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Seattle law clinic helps target 'wage theft'

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

SEATTLE — Inside the Workers Rights Clinic housed inside Seattle University (SU), law school students from SU and the University of Washington (UW) work with professors to take calls from clients across the state who are facing potential legal problems at work. 

"[The cases] predominantly [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 a lot of paid sick leave claims this year, especially retaliation. They often don't have only one issue, so one of the things we talk about in the clinic is making sure you've asked the right questions."

Ford says the clinic functions as a law school course for upper-level students at Seattle University and the University of Washington who are planning to pursue employment law or who are generally interested in the subject. Ford says students typically meet weekly with low-wage workers and help them through their cases.

Students reach out to workers and identify what their goals are, any legal issues at hand and what rights workers may have in the situations they are facing, Ford said. Then, students do background research, reach out to the worker again and go through what their rights are. 

"Sometimes, if we think it would be valuable, we stay involved. We represent the worker in making a claim, maybe write a demand letter, and sometimes it's just enough to give the client some information about what their rights are," Ford said.

Many of the students who are involved in the course bring their own experiences as workers to the table- and have a passion for making sure employees understand their rights.

"I grew up in a union household, my father was a letter carrier with the USPS, and so I always was taught that unions were a good thing even though they are few and far between nowadays," said law student Victoria Kroeger. "After I graduated, I worked retail, which we know is a typically low paying, low wage job, and when I came to law school at first I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do but having that background, knowing workers rights are so important to me, I found a home at the worker's rights clinic."

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

"I grew up in a working household with a single working mother who sacrificed so much so I could get an education," said Putnam. "I came from a family where we were working in factories and in farms for generations and seeing the toll that it takes on people and hearing the stories of what people had been through, and it really gave me a sense that the harm that can happen at work doesn't have to happen."

One of Putnam's current clients says she tried to take earned sick time for mental health following the death of her father but was denied. Her case is still ongoing, but she encourages other workers to pursue legal guidance through clinics like this one if they think they may have a case.

"I felt like what happened wasn't fair and I had a feeling it wasn't fair," Imelda Oungouramang said. "Usually I just let things pass, but this wasn't feeling right with me so I thought I'd look up some lawyers, and I found a few but they weren't really doing these kinds of cases particularly. I kept looking until I found the clinic, I put my information in for a consult and they reached out to me."

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

"Our client felt really afraid to take sick leave and it ultimately resulted in him being fired," Sugar said. "I think it's just kind of hard to believe that going through a global pandemic, that that sort of work can be tolerated- especially in a healthcare setting."

Bradford says he hopes all workers who've experienced potentially illegal activity in the workplace will reach out for guidance- to see if they have a case.

"If you feel like you've been wronged, talk to somebody, reach out, see what your rights are exactly because you might have a bigger case than you were assuming," Bradford said.

Along with helping individual workers, Ford says the clinic is a way to inform employers about their legal responsibilities- and to help shape future attorneys.

"I'm really proud of the work we do, and the students are doing two really important things," Ford said. "One is bringing information to way more workers than I could by myself or any external nonprofit could by itself, and they're leaving here understanding employment law and many of them are leaving here practicing employment 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's Office of Labor Standards also conducts investigations in relation to its municipal ordinances. You can learn more about those here


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