Equal Justice at Work: January 2012

AnchorAnchorExecutive Director’s Corner

Remembering the dream

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time and remains an inspiration for all of us at Equal Justice Works as we help ensure access to equal justice, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or education.

Still, 49 years after Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, social injustices occur daily.  While we typically think of civil rights as predominately a racial issue, our Fellows see discrimination in many forms, from disability rights and gender inequality to unlawful labor practices and disenfranchised voters. 

In this issue you will read about Nicholas Webber, a 2011 Equal Justice Works Fellow, and Equal Justice Works alumna Caroline Hsu from the class of 2009 who are working on civil rights projects. 

  • Nicholas’ fellowship with the Watsonville Law Center focuses on protecting Spanish speaking, low-wage workers in rural counties of California who are often unpaid and subject to unlawful workplace conditions.

  • Caroline is working on behalf of prisoners with disabilities.  Because they are incarcerated, these people are invisible to most of us, and often face conditions that ignore or worsen physical or mental disabilities.  Caroline advocates on their behalf, getting appropriate accommodations and services that allow them to successfully reenter society.  Caroline continues this work even after her fellowship ended and remains at the Legal Aid Society of New York, protecting the rights of this isolated population.

These are just two of the hundreds of Equal Justice Works Fellows and alumni working around the country to protect the rights of our most vulnerable communities.

As we remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, let us celebrate the strides towards equality, but also challenge each other to continue our march for justice.  As Dr. King so eloquently stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

AnchorFellows on the Front

Uncovering civil rights issues through legal services

“Civil rights infringement and social injustice can seem overwhelming on a larger scale, but we can truly make a difference if everyone does their part,” shared Equal Justice Works Fellow Nicholas Webber.

Nicholas is doing his part at the Watsonville Law Center sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation where he provides direct legal services to Spanish speaking low-wage workers in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties, California.  In these areas the cost of living is significantly higher than the national average and with the crippled economy and job market, immigrant low-wage workers are left vulnerable to unlawful employment practices.  Communities such as these that lack economic stability have become a tinder box for civil rights issues.  The threat of deportation hangs over many abusive employment practices and leaves low-wage workers feeling helpless.  Workers endure harsh work conditions out of fear of losing their only means of income and the threat of deportation.

Moreover, many of them are unaware of their employment rights. Nicholas recalled a client who was dismissed from her job because her employer learned that she was pregnant. His client did not know that this was against the law. “She believed her termination was justified. It wasn’t until she did not receive her last pay check and came to the Law Center that she learned her dismissal was unlawful,” Nicholas said. Educating the community has been a major component in Nicholas’ work. He hosts workshop that provide resources to educate individuals on their rights as employees and what to do if those rights are breached. This tactic has been beneficial in alleviating the fear of deportation, because it should not be an issue.

“Wage claims have been a gateway for educating low-wage workers on their rights,” Nicholas said.  Clients initially come to the Law Center for help with unpaid wages where Nicholas has been able to pinpoint larger civil rights issues. “Once we are able to make sure our clients have stable pay, we can then begin to tackle the other problems,” he added.  But, his goal is not to make employers out to be the villain. Nicholas has also worked with employers to educate them on establishing fair employment practices. He recalled a client who was not receiving overtime pay from his employer. Nicholas worked with the employee to file his wage claim, while simultaneously working with the employer to ensure that this did not occur again in the future. After his client received his back pay in overtime, he reported that his employer had re-designed the overtime policy.

In addition to providing direct legal services and community outreach, Nicholas is most eager about policy legislation that could help lessen the potential for employers to take advantage of low-wage workers. The passing of the Minimum Wage Premium, under the Wage Theft Prevention Act of 2011,  would fine employers who are paying any of their employees less than minimum wage. This would require employers to have bond insurance similar to insurance contracts. If for any reason an employer did not pay their employee, the bond would cover the loss wages.  These institutionalized protections that Nicholas works toward, ensure that everyone not only has the right to fair pay, but that they are being treated equally and with the respect and diligence they deserve.

AnchorAnchorAlumni News

Regaining rights through reentry

While most of us can agree on the need and importance of advocating for the rights of under-represented populations such as children and minorities, prisoners’ rights remains a taboo topic. The issue is complicated and for that reason, many people avoid it or simply denounce the idea altogether.

Caroline Hsu is not many people. An Equal Justice Works alumna from the class of 2009, Caroline spent her fellowship working at the Legal Aid Society of New York (LAS) to protect the rights of disabled prisoners.  Today, she continues to work at LAS, advocating and increasing access to educational, vocational and pre-release prison programs and services for disabled inmates.

When asked what spurred her interest in prisoner rights, she recounted a 2007 summer internship at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union where one of her tasks was to open and sort incoming mail. After reading countless letters from inmates outlining violent, abusive conditions within prisons, it became clear to her that she would go to law school and ultimately advocate for those whom many would prefer to forget.

“Prison rape, inadequate healthcare and insufficient access to family visits are just a few of the injustices the incarcerated face,” explains Caroline.  “Prison rape is a joke on television. Why does it seem to be socially acceptable to laugh at this?  People don’t leave their trauma behind when they leave prison.  Without help, they will leave the system in worse shape than when they entered it.”  Caroline believes the solution is to focus on providing more and bettering prison conditions that will aid the incarcerated as they re-enter society.

Caroline recalled a wheelchair-bound client who requested parole many times and was consistently denied.  She knew this man to be respectable; a leader among his peers who spoke out for disability rights of inmates.  Caroline was flabbergasted and wrote a letter on his behalf supporting his release.  In her words, “I simply wrote what everyone knew; but honestly, I should not have needed to write that letter.  Unfortunately there are many who believe that people who are involved in the criminal justice system are not worthy [of help] and that they deserve whatever negative things come to them regardless of the changes they have made.”  When the parole board reviewed the letters written on her client’s behalf he was approved for parole. After his release, Caroline’s client is currently founding a nonprofit organization that will help handicapped inmates with reentry into disability facilities.

Despite obstacles and unfavorable public opinions, Caroline remains optimistic and notes that improvements to reentry policies, such as the Second Chance Act and the Padilla Supreme Court Ruling, can be made. 

When asked if she could see herself doing anything else she responded, “You know how some people talk about their calling? This is my calling.”

AnchorAnchorStudent Debt Tip of the Month

Fill out your FASFA

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So, what’s the catch? To be eligible to borrow federal loans, you must fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s also required to gain access to federal grants and scholarships and many states and schools use the information to determine eligibility for their different aid programs. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s not worth your time: everyone qualifies for some form of aid and you should keep your options open.

The federal deadline is June 30, but states and schools may have different (and earlier) deadlines. And since grants and scholarships often have limited funds, you should fill out your FAFSA as soon as you can (you’re able to make corrections and changes after you submit it). It’s available now at this site and should only take a short time to fill out. Remember, sooner is better than later!

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