Category Archives: News

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

Inside NWJP: Meet Marcus Swift

by Marcus Swift, NWJP Staff Attorney

Marcus Swift
Photo courtesy of Marcus Swift

“Whirlwind” is the word I use to describe my first nine weeks as the newest staff attorney at Northwest Workers’ Justice Project.

I stepped into our office on the 11th floor in downtown Portland in late-August for my first day of work.  I did so as a brand new lawyer ready to finally practice law.  As a law student I had the privilege of working at a legal aid office, a public defender’s office, DACA workshops, and an immigration clinic. I interviewed clients, filed motions, and appeared in court. It was valuable practical experience, but it does not compare to raising your right hand and swearing an oath to the Constitution and becoming a member of the bar.

I arrived at NWJP a week before law clerks started the fall semester, five weeks before our annual event, and six weeks before our entire office moved nine floors below. So, in other words, there was a lot going on.

In that short time, I’ve sent my first demand letter to an employer. I’ve interviewed potential clients. I’ve attended our annual event where generous people donated, laughed, ate, drank, and listened to great speakers. I’ve drafted a federal complaint. I’ve learned from other lawyers in Portland and across the country about topics like collections and properly drafted pleadings. I’ve counted on clerks for great research. I’ve turned to coworkers and supervisors for advice. I’ve lobbied lawmakers to raise the minimum wage. I’ve participated in meetings to discuss strategies to combat wage theft. I’ve carried boxes and moved furniture. And I’ve become part of an amazing team, all in only two months.

What I have seen at NWJP is a staff full of friendly, passionate, hard working people who do an incredible amount of work with limited time and resources. I have witnessed an organization that does so much important work in so many areas, and does so with an efficiency and effectiveness that I have rarely witnessed at larger organizations. And it’s all done without any state or federal funding.

I have also met (and been honored to represent) dedicated, courageous, hard working clients who want to care for their families, participate in their community, and be treated with the same dignity and respect that is afforded to others; people who want a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work; people who believe that employers should follow the rules.

It’s been a whirlwind, to be sure. It’s also been incredibly enriching, rewarding, and exciting. And I know the newness will wear off and some of the rose coloring will fade out of my glasses. There will be rough days and frustrating losses. The justice system will not always seem so just. But I have no doubt that NWJP will still be doing so much, for so many, with so little. And I will be proud to be a small part of it.

Where does it hurt? If you’re one of Oregon’s injured workers, everywhere

by Violeta Rubiani, NWJP Program Administrator
Photo by Violeta Rubiani

If you got hurt at work today, would you know what your workers' comp rights are or what you’re supposed to do to file a claim?

If you answered no to that question, you’re not unlike the more than 20,000* Oregon workers who find themselves in that very spot each year. Hurt, scared and staring  at real and  long-term financial threats, many workers also face retaliation for reporting injuries, are shamed by employers and shunned by co-workers, or are steered to employer-friendly health practitioners who may not have the workers’ best interest at heart.

Even when a claim is accepted, an injury can disrupt a worker’s life in many ways: the worker may be required to attend time-consuming medical appointments and evaluations; she may not receive her full salary while on temporary partial or total disability (TPD or TTD in workers’ comp lingo); or a worker who is undocumented may face termination and may not be entitled to full compensation if his injury is permanently disabling.

For years now, NWJP has borne witness to the ways in which the workers’ compensation system fails the most vulnerable workers in Oregon – immigrants, non-English speakers, and contingent and low-wage workers.

That’s why this year, with $10,000 in seed funding from the Doug Swanson Memorial Fund (named after dedicated workers’ comp leader, Douglas A. Swanson), NWJP is launching the Injured Workers’ Project after many months of investigation, preparation and planning.

The project will be based in the Willamette Valley, and will have four key components:

  • In collaboration with the Oregon AFL-CIO, NWJP will organize a Coalition (or Committee) for Occupational Safety and Health (known as COSH) to advocate for enhanced occupational health and safety standards and procedures, particularly those affecting low-wage, immigrant and contingent workers;
  • NWJP will develop a pilot program to measure whether culturally appropriate job safety training conducted by low-wage, immigrant and contingent workers to their peers is effective in reducing on-the-job injuries among these workers. The pilot will likely start out in agriculture and construction.
  • NWJP will offer Know-Your-Rights training to workers in the areas of workers’ compensation benefits and procedures for accessing and navigating the system;
  • NWJP will conduct an in-depth assessment of Oregon’s workers’ compensation system and why it’s currently failing immigrant and contingent workers, and propose solutions that will ensure all workers have access to the system and receive the benefits they deserve and to which they are entitled.

