Category Archives: Advocacy

NWJP Helps Launch a Nationwide Immigration Working Group of Worker Advocates

NWJP coordinates the Low Wage Worker Legal Network (LWWLN), which brings together low-wage worker advocates from legal organizations across the country to collaborate on how to better protect low-wage immigrant and temporary workers in the U.S. Since it was formed in 2004, the Network has grown to include 449 legal advocates in 34 states, the District of Columbia and Mexico. Two primary goals of the LWWLN are to facilitate joint training resources and to spark coordinated litigation and policy advocacy on low wage workers’ rights through organizing working groups of interested advocates.

In response to the Trump Administration’s new immigration priorities, the Network has launched a working group directed at focusing primarily employment-oriented programs on responding to the crisis of enhanced immigration enforcement in our communities.  This includes readying resources to protect immigrant worker clients, collaborating nationally to share expertise in educating on and defending immigrant rights, and cooperating with immigrant rights organizations to provide employment law experience. Still in the beginning phases of coordination, LWWLN’s immigration working group pools national resources with the hopes of providing a strong, competent response to threats that immigrants in our communities face.

If you are interested in becoming a member of LWWLN or its immigration working group, please contact Corinna Spencer-Scheurich at corinna@nwjp.org.

Fighting Wage Theft in Construction

Tomas and Matthew* worked for a small construction labor contractor, who hired them to perform manual labor on a general contractor’s projects. They did mostly residential remodeling projects, some small, some big, throughout the Portland metro area. They got paid – or so it seemed at first. But then the checks started bouncing and the labor contractor starting avoiding them. Ultimately, they were left unpaid for months of work.

Wage theft is particularly rampant in construction. It is consistently one of the biggest problem industries in Oregon.[1] One of the reasons for this is that some building contractors use middle men, often called labor brokers, to supply workers. And too many labor brokers steal wages, misclassify workers as independent contractors, and then disappear or run out of money before they can be held accountable.

That’s why NWJP and the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft in Oregon worked so hard to pass HB 2977. The bill amended an existing law designed to protect farmworkers to include the construction industry. This law, called the Oregon Contractor’s Registration Act (OCRA) now requires construction labor brokers to get a license from BOLI and post a bond to guarantee payment of wages. Anyone who knowingly uses an unlicensed labor broker is jointly liable with the subcontractor for wages and penalties.

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 penalties) themselves if the broker fails to comply with the law. The law went into effect in July 2015. The law is new, and the industry is not yet paying much attention.

But what has changed is workers have a powerful new tool to collect unpaid wages. Now Tomas and Matthew, instead of being left to chase only the labor contractor whose paychecks bounced, can also go after the major building contractor who used him. Because that company hired an unlicensed labor broker, it is liable for their wages as well as thousands of dollars in additional penalties.

Little by little, through enforcing the new OCRA, we hope to help shift the incentives for contractors so that they learn it doesn’t pay to hire unlicensed labor brokers. We hope that when general contractors find themselves holding the bag for workers’ wages, they will start demanding accountability from labor brokers. And we hope that those labor brokers will soon learn they need to get a license and a bond to get any contracts in this state.

That’s why we were excited to file suit on behalf of Tomas and Matthew last month. Because we believe it was an important first step on the path to a construction industry that pays it workers the wages they have earned. Every time.

 

[1] OCPP fact sheet on wage theft

Coalition to Stop Wage Theft Working to Pass Bills to Strengthen Wage Laws

This legislative session, the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft is working to pass several important bills in the Oregon legislature. Our Coalition has now grown to over 40 groups, thanks to the addition of the Northwest Forest Worker Center. We look forward to working with all of our allies to pass these significant pieces of legislation.

The first bill tackles the problem of retaliation.  Too often, an employee who makes a wage complaint gets fired or suffers other dire consequences as a result.  This is illegal, but it is very difficult to prove that the employer was motivated by a desire to retaliate.  Our bill would create a rebuttable presumption of retaliation if adverse employment action is taken within 90 days of a wage complaint.  The bill would also require that an employer provide, if requested, a written statement as to why an employee was fired.  This will make it easier to prove retaliation by preventing an employer from changing its story along the way.

We also have a novel bill that would establish a mechanism to fund non-profits that work on helping victims of wage theft.  All wages collected by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) would result in a mandatory 20% surcharge that would go into a fund administered by BOLI to make grants to non-profits to assist workers in claiming their wages through outreach, education, research and referral work.

