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Equal Justice at Work: September 2012

Executive Director’s Corner

Honoring Labor Day with Justice for All

For so many of us, we think of Labor Day as the end of summer. But let's take a moment to remember the original intent of the holiday. The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City with a parade in Union Square to recognize the social and economic achievements of workers in America. While we still celebrate and thank all the workers who helped build roads, cities, and infrastructure, we need to remember that some workers are not treated with the respect inspired by the first Labor Day.

Today, there are workers across the country who are victims of unfair practices, from discrimination to unpaid wages. For most of these workers, legal representation is unimaginable. In this newsletter, we are highlighting two of our Fellows who are working to protect the rights of workers in Florida and California.

Equal Justice Works Fellow Vanessa Coe is fighting on behalf of immigrant workers in Florida who are illegally paid less than minimum wage, forced to work excessive overtime, and charged high housing rent, essentially creating indentured servitude. These workers, most of whom are legally in the U.S. on H2B or J-1 visas, are particularly vulnerable because employers threaten them with deportation if they complain.

Gina Gemello, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, helps workers with disabilities in Berkeley, California. Gina is the coordinator of the Workers' Rights Disability Law Clinic, which provides free legal advice, counseling, and representation to low-income workers and job seekers with disabilities who face barriers to equal employment opportunity. The Clinic is located in a fully accessible location, and it offers phone-in appointments, ASL interpretation, and other communication services. Thanks to Gina, more people in Berkeley are gaining access to equal employment opportunities.

These are just two examples of Equal Justice Works Fellows who are representing workers who face illegal work conditions or discrimination.

For this year's Labor Day edition of our newsletter, it is my pleasure to salute these courageous lawyers who are in the trenches fighting against workplace injustice. 



Fellows on the Front

Getting Justice for Abused Workers

In any given month, the U.S. hosts approximately 170,000 foreign workers on J-1 visas. The J-1 visa program, created as a cultural exchange program in 1961 as part of the Fulbright-Hayes Act, brings students and professionals to the U.S. for professional development and education. Equal Justice Works Fellow Vanessa Coe spent the summer working on a case with her host organization, Florida Legal Services Inc., involving students with J-1 visas who came to Orlando for a one-year internship in the hospitality industry. However, when the students arrived, they were not met with the learning experience they were promised. Earning less than minimum wage, the foreign interns were made to work as housekeepers for the entire year—a violation of federal and state minimum wage laws and the rules of the visa program. “People who participate in the J-1 program cannot work in low-wage positions, cannot displace American workers, and must have a minimum of three rotations,” Vanessa says. All three of these rules were broken in the case that Vanessa is still working to win for her clients.

Vanessa’s clients came from Thailand and Vietnam and paid approximately $5,000 to participate as interns under the J-1 visa program. They were promised the chance to work in different facets of the hospitality industry, from front desk to management to housekeeping. Instead, they were placed in housekeeping for the entire year and not allowed to work in other positions. “Being placed in one department for the duration of the internship is expressly forbidden,” Vanessa says. But she says the hotel hired these students instead of hiring local workers in order to save money. “The employers don’t have to give them insurance or other benefits and they don’t receive paid time off,” she says. “On top of that, the students can only work for one employer. If they leave the job they have to leave the country – so they don’t leave. They are at the mercy of the hotel.”

When Vanessa and Florida Legal Services brought this case to court, the hotel filed to dismiss the case. Vanessa says the hotel argued that “the J-1 visa holders are not subject to labor laws in the same way that others are because the workers are here as students and are benefitting from the learning experience.”  Vanessa disagreed with that view and so did the judge. After prevailing on the motion to dismiss, Vanessa is continuing litigation against the hotel. While court cases involving J-1 visa violations have been brought to court before, this is the first time a case has been brought to court pertaining to the intern and trainee visas. The outcome will have implications for every J-1 visa holder who comes to the U.S. for an internship or training program in the future. “I am quite proud to be a part of an issue that will shape the law in a dramatic way,” Vanessa says.

It can be intimidating to pursue charges against a large corporation for employment violations, but Vanessa and Florida Legal Services want to “show the other side that we will push as hard as necessary to get results for our clients.” With her hard work and the support of her sponsor, The Florida Bar Foundation, Vanessa is on the path to protecting workers —not just in Florida, but throughout the United States.



Fellows on the Front

Helping Workers with Disabilities Have Equal Opportunity at Work

Gina Gemello started her Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship about a year ago at Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, she has been overseeing weekly Workers’ Rights Disability Law Clinics. The Clinics provide free legal services to low income individuals with disabilities who face illegal employment practices that affect their ability to secure or maintain a job. Serving approximately 15-20 people per night, the Clinics have helped hundreds of clients in just one year. 

Having grown up in the Bay Area and attended law school at nearby UC Hastings School of Law, Gina has been invested in her community her entire life. The clinic is held in Berkeley, about a 30-minute ride on public transit from Gina’s office in San Francisco. “Our partner organization, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, hosts us in the incredible Ed Roberts Campus, which has been recognized internationally as a model of accessibility and sustainability,” Gina says.  “We’re very lucky to have such a welcoming space for our clients.”

Gina says that the people who come into the clinic cover a broad spectrum of legal needs. She has seen “a teacher undergoing cancer treatment, a Laundromat worker with AIDS, a counselor suffering from depression, a millworker who is hard of hearing, a store cashier with diabetes, a custodian with back problems, and a crossing guard with a shoulder injury – all of whom are experiencing some form of disability discrimination, harassment, or a failure to accommodate at work and who come to the clinic for help.”

