Civil legal aid protects people’s livelihoods

Man in red shirt with saw, from above.
Herbert with saw for the flooring business he runs with his wife (photo: Lisa Helfert)

Civil legal aid helps protect paychecks and benefits against economic threats such as wage theft and pregnancy discrimination. What do you do when you’ve worked hard for years to provide for your family and ensure you’re taken care of, only to be denied health care benefits or have your savings wiped out by unscrupulous debt collectors? Civil legal aid safeguards livelihoods.

Debt Collection

Debt collectors prevail in the majority of lawsuits – usually by default – even when the debt is not actually owed. With lawsuits brought by debt collectors at all-time highs, courts have been slow to protect basic fairness.


Civil legal aid fights wage theft in Philadelphia

Philly Voice published this story on June 4, 2015:

For nearly three years, Marquerite Joyner was employed by Urban Health Initiatives, a health center for uninsured patients on the west side of South Broad Street.

On March 25, 2015, Joyner said she and 13 other staff members were told abruptly that it was their last day at work. The center’s board had filed for bankruptcy. Urban Health Initiative, she said they were told, would be unable to pay them on Friday for the past two-and-a-half weeks of work, not to mention their accrued vacation and paid sick time.

“You can’t just lay people off and say ‘Hey, by the way, we won’t pay you either,’” Joyner said. “It was the 25th! Rent is due next week. Mortgage, bills, car payments. We were all devastated. Some of those women had been there 14 years or more. One woman worked there for 30 years, never worked anywhere else. It’s just the worst.”

The technical term for what Joyner alleges is “wage theft,” a broad term that includes an array of methods used by employers to avoid paying lawful compensation, including the common practices of failing to pay minimum wage, skimming of tips and refusing to pay for work performed before a sudden termination.

It’s a surprisingly widespread problem faced by some of society’s most vulnerable workers, who then face a difficult fight to get their rightfully earned wages.

Joyner said she and seven of her co-workers got together and sought answers on Google, where they discovered the services offered by Community Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm in Philadelphia that offers free legal aid in civil cases to plaintiffs unable to afford a private attorney. With the firm’s help, the workers are pursuing remuneration now, and their claims are under review.

Civil legal aid helps wife bounce back

The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York published this success story on its website on Dec 21, 2016.

After 30 years of marriage, in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, Donna Spinner’s husband disappeared with customer payments from their small business. A licensed petroleum product site developer, he evaded arrest for six years, then served her with divorce papers when she was at her lowest.

Donna says, “At this time, I was approximately 50 years of age. I had no employment, no income, and the home I had lived in with my children was being foreclosed upon.” She continues, “I also realized at this time that by working unpaid for my husband, I had no employment history, and no earnings for Social Security purposes.” She ended up living with her mother, on public assistance, with health problems.

That’s when she sought help from the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York and was assigned attorney Gerry Schafer.

Gerry explains, “When he thought she was low enough, he decided to file for divorce, thinking she wouldn’t be able to seek representation and fight back. However, once Donna acquired representation, he didn’t want a divorce anymore.” Gerry says Donna’s husband could see the writing on the wall — he knew he’d be required to provide maintenance. Donna’s husband retained counsel, making court proceedings a bit easier, but he was uncooperative when it came to disclosing financial information.

But, Gerry says, “Donna was a great record keeper; she had all of his old tax returns and licenses so we could prove his income potential.” Thanks to the information that Donna and Gerry presented in court, Donna’s husband ultimately agreed to pay maintenance each month. Gerry explains it was a tough balance, “Based on some of his work history, we could have pushed for higher maintenance, but he’s on the cusp of retirement, and I wanted to be sure he would pay.”

To date, Donna’s husband has obeyed the court order and Donna’s quality of life has increased exponentially. She says, “I wake up in the morning free of the anxiety, stress, and depression that I endured for so many years of my marriage. I am no longer controlled emotionally or financially.” She continues, “I no longer have to reside with family members, nor do I receive public assistance.”

With improved health and a more stable financial situation, Donna is ready to enter the next stage of her life. Because her husband was so uncooperative during the divorce process, legal representation was a necessity. And thankfully, Legal Aid was there to help.

Civil legal aid helps pregnant workers keep their jobs

The Hill published this op-ed on Oct. 3, 2016 by Laura Brown, the founding executive director of First Shift Justice Project, a civil legal aid organization that works to empower low-income pregnant women and parents to safeguard the economic security and health of their families.

When a pregnant restaurant server asked her manager why he had removed her from the schedule, he shrugged and said he assumed that she would not want to continue to work through her pregnancy. A pregnant nursing assistant who brought in a note for a lifting restriction was given a pen and a piece of paper and told to write her resignation because her employer thought it wasn’t safe for her to continue working.
Much has changed for women in the workforce during the last half-century, but treatment of pregnant workers remains frustratingly retrograde. Today, approximately 40 percent of American households are headed by a woman who is the primary or exclusive breadwinner; in low-income households, the ratio is closer to two-thirds.
Pregnant women are forced out of the workforce every day. But fortunately for the pregnant restaurant worker and nursing assistant, they were able to fight back with legal help. In both cases, civil legal aid attorneys intervened with the employer, compelling the women’s bosses to respect the workplace rights of their employees.
[N]ew policies aren’t enough. Another necessary part of the solution is ensuring women have access to the legal help they need to defend their rights.

For low-income pregnant women who can’t afford a lawyer, the availability of civil legal aid is critical. Pregnant workers have rights, but many need help asserting them because of the valid fear of repercussions. For example, according to a 2013 study, 71% of the new mothers surveyed said they needed more frequent breaks at work when they became pregnant, but only 42% asked for this accommodation.

Civil legal aid providers can help pregnant women fight discrimination and exercise their rights to request temporary, minor accommodations that may make or break whether they can keep their jobs. Unfortunately, given limited resources for civil legal aid, many pregnant women in the workplace have no recourse.

Next: Civil legal aid protects Americans’ families