Our other bills will enhance private remedies for wage theft.  Sometimes, workers need lawyers to help collect their wages.  But there are impediments in the law that make it hard for workers to effectively enforce their rights.  These bills will do three things.  First will be to change the language in two key wage statutes from "prevailing party" to "prevailing plaintiff" regarding availability of attorneys’ fees when the case is over.  This will allow workers to bring suit without the threat of having to pay their employer's attorneys’ fees.  (An employee who brings a frivolous case could still be liable for their employer's attorneys’ fees.)   Second, this legislation will allow a worker to place a labor lien on an employer's property if he or she is not paid.  Oregon already has labor liens in a few specific industries, but the lien is not placed on the employer's property.  A labor lien can currently be placed only on the property being worked on, for example, a customer's car in a mechanic's shop, or a home under construction.  This will make the process fairer in that the lien will be placed on the property of the person who has not paid the worker, for example on the tools or vehicle of the employer and will make liens available to workers in other fields.  The final provision of the legislation deals with misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor when they are actually an employee, or claiming that the employee works for someone else.  It will create a rebuttable presumption that an employee doing the integral work of a business is an employee of the business.  This will help make it much easier to hold the party that benefited from the work responsible for paying.

We are currently meeting with legislators to discuss these important bills.  Please mark your calendars for Wage Theft Lobby Day on February 13th at the State Capitol in Salem.  Next month's eNews will include more details.  We hope to see you there!

Defending the Rights of Immigrants in the Workplace

NWJP’s mission has always included supporting and defending immigrant workers. Recent national and local events have made this work even more important. NWJP currently represent a number of workers whose coworkers, emboldened by the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric, have targeted them.

In Portland, two of our clients, from Mexico and Guatemala, were crew leads for a moving company when a new worker started making racist remarks about Latinos, including that he hoped that Trump would become president and remove all of the Hispanics from the country, and tried to pick a fight with some of the Latino workers. Our clients complained to the supervisors because they felt like they had to protect themselves and other Latino workers from abuse by this worker. Both crew leads were fired.

A Latino worker at a major national retailor in Hood River was confronted by a white coworker who threatened him with a knife while calling him racist slurs. After he asked for protection from his supervisors, he was fired.

And, another Latino worker in the Eugene area endured a year and a half of racist remarks and escalating, destructive pranks focused on the few Latino workers. He reported the conduct to his supervisors, but nothing changed. Things came to a head when a coworker hit our client in the back with a pole. While he was out on leave for his injured back, he was fired.

We know that these cases are just a small sampling of the racial discrimination that immigrant workers face in Oregon and across the country. But Oregon leads the nation in reported incidents of race-based harassment since the election. Our work, therefore, includes not only representing individual workers, but also pressing for legislation that will better protect workers. In 2017, we will push for a bill in Oregon that gives workers who are fired for retaliation, like the workers mentioned above, additional tools to more easily prove that their protected complaints were the reasons for their firing. And, we are working with other community groups to strengthen our networks to confront new threats that immigrant workers might face in the coming year.

August 2016 – From Michael’s Desk: A Decent Place to Live; a Decent Job

With the skyrocketing cost of living in the Portland area and the shortage of affordable housing units, we’re seeing growing advocacy around issues of affordable housing, protection from eviction, and houselessness resources.  Sadly, all too often, housing champions and worker advocates seem to pass each other by like ships in the night.

Actually, there is a profound relationship in play here.  Many, and perhaps most, of our clients at NWJP are either shelterless themselves, or only one mishap at work away from finding themselves without a place to stay.  When a worker is cheated out of an expected paycheck, it may well be the rent money that’s short in the check.  If the worker complains, and gets fired in retaliation, the time that it takes to find a new job may exhaust any money that a family has been able to save from its very low income, and the kindness of family and friends, as well.  Once more, the street looms.

And, of course, those who don’t have a place to sleep, bathe, receive mail or get a message are at a serious disadvantage in holding or finding a job.

It makes sense for social justice organizations to use their particular skills and knowledge to do the work they have the best capacity to do.  But we need to begin thinking hard about how we could work together to solve these interconnected social justice issues.  One example:  Could a worker with a righteous wage claim that will take a few months to resolve borrow against the value of the claim to be able to pay rent in the meantime?  Do we need to find the means of making these types of loans possible?  Could housing providers help identify and connect families in housing jeopardy due to illegal labor practices with services both to solve work problems and keep the sheriff at bay in the meantime?

