Seattle legal clinic helps target ‘wage theft’

The Workers Rights Clinic, a collaboration between Seattle University and UW law schools, helps workers understand their rights.

SEATTLE – Inside the Workers Rights Clinic located inside Seattle University (SU), law students from SU and the University of Washington (UW) work with professors to respond to calls from clients across the state facing potential legal issues at work.

“[The cases] principally [involve] wage theft,” said Elizabeth Ford, a distinguished practitioner-in-residence who administers the clinic. “Any variety of not getting paid at all, not getting paid minimum wage, overtime. We are seeing many requests for paid sick leave this year, especially retaliation. Often they don’t just have one problem, so one of the things we talk about at the clinic is making sure you’ve asked the right questions.”

Ford says the clinic functions as a law course for graduate students at Seattle University and the University of Washington who plan to pursue a degree in employment law or who are generally interested in the subject. Ford says students typically meet with low-wage workers every week and help them with their cases.

Students reach out to workers and identify their goals, ongoing legal issues and rights workers may have in the situations they face, Ford said. Then the students do background research, recontact the worker and review their rights.

“Sometimes if we think it would be helpful, we stay involved. We represent the worker by making a claim, maybe writing a formal notice, and sometimes that’s just enough to give the client information about their rights. “, Ford said. .

Many students who attend the course bring their own experience as workers and have a passion for ensuring employees understand their rights.

“I grew up in a union household, my dad was a USPS mail carrier, and I was always taught that unions were a good thing even though they’re rare these days,” said student Victoria Kroeger. place. “After I graduated, I worked in retail, which we know is usually low-paying, low-paying work, and when I got to law school at first, I didn’t Wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, but having that experience, knowing workers’ rights are so important to me, I found a home at the workers’ rights clinic.”

Nathanial Putnam said the stories of his mother and other family members inspired him to pursue workers’ rights issues.

“I grew up in a working family with a single mom who sacrificed so much so I could get an education,” Putnam said. “I come from a family where we had worked in factories and farms for generations and we saw the toll it took on people and heard the stories of what people had been through, and that really gave me feeling like the bad that can happen at work doesn’t have to happen.”

One of Putnam’s current clients said she tried to take sick leave for mental health reasons after her father died, but was denied. Her case is still ongoing, but she encourages other workers to seek legal advice at clinics like this if they think they might have a case.

“I felt like what happened wasn’t right and I felt like it wasn’t right,” said Imelda Oungouramang. “Usually I’d just let it go, but it didn’t sit well with me, so I thought I’d look for lawyers, and I found a few, but they didn’t really deal with that kind of thing. business in particular. I kept looking until I found the clinic, put in my information for a consultation, and they contacted me.”

Rachel Sugar and Dexter Bradford have teamed up to work on a case involving a healthcare worker.

“Our client was really scared to take sick leave and that ultimately resulted in his being fired,” Sugar said. “I think it’s just hard to believe that going through a global pandemic, that this kind of work could be tolerated, especially in a healthcare setting.”

Bradford says he hopes any workers who have been victims of potentially illegal workplace activity will seek advice – to see if they have a case.

“If you feel like you’ve been wronged, talk to someone, contact them, see what exactly your rights are because you might have a bigger case than you thought,” Bradford said.

In addition to helping individual workers, Ford says the clinic is a way to educate employers about their legal responsibilities and help shape future attorneys.

“I’m really proud of the work we do, and the students do two very important things,” Ford said. “One of them brings information to far more workers than I could on my own or any outside nonprofit could on its own, and they go from here. understanding labor law and many of them leave here practicing labor law.”

Ford says the clinic takes referrals from the Fair Work Center, which you can find here. The Washington State Department of Labor Industries allows workers to file complaints here, and the City of Seattle Office of Labor Standards also conducts investigations related to its city ordinances. You can read more about these here.