All posts by Chris Ferlazzo

Hotel Housekeepers Finally Win Hard-earned Wages

Ana and Marina (not their real names) worked cleaning a motel in North Portland for many years. For much of their time there, they earned minimum wage for their work cleaning guest rooms. As part of their duties, they were also expected to do the motel laundry. They didn't receive an hourly wage for that work, but rather a lump sum payment with every paycheck that did not even approach minimum wage. They did not receive overtime pay, though they regularly worked 7 days a week. Their employer tried to disguise its wrongdoing by paying only some of their hours on their paycheck, and the rest in cash or personal checks, often accompanied by an accounting of sorts on a small slip of paper that only further confused the workers.

After receiving complaints, the US Department of Labor investigated the motel for wage and hour violations in 2013. The motel owners pressured Ana and Marina to lie to the investigators about the hours they worked. The DOL ultimately approved a small settlement for a short time period of federal violations, but did not address the systemic problems with the motel's pay practices. The owners were undeterred, and did not improve the motel's pay practices going forward.

When Ana and Marina finally left their jobs at the motel, after a series of conflicts and escalating threats by the owners, they came to NWJP looking for help, arriving with a briefcase full of records dating back to 2008. After more than a year of litigation in federal court, NWJP was able to negotiate a settlement with the motel for $60,000. Both clients were pleased to have the motel make some amends for the many years in which they were underpaid and overworked.

From Michael’s Desk:

So I’ve been asking myself about the implications the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court may have for our work at NWJP and for our allies.

While one can desperately hope that Kavanaugh may come to the Court chastened by his experience, and that he and others, like John Roberts, may feel the need to move slowly at first, for the sake of the Court’s credibility, this is most likely just whistling past the graveyard.  Sooner or later—and more likely sooner—we should expect a gale force storm blowing directly into our faces on federal issues, including employment and immigration, specifically, but also on related issues such as civil rights, access to the courts, and other social and political rights.

How do we continue to press forward into this wind?

A piece of the answer is suggested by a sailing metaphor.  At times, it might be possible to tack into the wind, that is, to use the force of the wind in one’s face to be able to zig zag in a forward direction. If we can figure out how to use the new court’s ideology to gain ground, this may be appropriate. (E.g., can we use the court’s antipathy to federal regulation of the states to protect worker-protective statutes from federal review?) And if the wind becomes overwhelming we may need at least temporarily to trim our sails and ride out the storm, hopefully with minimal damage.  The trick will be having the wisdom to match these tactics to a given situation, without abandoning our most vulnerable clients and our zeal for justice.

The elections of 2018 and 2020 may set up new federal opportunities for legislation, and we might rethink the possibilities of effective administrative enforcement.

But I think that our principal response needs to be to re-envision how we approach our work.

For almost sixty years, a workers’ lawyer’s task has largely involved bringing social justice arguments before a federal court.  This era may be waning.  In Oregon, however, we are blessed, even in remote parts of the state, with a judiciary that has very largely been appointed by progressive, democratic governors.  Rather than seeking to avoid state courts, we must learn to embrace them. And we should structure litigation to avoid federal review, if possible. A corollary is that we must focus even more intensely on making sure that local labor standards are as good as, or better than, we’ve come to expect from federal law.

And of course, helping our clients find means to resolve disputes through their own self-advocacy and collective power outside of the court system becomes even more important than ever.

The way forward will be difficult and challenging. It will require us, as worker advocates, to grow and adapt in ways that push us out of our comfort zone. This is a challenge we cannot avoid, and must master.

Welcome Mayra Ledesma!

We are very pleased to announce that we have hired a new staff attorney. Mayra Ledesma is an Oregon native from Hood River.  As the daughter of farm worker parents, Mayra learned at a very young age the injustices that many low-income workers face.  She developed a strong interest in the legal aspect of workers' rights, ultimately inspiring her to attend law school.  She recently graduated from DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, having previously attended Willamette University where she received her BA in Economics and Spanish.  At NWJP, Mayra will initially be focused on litigation. We are delighted to welcome her to our community. ¡Bienvenidos!

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.

Celia Fitzwater Volunteer Spotlight

As we’ve said in past newsletters, NWJP is fortunate to be supported by many talented and dedicated volunteers.  Celia Fitzwater is a retired attorney who spends two days a week helping with casework and research in our office.  Celia graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1989, and then worked as a law clerk at the Oregon Supreme Court for two years.