Just thinking . . .

 

DMD
Michael Dale
Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Attorney, NWJP

Minimum Wage Rose on July 1st!

On July 1st, minimum wages rose across Oregon. NWJP worked hard in the short 2016 legislative session to support its partners in the Raise the Wage coalition and to secure the increase, while assuring that no industry, like agricultural or restaurant, was exempted from the increase. While the law was 2015 Raise The Wage Lobby Daycertainly a compromise, this summer well over one hundred thousand low-wage workers in Oregon got a desperately needed raise.

In Portland and the state’s more populated counties, the minimum wage rose to $9.75 on July 1. In Malheur, Lake, Harney, Wheeler, Sherman, Gilliam, Wallowa, Grant, Jefferson, Baker, Union, Crook, Klamath, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Umatilla and Morrow counties, our more rural counties, it went up to $9.50. Eventually separating into three regions with separate wage tiers, the wage across the state will steadily increase through 2022 and then be indexed to inflation.

NWJP also worked to influence the regulations that Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) issued specifying which minimum wage would apply to employees who worked in more than one minimum wage region or away from their employers’ fixed locations. The regulations also are certainly a compromise. However, they assure that an employee who works 50% or more of their time in a higher wage region than the region of their employer’s fixed place of business will receive the higher wage. Those that work in more than one region away from their employer’s fixed location will receive either a) the regional minimum wage for each hour worked in each region, or b) the highest of the minimum wages for all of the hours. This will prevent employers from moving to lower wage regions, while dispatching employees into higher ones, in an effort to game the system.

We know that a higher minimum wage will not stop wage theft and even may encourage employers to steal wages from their workers to maintain their profit margins. Therefore, NWJP continues to advocate for stronger laws against wage theft, to educate workers about their rights under the law, to backstop the efforts of community partners to help workers collect wages and will be accepting cases from workers who believe that their employer is not complying.

 

 

 

July 2016: From Michael’s Desk

Photo by Doug Yarrow. Michael explains pending Wage Theft legislation in our 2015 advocacy day.
Photo by Doug Yarrow. Michael explains pending Wage Theft legislation during our 2015 advocacy day training.

Last month I urged opposition to several anti-immigrant ballot measures, and I had planned to use this post to call out several other anti-worker ballot measures that were in circulation.

However, I’m pleased to say that it appears that most of these ugly propositions will not make the November ballet!

A final worrisome measure, IP-50, is being touted as protecting privacy, but is designed to make it more difficult for grassroots campaigns to succeed by denying access to voter registration records. The point is to make elections much more expensive, giving well-funded, corporate campaigns a decisive advantage over grassroots efforts.

 

DMD
Michael Dale
Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Attorney, NWJP

March 2016: From Michael’s Desk

Sometimes supporters ask us, “What does NWJP do? Are you lawyers? Organizers? Lobbyists or what?”  The struggle for social justice for low-wage workers requires us to take on different roles at different times. The articles in this e-report may help to illustrate how this works.

NWJP works hard in the legislature to achieve better policy for working families in Oregon. In doing so, we attempt to provide leadership opportunities for our clients to engage in the process of making public policy.  Workers like Selso, who has overcome depression, natural shyness, lack of English and, above all, his fear, to be able to tell his story about low wages and wage theft to legislators and the press. We also seek to work in partnership with other progressive organizations in coalitions like Fair Shot, Raise the Wage and the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft.  Together, we have a better chance to succeed, and will develop better policy.

But winning policy change is only the beginning. A few years ago we helped pass a whistleblower law that gave workers in the private economy protection from retaliation for raising issues at work about their employers breaking the law. But when Matteo Brunozzi tried to do this at his workplace, he was fired. In his case, the federal court interpreted the law in a very narrow way, and decided that it was okay for his employer to fire him. We think the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will correct this, but good lawyering is a must to achieve this result.

As a legal intern, Leila Wall worked on the preparation of the Brunozzi brief. Her work was a great help to us, but far more important than her work on this particular case, is that young lawyers and law students have the chance to see this kind of practice as an option for their future.  We need many more bright, talented young advocates to engage in the struggle for worker justice. We hope that our mentoring law students and new lawyers helps to create a pool of folks to pick up this challenge.

In conclusion, NWJP works through a variety of strategies to add our contribution to worker justice. I hope you enjoy reading about our work in this issue of the eNews.

