Broadening our impact

At LAF, we serve people in poverty mostly one at a time. The majority of our cases are interventions into crises facing just one individual or family, but often those crises are symptomatic of disadvantages that people with low incomes confront every day. So when we get the chance not only to make a difference for an individual client, but also to change some policy or set some precedent that will give the populations a better chance to be treated fairly in the first place, we’re especially proud. Recently, LAF attorneys Michelle Gilbert and Jackie Zarack-Koriath did just that when they completed cases that protected access to affordable housing for their clients and that spurred administrative changes that will extend that protection to countless others as well.

Michelle Gilbert Public Interest Award

Michelle Gilbert and her colleagues after receiving the Excellence in Pro Bono Service award

Jackie’s client Dawn participates in the housing choice voucher program, where she and CHA both pay a portion of her monthly rent. After a medical condition caused Dawn to lose her job at a childcare facility and before she could find another source of income, her rent was due, and she simply couldn’t afford her share.  The voucher program’s guidelines provide for short-term exemptions from minimum payments, called hardship exemptions, that are designed to help tenants in circumstances like just like these. But the process for asking for one is buried deep in a 150-page administrative document, and Dawn wouldn’t have known she was entitled to an exemption if it hadn’t been for a friend of hers who told her she should apply. Even when she did, CHA improperly idenied her request.

Without the extra help, Dawn failed to make her rent payments, was evicted from her home, lost her housing subsidy, and was left homeless. Fortunately she came to LAF, and with Jackie’s help CHA agreed to reinstate Dawn’s housing assistance, pay her damages, and update the forms and notices recipients of vouchers regularly receive to contain a simple explanation of hardship exemptions. CHA is already using the new documents, and we’ve already heard from tenants who received relief thanks to Dawn and Jackie’s hard work.

Michelle’s client Beverly ran into a different administrative hurdle as she attempted to move with her housing voucher, and likewise ended up without assistance. She had requested moving papers and was searching for a new place, but due to a combination of discrimination against her by landlords who wouldn’t accept a voucher and failed HACC inspections at the places that would, her search term expired and she was terminated from the voucher program without a chance to speak up for herself in an administrative hearing.

As Michelle herself points out, this kind of policy not only deprived Beverly of a safe, decent place to live, but it’s antithetical to the stated goal of the program: to allow subsidized tenants to move to higher opportunity areas. So Michelle filed a Federal complaint stating that Beverly was denied due process when she was denied a hearing, and eventually HACC agreed to amend its administrative plan to automatically grant tenants like Beverly hearings before their assistance could be taken away, in addition to re-instating Beverly’s housing voucher.

Michelle was recognized by the U.S. District Court for her work on the case, receiving its annual Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award this month. Though she’s somewhat bashful about being recognized herself, she’s proud of LAF’s work. “At LAF we have a reputation for doing a lot of volume. But seeing so many cases feeds our desire to do big picture litigation and to change policy in a way that benefits our clients.”

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Women rising for justice at work

Last week, LAF’s Immigrants and Worker’s Rights Practice group hosted the 3rd annual Modern Day American Worker Conference. This year’s event was entitled Over, Under, Through: Women Rising for Justice at Work, and centered on issues of discrimination, sexual violence, and financial exploitation in the workplace, all of which disproportionately affect women, low-wage workers, and immigrants.

Attendees, including community organizers and legal advocates from across Chicagoland and around the United States, spent two days learning about the problems that women with low incomes face in their jobs and discussing means to not only effectively advocate on behalf of individual victims, but to ensure that all workers are afforded safety and dignity in the future.

The first day of the conference featured a panel of four women, all of whom had survived discrimination or violence, and all of whom had been motivated by their experiences to speak up for members of their community suffering through similar experiences.

MDAW

On day one of the conference, panelists discuss sexual violence and discrimination at work.

One member of the panel, Airsa Pineda, was assaulted by a supervisor at the restaurant where she worked. “It was hell what happened to me,” she says. But when she reported the incident to management, they refused to take it seriously. Airsa filed sexual harassment charges, and the restaurant retaliated by firing her.

 

Eventually, a friend of Airsa’s referred her to LAF, and she won both a U-Visa and payments for wage theft, sexual harassment, and workers compensation. But she wasn’t satisfied with just finding recourse for the wrongs against her. Ever since she was assaulted, Airsa has been speaking up for women who are enduring the same trauma she went through, and who might be justifiably afraid to stand up on their own. She founded the Women Workers Committee with the Chicago Worker’s Collaborative, and has organized accountability campaigns to monitor working conditions at factories and temp agencies and prevent abuse. “I found a community. I found strength,” she says. “I am raising my voice, but I can’t do it alone.”

Day two of the conference included discussions focused on the intersection between immigration and worker exploitation, how advocates can utilize U and T-visas to benefit their clients, pending legislation to protect domestic and temporary workers, and pursuing justice for workers employed in the food system.

Author and journalist Bernice Yeung also delivered an inspiring address that drew from her award-winning reporting on workplace harassment and violence suffered by domestic workers, agricultural workers, and nighttime janitorial staff. She emphasized worker-led initiatives around the country that have brought these issues to light and succeeded in changing policy to benefit those who are made so vulnerable system. Near the end of her remarks, Ms. Yeung gave a call to action that seemed to encapsulate this year’s conference. She reminded a room full of lawyers that “…making a rule or filing a claim is not by itself the solution. When we put women at the center of movements and help them become leaders, they will direct us to real change.”