Category Archives: Michael’s Desk

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?

March 2017: From Michael’s Desk

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

As an attorney who has been representing immigrant workers for many decades, I am deeply distressed about recent news reports that ICE agents are stalking immigrants in and around our courts. These reports have sent a palpable chill through Oregon’s immigrant communities.  This news should be equally chilling to lawyers, court workers, and anyone else who cares about due process and the rule of law.

To begin with, if a person is summoned to appear in court, but his or her compliance will result in deportation, it is predictable that many will not comply. This will inevitably lead to the breakdown of orderly criminal justice, probation, juvenile and domestic relations systems.

But even more importantly, our sacred commitment to due process of law is severely compromised if disputes cannot be fairly adjudicated because some of the parties do not feel safe in our courtrooms.  As a worker advocate, I fear that marginalized workers, who already have so much to fear in making a complaint that their rights are being violated, may now be too intimidated to come forward to assert claims that could require them to appear in person in a court of law.  And will the witnesses they need to support those claims respond to a subpoena to court? Will overzealous opponents attempt to exploit these fears? If the most vulnerable cannot defend their rights as workers, all will suffer.

NWJP is committed to finding ways to keep our justice system open to even the most vulnerable litigants.  We call on allies to join us.

The American system of jurisprudence is a core part of who we are as a society. That it may not be safe to engage in that process attacks this very foundation.  It also violates the international law of nations.  This road leads to chaos and lawlessness.

We’ve got to push back, or we will lose who we are.

 

 

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

January 2017: From Michael’s Desk

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

Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. . . It’s just that, sometimes, justice requires a real struggle, and takes a long time to arrive.  We are reminded of this as a long-standing case in the office finally comes to a close.  This story begins in 2008.

The employer involved, Oscar Urrutia, operates a landscaping business, so his need for workers is seasonal, and he recruits additional workers during the spring and summer months on a temporary basis.  He apparently engaged in a pattern, over many years, of hiring workers with promises of payment, but intentionally refusing to pay them at the end of the summer landscaping season. Instead, he’d shut off his phone and go to California on vacation.

We first came across Mr. Urrutia after Roberto Martinez Romero worked for 7 months for him in 2008. From approximately June 30, 2008, until August 25, 2008, Urrutia paid Martinez only $605.00 for the work he performed, approximately $1.20 per hour. Eventually, Martinez and another of the unpaid workers filed a lawsuit against Urrutia.  Martinez and the other worker recovered a judgment against Urrutia, but the judgment could not be collected.

Selso Sarabia Lopez and Francisco Alvarado Fiscal both worked for Mr. Urrutia in 2010. Urrutia did not pay them either for regular or overtime hours. Through the summer, they tried to collect their wages by making phone calls and by visiting Urrutia at his home. In response, they were threatened by Urrutia, who told them that if they continued to ask him about getting paid, he would report them to the police. Eventually Urrutia told them to do whatever they wished, he was definitely not going to pay, that various workers had tried to take action to collect their wages, but no one could to do anything to him. Alvarado Fiscal and Sarabia Lopez filed a wage claim with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (“BOLI”). BOLI entered a Final Order of Determination in their favor for a total of $18,987.50 in wages and penalties. BOLI could not collect the judgment.

On September 24, 2012, Urrutia hired Luis Perez Carillo. Perez Carillo worked over eighty one (81) hours and was not paid for his labor. This includes over twenty two hours (22) of uncompensated overtime pay. He sought assistance with Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project in Portland. Voz sent letters to Urrutia asking for Perez’s unpaid wages. Defendant did not pay him for regular and overtime hours worked.

To escape liability for these and other debts, Urrutia filed for bankruptcy, but these workers contested his right to a discharge, since their debts were based on the employer’s fraud that he would pay them.  In 2013, the bankruptcy court ruled in their favor after a full trial. (Understanding that they had won, the workers asked if that meant they would now finally be paid their money.  Sadly, their victory just meant that they could keep looking for property they could seize to collect their debts.)

The somewhat happy end to the story is that this fall we found a truck that Urrutia owned and were able to have the sheriff levy against it.  The workers were able to collect at least the wages they had earned, and a bit more in penalties at long last.

We congratulate these determined workers for their tenacity in pursuing justice and dignity for their work for all of these years!

 

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

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

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

May 2016: From Michael’s Desk

By Michael Dale, Executive Director

With presidential and gubernatorial elections and multiple measures on the ballot, this fall will be a very busy election.  I want to flag three Oregon ballot measures that would do very serious harm to low-wage workers if we allow them to slip by and pass: IP 40 (Making English Oregon’s Official Language), IP 51 (Limiting Voting Rights), and IP 52 (Mandating E-Verify).

Making English Oregon’s Official Language. IP 40 would hamstring the ability of Oregon’s public agencies to create a welcoming atmosphere and to provide basic services to those who do not read and write English.  It would require that all government information and documents - including those at schools - be published only in English. No government agency could require that job applicants be competent in a language other than English. To intimidate public officials and employees, the measure would allow Oregon residents to sue when they believe the law has been violated. The lack of clarity in this measure will undoubtedly generate unproductive and costly lawsuits.

