flaunting the law - stealing wages, misclassifying workers as independent contractors, and then disappearing or running out of money before they can be held accountable. So what good does it do to add additional requirements for them to ignore?

The real lynchpin of HB 2977 is that it makes construction contractors who knowingly use unlicensed labor brokers liable for the actions of the unlicensed contractor. So responsible construction contractors now have a choice: hire a licensed labor broker and know they are dealing with a quality operation, or, hire an unlicensed labor broker and risk having to pay the workers’ wages (and various other substantial statutory penalties) themselves if the broker fails to comply with the law.

Due to the recent slump in the construction field, compliance with the law has been slow to catch on. But this fall we were able to secure a sizeable recovery from the general contractor who contracted with the unlicensed labor broker who hired Tomas and Matthew. With this settlement, we won justice for Tomas and Matthew. But just as importantly, we were also able to begin the process of educating general contractors that hiring unlicensed labor brokers puts them at risk. Because nothing helps spread the word like a general contractor who finds himself holding the bag.

*Not their real names

From Michael’s Desk

Photo by Doug Yarrow

As the 2017 session of the legislature draws to a close, it’s perhaps an apt time to assess the state of law-making in Oregon as it affects the most vulnerable workers in the state.  It’s kind of a mixed bag.

An important dynamic during this past session was that the leadership wanted new taxes to close a looming budget deficit, and evidently felt that it was necessary to have business buy-in for whatever taxes were to be passed. During most of the session, this gave the business lobby a huge advantage in being able to kill, modify or stall bills they did not like. Much of the wage theft agenda fell victim to this dynamic.  Many other pro-worker initiatives also were initially stalled.

On the other hand, especially after the talks about taxes finally failed, a number of very important, pro-worker measures were enacted, making this, on balance, a fairly successful session for workers, especially immigrants.  Licensing of building services contractors, the nation’s first law entitling at least some workers to fair scheduling, penalties for making workers submit false wage records, medical coverage for all children in Oregon, regardless of immigrant status, a ban on state agencies disclosing personal data to assist federal immigration agencies, implementation of anti-profiling recommendations, health equity, equal pay for equal work for all suspect classes, and a procedure for formerly incarcerated workers to obtain a certificate of compliance with law in order to find work were all adopted by the end of the session.

These are important advances for working people and should be celebrated.  Legislators involved should be congratulated.

On the other hand, the legislature in many respects failed in the task of making sure that workers who labor get paid fairly for their work.  Wage theft is a huge and growing problem in Oregon, affecting workers, fair employers and our communities. The bills offered by the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft died in the legislative process.  Workers not paid the minimum wage must still confront the risk of having huge attorneys’ fees assessed against them; efforts to make it easier to collect wage judgments and help for community organizations to help low wage workers through the complicated wage collection process were not enacted.

So it was kind of a mixed bag.

NWJP to Address Housing Instability Caused by Wage Theft

As housing becomes more and more expensive in our community, the impact on low wage workers has grown increasingly severe. Many workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and are dangerously close—sometimes one late or lost paycheck--from losing their housing. Despite the progress made with the relocation ordinance in Portland, workers who are victims of wage theft currently have little support when it comes to keeping their housing.

Thanks to a new grant from the Oregon Law Foundation we are going to target a problem that we have long known existed, but have not had the resources to address.  The funding comes as a result of the 2014 settlement on mortgage-related litigation between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bank of America Corporation.

Beginning in 2018, we will begin targeting wage theft cases where housing stability is in play.  In addition to helping such workers recover wages, we hope to create opportunities for cheated workers to get through a difficult time caused by not getting their pay. Working with community partners, we will first seek to establish the links between non-payment of wages and housing instability and the effectiveness of temporary relief in keeping families in their housing in such circumstances. Our long-term goal is the development of a revolving loan fund that will help workers pay their rent while they work to recover those lost wages. The loans would be repaid with the recovery from the workers’ wage claim.

From Michael’s desk

One of the meme’s we’re hearing in the halls and offices of the capitol these days is that it would be unfair to employers to adopt wage theft protections, since workers have won so many gains in Salem in the last few sessions.

Really?

It is true that the legislature has recently addressed important, needed issues for working people like increasing the minimum wage or providing paid sick leave.  NWJP believes that these were important advances to give workers a chance at a fair, decent family life.  But however one feels about those policies, it is wholly wrong to conflate those benefits with the basics of finding ways to be sure that workers can enforce laws protecting their wages. Wage theft is a huge problem in our economy.  We know that, since 2006, workers’ claims of unpaid wages to BOLI total $45 million, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, since most workers whose wages are stolen don’t complain to BOLI. Everyone says that this is horrible, that they are against this and it should stop.

But, when faced with proposals to address this problem in a meaningful way, the too common response is that, something should be done, but I just can’t support this particular remedy (whatever the remedy happens to be). And anyway, business has been imposed upon to pay decent wages and to provide sick leave that is mandatory in nearly every other developed country.

Really?

What we are talking about here isn’t a massive new social benefit program. It is basic law enforcement.  Do we really want to deny the enforcement of law to victims of crime because they got a raise in the paltry wages they are earning?

Really?

Introducing Safe Jobs Oregon

We are excited to tell you about Safe Jobs Oregon, a new Coalition that will focus on workers' occupational safety and health, both for traditional workers, as well as contingent, temporary, and other low-wage workers.  Workplace injuries are increasing each year in industries like construction and agriculture, fields with high percentages of immigrant workers.  Though workplace fatalities and serious injuries are decreasing overall, both are increasing among Latino workers, especially those that are foreign-born.  At the same time, employers are moving away from offering full-time employment, instead relying on independent contractors, temporary workers and day laborers.  These workers are often not covered by protections like workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and paid sick leave, yet they are often doing the most dangerous jobs.

We are comprised of representatives from organized labor, community groups, legal organizations, and others from around the state.

The field of worker safety is broad, so we have chosen to focus on a few issues to start off.  One is retaliation when a worker uses the workers' compensation system.  We frequently hear from workers who have been injured at work, and are fired or otherwise retaliated against for pursuing a remedy through the state’s workers’ compensation system.

Another issue is the danger of working at high temperatures without proper protections.  California and Washington have both instituted “heat stress standards” which lay out conditions employers must meet such as providing additional water, access to shade, and sufficient rest breaks when temperatures are high.  Oregon has decided not to enact similar rules, which puts workers at serious risk.  We will work to have Oregon adopt a heat stress standard.

Safe Jobs Oregon will work to ensure that all workers have the right to safe workplaces and adequate remedies if they are hurt at work.  Please contact Kate Suisman at kate@nwjp.org for more information or if you would like to get involved.