Celia Fitzwater, Volunteer Extraordinaire

From 1991-2001, she served as a staff attorney at the Workers’ Compensation Board.  In 2001-2003, she was an Administrative Law Judge for Oregon’s Department of Consumer and Business Services.  She then took some time off to be home with her two sons.  She currently volunteers with NWJP.  Celia’s background in workers’ compensation law has proved very helpful and she is a pleasure to have in the office.

Thank you to Celia and our other incredible volunteers!

NWJP Launches Planned Giving Campaign

We invite you to consider a legacy gift to the Northwest Employment Education and Defense Fund.

The Northwest Employment Education and Defense Fund is NWJP’s sister organization and is a nonprofit under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Our tax identification number is 06-1669649.

The name and address to include in your will or other planned gift is:

Northwest Employment Education and Defense Fund
812 SW Washington, Suite 225
Portland, OR 97205

Please consult your attorney when drawing up or revising your will to ensure your intentions are carried out properly. If you have any questions or need more information, please call us at 503-525-8454 or email chris@nwjp.org.

 

NWJP Fights for Workers on Many Fronts

NWJP recently submitted an amicus or "friend of the court" brief to the United States Supreme Court on behalf of truck drivers and workers' rights organizations in New Prime v. Oliveira, a case dealing with forced arbitration as it applies to truck drivers.  Public Justice, a public interest law firm, had successfully argued in the First Circuit Court of Appeals that truck drivers are not covered by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and could therefore litigate their workplace complaints in court despite having been forced to sign an arbitration agreement.  (NWJP recently opened a clinic to help workers who are forced to arbitrate- see link.)  But the Supreme Court accepted certiorari of the case, meaning the justices agreed to review it next term.

NWJP attorney Kate Suisman, working with Nieves Bolaños of Potter Bolaños, a Chicago firm, wrote a brief supporting the decision of the First Circuit from the point of view of other impacted truck drivers.  The attorneys contacted truck drivers across the country to collect their stories.  Many of these drivers are misclassified as “independent contractors” and therefore don’t receive most of the benefits we associate with employment: job security, overtime premiums, workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance and many others.  Instead, these workers have to buy or lease their own truck and pay all its expenses.  Some truck drivers work full time or more and still can’t afford to pay their rent.

In New Prime v. Oliveira, the trucking company is arguing that its truck drivers are independent contractors, and therefore not covered by the provision in the FAA that says the Act does not apply to “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers. Kate and Nieves’ brief showed the many ways that the amicus drivers are treated like employees, and the uncertainty and difficulty they face as misclassified workers.

You can read the workers’ stories and the rest of the brief here.  The workers’ stories start on page 26.

From Michael’s Desk

As you probably know, Measure 105 to repeal Oregon’s “sanctuary” law has qualified to appear on the ballot this fall.

I put “sanctuary” in quotes because the long-standing Oregon statute that is being challenged by the ballot measure does not establish Oregon as a sanctuary at all.  It just directs that state and local law enforcement resources be dedicated to enforcing our criminal laws, and not squandered on chasing farm workers, landscapers and care givers whose sole offense is that they entered the country without documents or overstayed a visa.

I was a practicing attorney in Oregon before ORS 181A.820 was adopted, and I remember local police jurisdictions tying up multiple officers for many hours at a time in order to set up road blocks on busy roads to stop every motorist so that INS (ICE’s predecessor agency) could check the documents of everyone passing.  Those roadblocks were not only the source of annoying traffic jams, they were very reminiscent of old movies of Nazi Germany:  “Show me your papers.” This indignity is not the hallmark of a free and open society.

I particularly recall a young migrant worker who came to me for help during those times. He’d scraped together enough money to buy a car, and he’d picked up a hitch-hiker for whom he felt sorry  (having, himself, been in the same situation often enough).  Unfortunately, this hitch-hiker robbed him at knife-point, taking his money, his ID, his car and his shoes, and leaving him stranded on the side of the road.  After he walked about eight miles into town, he went to the local police to report this crime.

At the police department, he was arrested, and taken to jail as a “suspected illegal.” When he finally won his release about a week later, he’d not only lost his job, but we learned that no investigation of the robbery had occurred, and, indeed, his car had not even been reported as stolen.