Limiting Voting Rights. IP 51 is a blow against the successes we’ve had at the legislature in giving low-wage Oregonians a raise and paid sick leave. The idea behind it is to limit who can vote so that more pro-business legislators will be elected. This initiative would cancel every Oregonian’s voter registration and make it incredibly difficult and time consuming to re-register, reducing the number of acceptable IDs and making it harder for youth, the elderly and low-income voters to register. It would reverse Oregon’s recent successes in eliminating barriers to voting.

Mandating E-Verify. IP 52 would create a new system of bureaucracy that Oregon’s small businesses must follow. By requiring all Oregon businesses to adopt a flawed and inaccurate federal program, everyday workers might find themselves out of a job, and businesses could lose employment licenses altogether.

These ballot measures are being supported by Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as a hate group, and by out-of-state millionaire Loren Parks. They do not reflect Oregon's values of equity and inclusion. They would set back the cause of working people, and especially low-wage workers.

To learn more, lend your support, or request a presentation, please contact Yanely Rivas at yanely@causaoregon.org.

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

January 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.

As we start the New Year, strident anti-worker voices seem to be everywhere. In the fall, we are likely to see a number of ballot measures funded by wealthy corporate interests designed to cripple the ability of workers to act together in their common interest. Litigation pending in the Supreme Court poses a similar threat. Some of the leading presidential candidates spew hateful, anti-immigrant messages appealing to fear and nativism, and they seem to be winning support through this call to the basest impulses of the public. And anti-government extremists stand in armed rebellion against efforts to make sensible rules about the use of our common public lands.

If workers’ voices are to penetrate this din, it will only be because we speak and act together with savvy, purpose and courage.  Recent events show that when we act together, we can win both big and small advances for workers—whether in the legislature, at the ballot, or on the job site.  But our ability to do this is in jeopardy.  We are in a critical struggle for the future of a progressive Oregon. At NWJP we intend to weigh in on this fight, wherever and however we can.  Let’s make this a year that strengthens workers’ voices and advances their interests!

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

December 2015: From Michael’s Desk

IMG_4506
Michael attends the 2016 Legislative Agenda Launch for the Fair Shot Coalition, which has included wage theft among its priorities. (Photo courtesy of Heather Stuart.)

We’re quite excited by the crackling energy around increasing the minimum wage.  We also are delighted that Fair Shot for All—an important coalition of labor and community organizations—has adopted wage theft as one of its three priorities for the 2016 session.

There is a very strong connection between wage theft and raising the minimum wage.  Our client community is struggling to recover from twenty years of declining real wages and the sluggish job recovery in the sectors in which our clients work.  Plus, the disintegration of permanent real jobs into smaller and smaller temp, part-time, contingent work—the “gig” economy—has made it more and more difficult to survive (see the accompanying piece about this). Meanwhile, the distribution of income in the country becomes more distorted.  Low wage Oregonians desperately need a raise.

But when we raise the wage we can only expect that we will see even more theft of wages from the most vulnerable workers. To make a higher wage real, we must give workers the power to claim what they’ve earned.  Providing effective tools to access the legal system or otherwise collect the full measure of wages the law requires has to be a part of what the legislature does, or the promise of a decent minimum wage rate will be a cruel illusion. We’re excited to be finding new energy and partnerships to work on this indispensable part of a fair agenda for 2016.

If you can help out with winning these advances, let us hear from you at coalition@nwjp.org.

Wishing you a safe, warm, and happy holidays,

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

November 2015: From Michael’s Desk

Dear friends,

The last couple of months have kept us intensely busy: we pulled off an incredibly successful Third Annual Event, we packed our office and moved down nine floors to our new space on our building's second floor, and we’ve been diligently working on this, the first issue of what will be our new monthly eNewsletter.

Because we know your time is valuable, we want to keep our eNews short and sweet, so each issue will feature a piece about trends in our ongoing struggles for workers’ rights; a highlight of a current case or project; and a fun, inside look at NWJP’s work, our staff, partners, clients, and volunteers. We’d love to hear from you, too! Send us your feedback, comments, and ideas about the new format at news@nwjp.org.

This month, we were also honored to receive $10,000 from the Doug Swanson Memorial Fund to kick off our new Injured Workers Project, whose ultimate goal is to address the structural problems that currently stand in the way of on-the-job injury prevention, occupational safety education and training for workers, access to qualified and low-cost workers’ comp legal help, and adequate compensation for workers’ injuries.

As we enter the holiday season, we’re also spending time reflecting about our successes, the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and the role we will play as the labor landscape shifts along with technology. Most importantly, we are focusing on our blessings: our amazing staff members who work tirelessly to support low-wage, immigrant, and contingent workers in their quest to stand up for their own rights; our volunteers, partners and supporters, whose commitment, dedication, and hard work on behalf of workers is most inspiring; and our funders, without whom we would not exist.

Hope the beginning of Fall finds you safe and warm.

In partnership,

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

 

Photo of Michael courtesy of Doug Yarrow