At NWJP, we are beyond excited about this project and are looking forward to joining forces with community partners, unions, and workers to address the many inequities keeping low-wage, contingent, and immigrant workers in physical and financial pain.

* Source: Dept. of Consumer & Business Services

NWJP in interview with Portland’s KGW

Oscar Urrutia owes several state agencies and workers thousands of dollars and has failed to perform the job he promised many clients. And yet keeps working.

NWJP Executive Director Michael Dale and client Selso Sarabia were interviewed for a televised investigation into the shoddy work and wage thievery of Oscar Urrutia, a Portland-area contractor who refuses to pay regulatory fines, penalties, judgments, orders, or his employees' wages.

Click on the picture to see the KGW piece.

 

 

Ban the Box and Wage Theft

by Mark Hansen, NWJP Staff Attorney

Ban the Box is an ongoing campaign in cities and states around the country pushing for the removal of the “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” question from employment applications. In 2007, Oregon’s Multnomah County removed the question from its job applications. Portland went one step further last July, removing criminal background check language from applications for certain jobs with the city, and joining the rapidly increasing number of cities and counties that have already adopted Ban the Box policies.

What does NWJP have to do with the Ban the Box movement and why would we support it? We’re glad you asked.

Our clients—immigrant, low-wage, contingent workers—are systematically and routinely exploited, discriminated against, and robbed of their wages. This happens because of outdated and unjust institutional structures and an economic system that views these workers as “disposable.” But it also happens because of the circumstances in which these workers find themselves: they are limited in their ability to find work, ignorant of their rights, and so desperate to earn a livelihood, they often work for months without asserting their rights, hoping their bosses will come through at some point.

Individuals returning to their communities after serving a prison sentence face similar difficulties. Trying to find employment with a criminal record is nearly impossible, and “checking the box” is a significant barrier to employment and to workers’ successful re-entry into society.

Like our other clients, those with a criminal record are eager to find work, so they will take the jobs everyone else would run from—the same unsafe, low paying, temporary, and risky jobs we see our immigrant and low-wage clients take. Also like our clients, once in those jobs, people with records are likely to be exploited and taken advantage of.

You see where we are going: people with records are becoming yet another “underclass,” a group of people who is unjustly targeted for abuse. Because these individuals don’t have many choices when it comes to employment, they are less likely to report unlawful employment practices including wage theft, discrimination, and unhealthy or unsafe working conditions. Many may also be unaware of the workplace protections the law provides. Instead, feeling lucky to have found a job at all, they fear losing it and remain silent.

Advocates know, however, that there are valid concerns regarding the employment of individuals with records. In Oregon, laws already in place prevent individuals with certain criminal histories from working with vulnerable populations or in finance, or have access to sensitive, personal information. Ban the Box is not seeking to repeal these laws, but wants to ensure that individuals—who previously had no chance of even receiving a call-back—get an opportunity to make it to the interview stage and to explain why they are now good candidates for employment.

The stigma associated with having broken the law is difficult to ignore, especially at the initial stages of job applicant screening, and it affects minority and low-income applicants disproportionately. This is why proponents of banning the box believe that removing the conviction question will ensure a larger and more diverse candidate pool and will connect employers with a wider selection of qualified employees.

Many of the Ban the Box campaigns, including the one in Oregon, agree that employers should have the right to require a background check prior to employment. However, they say, a background check should be the last step, not the first. This encourages employers to select the most qualified candidates for the job, allows the prospective candidate to be judged on the basis of qualifications alone, and gives both parties the opportunity to openly talk about questions that may come up. Advocates want employers to set the Box aside, and make employment decisions based on real impressions, not stigma or misperceptions.

For a person with a record, re-entry into the community is already difficult. Keeping people with records unemployed or employed in poverty-wage jobs is more likely to lead to recidivism. (According to Fair Chance for All, the group that leads the Ban the Box campaign in Portland, people with records who became employed were twice as likely to avoid future legal trouble as those who were unemployed.) Banning the box allows individuals who have made mistakes to move past the debt they’ve already paid society, and gives them a genuine opportunity to start anew. And that’s good for all of us.

For more information about the Ban the Box campaign, please visit Fair Chance for All’s website (fairchanceforall.com), or the National Employment Law Project’s website (www.nelp.org).