In solidarity,

DMD
Michael Dale
Founder, Executive Director, and Senior Attorney, NWJP

Oregon Legislature looks to tackle big issues for low-wage workers in 2016

By Marcus Swift, NWJP's Staff Attorney
Photographer unknown

The 79th assembly of the Oregon Legislature doesn’t officially start until February 1, 2016, but efforts are already underway to improve conditions for Oregon workers. The most pressing issues? An increase to the state’s minimum wage and added tools to enforce existing wage laws, protect workers, and collect unpaid wages.

Various proposals to increase the minimum wage have been introduced through both the ballot initiative process and the legislature, including the latest – a plan by Governor Kate Brown to raise the minimum wage gradually to $15.52 in the Portland metro area and $13.50 statewide by 2022. Hundreds of supporters of an increased minimum wage attended a legislative hearing on the topic held on January 14. We heard compelling testimony from workers from around the state, including that of Bertha, one of our clients, who dreams of sending her daughter to college but can barely afford to stay afloat on her minimum wage job.

Working people in Oregon stand to gain much needed economic stability through efforts to raise the minimum wage. At the same time, an alarming number of workers are not receiving their wages after the job is done. This is especially common for people who work in restaurants, retail stores, construction, Oregon’s agricultural industry, and as domestic workers.

This session, the Oregon Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, led by NWJP, is supporting legislation to lay a solid foundation for additional reforms in 2017. Our proposed bill in 2016 would increase workers' ability to access their own wage and hour records (including detailed pay stubs), and hold employers accountable for denying access to such records. Additionally, the bill would give the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) additional resources to stop employers who are repeat offenders.

In an interim hearing on January 13, lawmakers heard from state and national experts on wage theft, officials from BOLI, and several workers in industries impacted by wage theft, including healthcare, construction, and the building trades. A tentative hearing on the full legislation is expected to take place on February 4, 2016.

To help make a difference and pass stronger wage theft laws this session, click here to find your Oregon State Senator and Representative. Then call or e-mail them and let them know that you support stronger enforcement of wage theft laws during the 2016 session.

3…2…1… Happy new worker protections!!

By Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, NWJP's Deputy Director.
Photo by Sanja Gjenero, Freeimages.com

Our advocacy work with the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft and in the Fair Shot for All Coalition helped Oregon ring in the New Year with some important new protections for low-wage workers!

Here is a quick overview of the changes:

RIGHT TO SICK LEAVE

Starting this year, workers across Oregon will have a right to accrue sick leave. Those who work for an employer with 10 or more employees (or six or more in Portland) must receive paid sick leave. Workers will accrue at least one hour of sick time for every 30 hours of work, up to a total of 40 hours a year. In this day and age, it's amazing that we're celebrating a legislative victory about simple human dignity, but for the thousands of Oregonians who couldn't afford to stay home to rest and recover from an illness before, it's a big deal. This new protection will ensure that workers do not have to choose between their health — or the health of their children or their co-workers — and their livelihood.

WAGE TRANSPARENCY

Keeping workers from discussing their salaries with co-workers was a powerful way to keep wage inequality alive. In an effort to achieve equal pay for equal work, however, workers are now protected from retaliation if they discuss their wages or the wages of their co-workers. And workers can now sue in Oregon courts to protect this right, which will allow them to better identify discrimination in pay.

PROTECTIONS FOR WORKERS WITH PRIOR CONVICTIONS

People with criminal histories, often members of the most vulnerable populations (people of color, those who cannot afford proper representation, those with mental illness or addictions to drugs and alcohol, among others), face unfair barriers to employment even after they have already served their time.  Even where workers have turned their lives around, it is often impossible to find work. This results in a growing subclass of workers who are subject to exploitation and poverty. Oregon has taken an important first step in protecting workers with criminal conviction histories from unfair job discrimination in hiring. It is now illegal to require an applicant to disclose a criminal conviction on an employment application or prior to an initial interview.

NEW PROTECTIONS FOR DOMESTIC WORKERS

In recognition of the hard work and often grueling conditions that domestic workers face, an array of new protections have gone into effect in the New Year. Housekeepers and in-home child care providers will now be entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week (or 44 if they live in the home). They also will be entitled to 24 consecutive hours of rest each week and must receive eight hours of uninterrupted sleep to be considered off-the-clock. If they work at least an average of 30 hours a week, they are entitled to receive three paid personal leave days a year. They are now also protected from discriminatory harassment and from confiscation of their passports if they are immigrant workers.