Sheller Center grad to head DA’s worker protection unit

Danielle Newsome, Temple LS ’15, was among the first students to participate in the Sheller Center’s programs. Now, she’s in charge of a brand-new unit in the Philly DA’s office that will focus on protecting the rights of Philly workers. You can read about the new unit, and Danielle’s impressive public-interest background, here. Congratulations Danielle!

Asking city council to fund enforcement to protect workers

Philadelphia has legal protections for low-wage workers on the books, including paid sick leave and an ordinance to address wage theft. The problem, however, is that these legal protections for low wage workers do not amount to much if they are not actually enforced. Representing the Sheller Center, Lily Austin (’20) spoke at a press conference at city hall about the need for sufficient funding, particularly to educate workers and employers about these laws. She explained how the city cannot sit back and wait for complaints to come. Rather, the city needs to work in active partnership with community groups, who already have the trust of these workers, by providing sub-grants to community-based organizations to educate low-wage workers. It must also work cooperatively with communities to proactively target employers or industries who are likely to be violating the laws.


Creating a worker center in Philadelphia


Together with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), Heather Adamick (‘21), Joshua Lachewitz (‘21), and Pretty Martinez (‘21) from the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic organized a convening about creating a worker center in Philadelphia. A worker center would help organize, advocate, and provide services to low-wage workers in Philadelphia. Individuals representing sixteen organizations attended from across Philadelphia. The purpose of the convening was to present information about the many conversations that the students have had with various stakeholders and to hear from advocates about what sort of worker center would best serve the needs of Philadelphia’s low-wage workers.

Enforcing workplace laws

Philadelphia’s Office of Labor Standards has failed to vigorously enforce the city laws that protect workers. Philadelphia has enacted several progressive laws to protect workers, such as the law to combat wage theft, paid sick leave, and the new fair workweek ordinance. The Sheller Center, for example, worked with coalition partners on this issue of wage theft back in 2016. Yet the City so far has failed to actively work on the issue of wage theft. A combination of advocacy groups is meeting with the Office of Labor Standards to find ways for it to improve the implementation and enforcement of these laws, through community outreach, accessible complaint systems, and proactive enforcement.

Protecting domestic workers

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has been working with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA) to provide legal support to their organizing campaign. Domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers – are critical to the economy. Yet they work in a largely hidden economy behind closed doors. When subject to demanding, abusive, and exploitative conditions, they often have little power to assert their rights. To make matters worse, the laws governing the pay and conditions of workers often exempt domestic workers from basic protections. These legal exemptions reflect the history of domestic work, which includes the legacy of slavery and the relegation of household labor as “women’s work.” This fact sheet, created by Lily Austin (’20) and Carla Cortavarria (’19), summarizes how Philadelphia could enact a domestic worker bill of rights. Philadelphia’s City Council is now actively considering such a bill.

Students Present on Non-Compete Agreements to the Office of the Attorney General

This past semester, Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Jeff Becker (3L), Hwui Lee (3L), and Geoff LeGrand (2L) teamed up with the Fair Labor Section of the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to investigate the problem of non-competes faced by low-wage workers in Pennsylvania. A non-compete is an agreement between an employer and an employee that prohibits the employee from working for a competing employer after leaving a job. Non-competes can sometimes be lawful (e.g., to protect trade secrets). Employers, however, unlawfully use non-competes with low-wage workers to restrain their mobility.

The students’ research found that non-competes are a problem among low-wage workers in Pennsylvania. Limiting employee mobility means that non-competes help keep employee wages low by decreasing employee bargaining power. Yet the problem remains in the shadows because low-wage workers may not understand the terms and conditions of their non-competes or know that such agreements can be unlawful. The students’ analysis discusses what next steps could be taken to further investigate the extent of the problem in Pennsylvania. It also offers solutions to halt this practice, including community education, proposed legislation, and avenues for filing lawsuits against violators.


[Photo Caption: Law Students with Josh Shapiro, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and Nancy Walker, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Fair Labor Section].

Unmasking the Problem of Temporary Employment in Pennsylvania

During Douglas Bell’s first day of work, he stepped off a township garbage truck while it was moving and sustained a fatal head injury. Bell was not an employee of the township. Rather, Bell had been placed in the job with the township by a staffing agency as a “temp” worker. Both the staffing agency and the township were aware that Bell had never ridden on the back of a garbage truck. Each expected the other to make sure Bell was prepared to perform the job that day.

Bell’s tragic death highlights the problems with temp work. In an employment relationship with three players, host employers and staffing agencies can “pass the buck” between one another, evading employer responsibilities to the detriment of the temp worker. Read more here about the increasing phenomenon of temp work in Pennsylvania and the ways in which temp workers are at special risk for workplace injury and financial harm.

Pennsylvania Workers in Jeopardy: The Hidden Problem of Temporary Employment was written by law students, Rebecca Daily, Tracie Johnson, and Holly Smith, in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.  See today’s article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the report.


Sheller Center’s Temp Worker Project debuts at 29th annual Worker’s Memorial Day

At the 29th annual Worker’s Memorial Day, the Sheller Center’s Temp Workers Project made its debut in front of an audience of hundreds of people, including Governor Wolf. Temp workers in Pennsylvania are increasingly found in blue collar industries and low-wage work. They are especially vulnerable to health and safety risks and pay violations on the job. A report by Rebecca Daily (2L), Tracie Johnson, and Holly Smith (2L), students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, will be forthcoming this summer.

Sheller Center students help craft City resolution recognizing undocumented workers

Last week, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution that recognizes all workers, regardless of immigration status. Sponsored by Councilwoman Helen Gym, the resolution continues the City’s tradition of welcoming immigrants, acknowledging the contributions of undocumented workers to Philadelphia’s local economy despite their exclusion from the lawful workforce under federal immigration laws. It also notes the increased risk of abuse and discrimination against undocumented workers. The resolution cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the fundamental human right to earn a living without unjust exclusion and fair and safe workplace conditions.

The resolution is a major victory for the local organizing efforts of Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (PAUWR). Just a couple of years ago, PAUWR was hatched as an idea from the kitchen of Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez, to fight for the rights of undocumented workers. PAUWR grew in strength and numbers by hosting a number of sold-out community dinners throughout Philadelphia. It will continue to do so by partnering with immigrant chefs and taking its local dinner series nationwide.

The resolution was drafted with help from Rebecca Daily (2L) and Ashley Rotchford (2L), law students at the Sheller Center for Social Justice, who worked with PAUWR as members of Temple Law School’s National Lawyers Guild (NLG). “This resolution is yet another example of how local jurisdictions can be inclusive of immigrants, despite the current federal climate that is hostile to both immigrants’ and workers’ rights,” says Rotchford.

For a news article on the resolution, click here.

PhilaPOSH recognizes work of Jen Lee and Sheller Center students

At its Annual Awards Reception last week, the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) presented Prof. Jennifer Lee with its Crystal Eastman award for the Sheller Center’s work on behalf of “the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in Pennsylvania.” PhilaPOSH  specifically noted the Center’s report, “Shortchanged,” which exposed wage theft in Pennsylvania and led to the enactment of a city ordinance creating remedies for wage theft. Students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, Amanda Reed (’15), Andrea Saylor (’15), Maggie Spitzer (’15), Elyssa Geschwind (’14), and Solaris Power (’15), researched and wrote the report.jen-lee-philaposh-award

The award is named after Crystal Eastman, an activist lawyer who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – and whose many accomplishments included writing a report that led to the first workmen’s compensation law.