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.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Sheriff has reached an agreement with ICE to stop arrests of immigrants in courthouses in Philadelphia. The Sheriff has the responsibility to provide safety and security for courthouses. This agreement also requires that ICE agents identify themselves upon entering the courthouse, declare whether they are armed, and state where in the building they intend to go. The Sheriff’s Deputies will alert their supervisors, who will contact the presiding judge.
The new policy is consistent with some of the recommendations in the Sheller Center’s Report, Obstructing Justice. In the report, law students amassed information about the devastating impact that ICE arrests are having on immigrant communities, making victims, witnesses, and defendants fearful to access the courts. Since the report was released, there have been several local and national stories about the continued impact of ICE arrests on such communities.
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.
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.
Philadelphia’s Live Stop program is still causing harm to city residents. If the driver has an expired license or registration, Live Stop allows the Philadelphia Police Department to tow and impound a vehicle. The Sheller Center has previously reported on the problems with this policy and its disproportionate impact on immigrant communities.
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.
On January 30, 2019, the Sheller Center released Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests at Pennsylvania’s Courthouses. The report is authored by Patrick Gordon (’19), Kelley Grady (’19), and Shaqueil Stephenson (’19). The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, and Slate cover the report, which explains how ICE arrests and court personnel collaboration with ICE has obstructed justice by instilling fears in immigrant communities about going to court. Over the course of the semester, the authors collected information from lawyers, legal services organizations, victim service advocates, and community based organizations across the state about this issue. The report not only finds incidents in 13 different counties across Pennsylvania but also details the ways in which court personnel could be involved in apprehending and arresting immigrants. In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services (CLS) has been leading the advocacy campaign with the First Judicial District.
Peter Hyndman (2L) and Rafaela Uribe (2L), students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, worked with New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) to help support their advocacy work on Philadelphia’s “sanctuary” policies. NSM approached the Sheller Center for Social Justice seeking a partnership to address Philadelphia’s problematic and continued collaboration with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite calling itself a “sanctuary city,” and even suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Trump Administration’s attempts to defund “sanctuary cities,” Philadelphia’s policies have proven inadequate in protecting its immigrant residents from ICE. ICE has indiscriminately targeted Philadelphia residents––regardless of their time living in the U.S., employment status, or relationships to U.S. citizens––for removal from the U.S. A skit developed by the students helped NSM explain the lawsuit to its members.
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.
This guest post comes from Imani Hudson-Hill, a third-year student in the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Of course, guest posts reflect the personal views of the authors; we welcome a diversity of viewpoints.
My law student partner and I recently represented a client at an arbitration hearing through the Sheller Center for Social Justice’s Advanced Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Our client was a low-wage worker who had not been paid minimum wage and overtime by her former employer, for whom she worked for seven years. Her case had been ongoing for several years and she wanted a chance for her story to be heard — regardless of the hearing’s outcome.
I was tasked with cross-examining the opposing party with an interpreter. To prepare for my cross-examination, I looked through depositions and documents, then crafted short and leading questions that I hoped would result in admissions that supported our case theory.
The thing I did not anticipate was under what circumstances I would be conducting my cross-examination. Once it was time for my cross-examination, the arbitration had been in progress for approximately four hours and the panel was noticeably impatient. I wound up cutting a significant portion of my cross-examination on the spot because the witness was unable to read the documents that I’d planned to introduce, the interpreter’s clock was running out, and the room was filled with fatigued, hungry parties and panelists. Despite having to redesign my cross-examination on the fly, we received most of the admissions that we had anticipated.
Sifting through a three-year-old case file to prepare for the hearing then deviating from my prepared examination was a daunting and intimidating process. However, attending my first arbitration hearing was an invaluable experience that taught me the importance of being a prepared and flexible advocate. In the end, the panel ruled in favor of our client and ordered the opposing party to pay her the money she rightfully deserved.