LAF Hosts 2nd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference

IMG_2108LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group hosted its 2nd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference: Enforcing Workers’ Rights in Changing Times held at Chicago-Kent College of Law on Friday, March 24.  For the second year, the Conference was generously sponsored by the Polk Bros Foundation and hosted close to 70 participants.  A variety of attorneys and advocates discussed a wide range of topics affecting low-wage workers and immigrants in Illinois, including discrimination in temporary work agencies, the psycho-social impacts of wage theft and sexual assault, and document abuse.  With LAF attorneys as moderators, panelists included legal experts such as Pablo Godoy, Trial Attorney with the US Department of Justice’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, and Healing to Action Co-Founder Sheerine Alemzadeh.  Attendees included officials from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, in addition to immigration and employment law attorneys, law students, and community-based organizations assisting victims of human trafficking and low-wage workers.

Speakers throughout the day touched on some of the key legal issues impacting migrant workers’ rights in Illinois, as well as how they manifest in our modern legal system. The Conference’s opening lecturer was Sheila Maddali, the Co-Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center, who discussed the legal rights of restaurant workers and her agency’s work on their behalf.  Ms. Alemzadeh, along with Professor Jacob Lesniewski of Dominican University and Arturo Carillo of St. Anthony’s Wellness Program discussed recent research on the psycho-social impact of wage theft on workers.  In the afternoon, LAF’s Miguel Keberlein, Director of the Immigration and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, discussed vulnerabilities of low-wage agricultural workers, who have explaining how these workers have always been exempt from overtime pay standards, unlike all other sectors.  Another panel, with attorney Godoy, the Regional Director of the NLRB, attorney Kalman Resnick and Raise the Floor Director Lydia Colunga discussed document abuse discrimination and remedies for workers. As the closing panelists, Miguel and former LAF attorney Jose Alonso, shared googlemapping tools they use to identify and track places where migrant workers live and work in order to create effective outreach to workers in rural Illinois. These tools make it easier to find and keep track of migrant workers, who are often socially and geographically isolated, in order to intervene and advocate on behalf of exploited and vulnerable workers throughout Illinois.

Thanks to everyone who was able to join LAF for these enlightening discussions. Special thanks to our community partners for coming together to share information and resources. These efforts will continue to build collaborative relationships between LAF and other stakeholders in the effort to enforce workers’ rights in our communities.

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Heartwarming Card from Client

In this charged political climate, it’s hard sometimes to remember the everyday impact of our work at LAF.  We can get caught up talking about the impact proposed funding cuts would have on our agency or the impact proposed policies would have on our clients.  But what LAF does every day has nothing to do with politics.  Every day we work to make a difference in peoples’ lives, one client at a time.

And often, it’s those clients who break through that fog of distractions and remind us about the core of our mission.  A few days ago, Karen Doran, a Staff Attorney in our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, got a card from a client that did just that.  The client had been unfairly denied unemployment benefits and was facing all sorts of financial problems.  Karen’s advocacy won her the benefits to which she was entitled.  Karen was just doing her job, but the client’s effusive gratitude is a ringing reminder of the real impact LAF’s work can have in a client’s life.  She sent the following note in a card to Karen:

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Repsonse to Proposed Federal Budget Cuts

The federal budget proposal released this morning by the President includes a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. A mere 0.0001% of the overall federal budget, LSC funds the majority of civil legal aid agencies across the country. LSC funding is 46% of LAF’s budget. The budget proposal also includes the elimination of the AmeriCorps program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several Department of Justice grants that fund LAF’s work with people living in poverty in our community. These cuts would be devastating to LAF and its clients across Chicagoland, so your contributions are more important than ever now.
The Legal Services Corporation, set up much like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also eliminated in this budget proposal), is a nonprofit organization that distributes federal funding to grantees in every state and territory of the United States, to provide professional legal aid, at no cost, to people facing real emergencies. LAF got its start more than 50 years ago with funding from LSC’s predecessors to “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” “Our aim,” President Lyndon Johnson declared, “is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all, to prevent it.”
The staff, Board, and family of LAF and I remain committed to that aim. We continue to believe that civil legal aid is the single most effective tool to combat poverty and bring families out of poverty for good. Without LSC and the other funding eliminated under the proposed budget, there will be more families made homeless by illegal evictions and unfair foreclosures, more victims of abuse and trafficking trapped in dangerous situations, more children denied special education services, more people denied healthcare and the public benefits to which they are entitled, more seniors taken advantage of by scheming contractors, more veterans whose service has cost them their health or their homes, and more immigrants without access to a fair shot at the American Dream. Without LSC, there will be many more people living in poverty denied their right to justice in the American court system.
I cannot say what LAF would look like without the funding and guidance from LSC and these other funding sources, but we will work to develop a plan if this budget is passed by Congress. Even with our other generous funders, no organization can absorb a cut of nearly half without having a smaller staff serving fewer clients. But LAF will not be shuttered by this. We are dedicated to our mission, our city, our clients, our practice, and the ideal that justice, fairness, equality, and representation should not depend on a person’s ability to pay. With your ongoing and increased financial support, LAF will remain the source of the best legal help money can’t buy.