These kinds of incidents are toxic to the trust most law enforcement leaders say is essential to good community policing. If undocumented workers—or even folks with legal status who might be wrongly profiled as undocumented—fear that interaction with police may risk their own arrest, they will not report crimes and they won’t cooperate with police as sources of information or testimony. This is why so many law enforcement leaders oppose Measure 105.

The English word “outlaw” comes from a time in ancient England when the king would declare that certain individuals were beyond the protection of the law.  These individuals were left to protect themselves and their families in any way they could, or tolerate being victimized.  The inevitable exploitation and violence not only affected them, but generally degraded the quality of life of everyone in the community.

ORS 181A.820 has, for thirty years prevented the legal creation of this type of outlaw class in Oregon communities.  But have no doubt that we’d quickly return to the “bad old days” that preceded its adoption, if Ballot measure 105 repeals it.

All of us who care about justice must stand up to the right-wing white supremacists who are pushing this benighted measure. We must get the facts, pledge to reject this measure, and get involved with others in the community working against it. (see https://orunited.org/)

We must vote NO on Measure 105.

Justice for Oregon Janitors

Starting July 1st, the Property Service Worker Protection Act of 2017 (HB 3279), a law that NWJP and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 worked to get passed to protect janitorial workers, will go into effect. Janitorial contractors will now be required to have a license from the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) and a bond that employees can use to recover unpaid wages. If building owners/operators contract with unlicensed janitorial contractors, the owners/operators could be held responsible for a janitorial employee’s unpaid wages or for other violations of the law. The goal is to prevent under-resourced and fly-by-night janitorial companies from leaving employees without any recourse for labor violations--either the employer will have a bond or the end user of the janitorial services will be responsible too.

As an expansion of the law that has successfully helped regulate farm labor contractors for decades, the law also includes new provisions that require janitorial contractors to provide training on sexual harassment. Because of the nature of janitorial work, done often at night or in isolated spaces, sexual harassment and abuse on the job are endemic. Therefore, the law works to educate and provide resources for workers’ physical safety as well.

On June 15th, members of SEIU Local 49 took to downtown Portland to notify building owners and managers of the new law and their potential liability for unlicensed contractors on Justice for Janitors Day, a day that recognizes janitors’ historical and ongoing struggles for fair wages and safe working conditions.

SEIU Local 49 also released a report on how the law could clean up the janitorial industry. The report chronicles the type of labor violations that NWJP regularly sees in the industry. NWJP regularly represents workers in cases of misclassification and “franchise” schemes, unpaid wages, health and safety violations, and sex discrimination.

Our Summer Law Clerks and Volunteers

NWJP could not function without our fabulous volunteers and law clerks, and this summer, we are pleased to have support from some great people.

Clint Flippin, Isaac Suarez-Nugent, Jessica Luning, and Sophie von Bergen

Sophie von Bergen is from Portland, and just finished her first year at Lewis and Clark Law School. Sophie is interested in using law as a tool for social change after studying the theory of rebellious lawyering at Occidental College. In addition to political science, she studied gender policies and once presented a paper co-authored with her professor at a conference in Sweden.

Volunteer Isaac Suarez-Nugent graduated from Reed in 2016, with a degree in history, and a focus on French and British empire. Isaac was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and his dad is still there. Isaac thinks that undocumented workers are a really exposed part of the labor economy, and he wants to get some experience in a legal setting to further understand the effects of the Trump administration.

Jessica Luning has been pretty busy lately, as she is currently the coordinator of NLG legal observers, who have been at the ICE occupation 24/7 for the last week. Originally from Long Island, Jessica just finished her first year at Lewis and Clark. Jessica decided on law school after working in non-profits where “as soon as work started to get interesting I had to hand it off to a lawyer.”

Clint Flippin is also at Lewis and Clark law school, but is originally from Memphis.  interested in history, traditional archery, and workers’ rights, after having experienced many abusive employment situations.  Now he wants to change that and wants to practice in a field of law that can have practical implications.  He started out interested in environmental law, but recognized that the federal government has stopped enforcement. “Now,” Clint argues, “the biggest changes will come from an employment law perspective.”

NWJP hosts law clerks year-round, and we love to help mentor law students who are interested in advancing the rights of low-wage, immigrant, and temporary workers. Contact Deputy Director Corinna Spencer-Scheurich at corinna@nwjp.org for more information about how you or someone you know could join us!