One memorable case that Gina worked on involved “Mario,” a man who retired from his job at a U.S. corporation and enrolled himself and his wife (a 57-year-old cancer survivor with numerous health care needs) in his company’s retiree healthcare plan.  Mario’s fixed income was just over $1,000 a month. When he started getting bills from the insurance company for more than $475, he needed immediate assistance. First he tried going back to his company, who had made numerous statements—in writing and orally—that his contribution would be less than $15 per month. The company refused to help. That’s when Mario went to Gina’s Tuesday night clinic. Gina says he was “terrified of losing healthcare benefits for himself and his wife, yet he was unable to pay the monthly premium. With the help of a clinic counselor and a volunteer supervising attorney who worked pro bono, Mario was able to have all the insurance charges reversed.”

“I am very grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to help build a clinic that is specifically designed to respectfully and effectively provide legal services to individuals with disabilities,” Gina says. “A lot of people have worked very hard to make the first year of the clinic such a success, and I’m proud to be a part of that community.” By upholding the laws of equal opportunity employment, Gina’s work at Legal Aid and the Tuesday night clinics continue to improve the lives of workers in the Bay Area.


New Fellowships in Foreclosure Announced

Illinois Foreclosure Fellowship Program

Equal Justice Works has been awarded a grant by the state of Illinois to establish four 3-year Fellowships in the state to assist distressed and at-risk homeowners and tenants. The Foreclosure Fellows will be placed with our partner organizations—Chicago Legal Clinic, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, and the University of Illinois College of Law and Community Preservation Clinic.

We are currently seeking Illinois-licensed attorneys, or recent law graduates who have taken the July Illinois bar exam, with up to two years of work experience.  Applicants should have a demonstrated record of ensuring equal access to the justice system for all homeowners and renters. Applications will go live on the Equal Justice Works website in early to mid-October. Please direct all questions to Kathryn Gravely, Program Manager at or (202)466-3686 ext. 125.  The three-year Fellowships will begin in late Fall, 2012.  Fellows will receive a salary of approximately $41,000, in addition to health benefits, and will participate in Equal Justice Works’ Leadership Development Training.   


AmeriCorps Update

AmeriCorps Member Forges Path for Legal Services to Veterans

In 2010, Equal Justice Works used AmeriCorps funding to launch a legal fellowship initiative to address the specific needs of veterans. The issues veterans face often require legal assistance to navigate the complex maze of essential services and access to benefits. By providing legal representation, our Fellows help veterans overcome the barriers they face in securing employment, housing, medical care, support services and other benefits. 

To increase the initiative’s scale of impact, Fellows not only provide direct legal representation to veterans and their families, but also recruit pro-bono attorneys to help fill the gap of legal service providers and develop community education programs to increase awareness of veterans’ issues.

Patrick Brooks began work as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow in the summer of 2011 at the Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV) in Clarksburg. Having many family and personal ties to armed service members, Patrick is keenly aware of the needs of returning veterans. Wanting to provide more holistic care to veterans, Patrick reached out to Stephen Butera, the Regional Counsel for the V.A. Health Care System, to establish a medical-legal partnership between LAWV and the Louis A. Johnson V.A. Medical Center. Stephen says, “The V.A.’s purpose is to serve all the needs of veterans. If veterans are concerned with all these legal problems in their life, they’re going to experience physical setbacks. I’m a full believer that an important aspect of providing someone medical services is providing the full suite of legal services that only an attorney could provide.”

Patrick and Stephen reached out to the West Virginia Veterans Nursing Facility and established a partnership that furthered the reach of their efforts. Patrick received office space and full access to the Medical Center and the adjacent Nursing Facility to meet with patients in the comfort of their own rooms. “I can sit with a patient and work on their needs right there. I don’t need to say, ‘When or if you get out of the hospital we can talk about it.’ They know me. They trust me. They know that I’m there to help.”

The partnership not only significantly lightened the logistical burden of providing legal services for hundreds of veterans; it greatly improved the quality of social services available to patients by allowing for cross-collaboration that would not have taken place otherwise.

The success of the partnership led to a national directive from V.A. headquarters that all V.A. facilities seek legal aid partners. According to staff at the V.A., a kind of “grass roots movement”, including Patrick’s work in West Virginia, led to the national directive. There are currently eight legal aid-V.A. partnerships across the country, with more in the works.  For his efforts, Stephen Butera recently won the V.A. General Counsel’s award for innovation for his part in the initiative.

Although Patrick’s term of service has ended, the partnership between LAWV and the Medical Center will remain in place for future Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellows, who are starting this month.



Educational Debt Tip of the Month

The Obama and Romney Plans for Pell Grants

Now that the Democratic and Republican National Conventions are over, it seems like a good time to compare the parties’ presidential nominees' plans for education. One of the most important educational decisions the next president will make is on the future of Pell Grants.

Since they were created in 1972, Pell Grants have helped more than 60 million students from poor and working-class backgrounds obtain the economic lifeline they need to earn a college degree. Among the current political leaders who benefited from Pell Grants are Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. And there’s little doubt that future leaders are benefiting now; in the last year alone, the grants helped nearly 10 million students.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney's education plan, “A Chance for Every Child” is not very specific, although it does promise to “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.” If he decides to follow the blueprint laid out by his running mate Paul Ryan in the fiscal year 2013 budget resolution passed by the House, however, the Education Trust estimates that more than 1 million students would no longer be eligible for Pell grants in the next decade and those who did qualify would receive less aid.

During his tenure, President Obama has been a strong supporter of Pell grants. He does not plan to further reduce eligibility, will allow increases in the maximum grant that would track inflation and the rise in tuition costs and claims to have more than doubled the total amount of funding available for Pell grants since he took office.

You can read more of our analysis in our Student Loan Ranger post in U.S. News. And don’t forget to pass on the word that our free educational debt manual and student debt webinars are great resources for anyone needing help with student loans!