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Protecting Low-wage Workers from Workplace Abuse, Discrimination, Wage Theft, and Unsafe Working Conditions

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Photo of Symone Wango
Photo of Symone Wango

By Symone Wango, 2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

In the Capital Region of New York­­—Albany, Schenectady, and Rensselaer counties—Black people make up 11% of the population but are disproportionately low-wage workers. The median income in these three counties for white families is approximately $96147, more than double the median income for Black families $43,323. Low-wage working class workers are the most vulnerable to workplace abuses, employment discrimination, wage theft, and poor working conditions.

The Worker Protection Program at my host organization The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY) is designed to provide low-income Black workers and other workers with free legal assistance for employment discrimination claims, wage and hours claims, and workplace safety issues. I grew up in a low-wage working-class household in the Capital Region and know too well that living paycheck to paycheck is not a far-away concept, it is a way of life. The economic impact of losing one’s income causes a ripple effect for everyone in the home. This threat to income can cause workers to endure workplace abuse, wage theft, discrimination, and unsafe conditions. This is one of the reasons that I am so passionate about helping low-wage workers of color.

I grew up in a low-wage working-class household in the Capital Region and know too well that living paycheck to paycheck is not a far-away concept, it is a way of life.

Symone Wango /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

At LASNNY, we provide free civil legal services to low-income people and families in the Capital Region and Northern New York. Prior to the inception of the Worker Protection Program, no legal services providers in the Capital Region offered free legal assistance to low-wage workers for employment related matters. This program was designed to fill a gap for low-income workers and their families and ensure that there is an advocate who will represent them if they have a legal issue with their employer. It also guarantees that workers are not left behind because they lack the resources to afford legal representation.

The Worker Protection Program guarantees that workers are not left behind because they lack the resources to afford legal representation.

Symone Wango /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow
cosponsored by Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley

Photo of a “Know Your Rights in the Workplace” training administered by Symone Wango

The Worker Protection Program’s clients are primarily Women of Color with various legal issues ranging from pay equity claims, to employment discrimination, to workplace retaliation. One of the biggest barriers to assisting workers in the Capital Region has been outreach. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut off many in-person community outreach opportunities that were previously available. However, we are working to overcome this barrier by offering virtual Know Your Rights in the Workplace presentations to our community partners. We’ve also been working with the Albany Damien Center, a community-based organization that assists individuals with an HIV or AIDS diagnosis. Recently, we teamed up with the Damien Center’s Employment Pathways program and gave a presentation on their weekly podcast.

The first few months of my Fellowship have been rewarding, the more I interact with workers and the more I learn about the issues that are affecting them in the workplace. Over the next year I plan to build upon these community relationships to develop a community engagement platform where workers can voice their concerns, access legal resources, and improve their working environment. I’m excited to continue leveraging these existing relationships and building new relationship throughout the community to increase awareness about the resources available to our most vulnerable workers.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Symone and other Fellows for helping Black and brown communities fight back against employment discrimination and wage theft. To learn more about Symone’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow