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.


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.”


Standing up for Maria

Last November, Maria’s landlord told her she and her infant son would be evicted over sixty-six dollars’ worth of unpaid rent, which he claimed had accrued over the previous three months. She offered to pay him back, but he refused to accept the money, saying that he was moving forward with eviction proceedings. It wasn’t even worth her time to show up in court and defend herself, her landlord claimed; there was nothing she could do.


Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing practice group

Prior to the eviction proceedings, Maria was already attempting to move. She is a survivor of domestic violence, and her abuser had been showing up at her apartment and harassing her. She wanted to move to get away from him, but she receives a housing subsidy as part of HUD’s Moderate Rehabilitation Program, which limits the locations she is permitted to rent from and makes it difficult to move on short notice. Participants in the program also lose their subsidies automatically if they are evicted from their subsidized rental unit, unlike participants in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. In other words, the stakes for avoiding eviction couldn’t have been much higher.

Fortunately, Maria didn’t take her landlord at his word when he told her not to bother speaking up for herself. She reached out for LAF for help and managed to win her eviction case, preserve her housing subsidy, and move herself and her son away from her abuser. But not without a fight.

Maria had missed her first court appearance thanks to the bogus advice her landlord and his representative offered her, and a default judgement had already been entered against her. This meant that Veena Gursahani of LAF’s Housing Practice group, the attorney assigned to Maria’s case, had only a few short weeks to have that judgement vacated. With only hours to spare, Veena filed a motion to vacate, which was eventually granted.

Veena began work on litigating the eviction while simultaneously advocating for CHA to find a new unit for Maria. When Veena was finally given the landlord’s current ledger, 6 weeks after discovery was served and less than a week before the scheduled trial, Veena learned that the $66 at issue had, in fact, been paid by CHA.

“The landlord’s attorney basically admitted that the landlord didn’t want any more incidents involving Maria’s abuser in the building, and he decided it would be easiest to just evict her for nonpayment of rent,” says Veena. “Little did he know we were going to fight him tooth and nail on it.”

Once she saw the ledger, Veena succeeded in gaining a summary judgement for Maria. She could stay where she was, because a city of Chicago ordinance specifically bars landlords from pursuing evictions after they’ve accepted payment of “rent due”.

Maria’s landlord had been pursuing an action for money it had already recouped, attempting to evict a subsidized tenant who was already trying to move.  Ironically, right before the scheduled trial and summary judgment hearing, Maria was officially given permission to move into her new subsidized unit, so she could put some distance between herself, her abusive ex, and her dishonest landlord.

A case like Maria’s takes of lot of work, but it shows us just how severely disadvantaged we are when we face the legal system without the right help, and just how severe the consequences of that can be. So even if standing up for Maria involved a few late nights, it was well worth it. As Veena herself puts it, “It was a labor of love.”

A story from LAF’s Larry Wood:

Larry Wood, Director of LAF’s Housing Practice Group, shares the story of a chance encounter that ultimately kept an elderly man threatened with eviction in his home. Stories like this remind us why legal aid is so vital for Chicagoans living in poverty, and how a little bit of advocacy can go a long way.

A couple weeks ago, while I was in one of the city’s eviction courtrooms waiting for my case to be called, I watched a landlord’s attorney obtain orders for possession against a long line of unrepresented, low-income tenants, including one elderly man in a wheelchair who lost his subsidized housing.  It was depressing.

Then I saw Jesse approach the bench.  It took him a while because he’s 82 and he moves slowly, but he told the judge he needed time to get an attorney and the judge continued his case for a week.  Jesse then left the courtroom.  I followed him outside.

Jesse was a voucher-holder facing eviction from the mixed-income development where he had lived for more than fifteen years.  According to his landlord, he owed almost $1,200 in rent for the period October 2017 through January 2018.  “That’s wrong,” Jesse told me.  “I have paid my rent every month since leaving Clarksdale, Mississippi and coming to Chicago in 1953!”

A couple days later Jesse sent me money order receipts showing that he had paid rent every month during the period at issue.  He had even paid for February on time.  I called the currency exchange where he had purchased the money orders and learned they’d all been cashed shortly after being purchased.

When I brought this to the attorney’s attention, he said the rent ledger showed that Jesse incurred his rental debt in 2014 and 2015 – not last year.  He said his client had been trying to resolve this issue with Jesse for years, and would cut Jesse a break because of his age and dismiss the case in exchange for just the rent claimed.  “He won’t have to reimburse my client,” the attorney said, “for its costs and fees.”

Jesse could not afford to give his landlord an additional $1,200 on his fixed and limited income.  I told the attorney that Jesse would assert two defenses. First, the landlord’s unreasonable delay in collecting rent unfairly prejudiced Jesse, who no longer has receipts for rent payments he made more than three years ago. Second, the landlord waived his right to rent accrued during and before 2015 when he signed a new lease for the apartment in 2017.

Last week, the attorney called me and said that his client will dismiss the eviction action with prejudice and seal the court file.

It’s just one more success for LAF – for a client who had done nothing wrong, in a case he most certainly would not have won had we not been there, against someone taking advantage of him simply because he is poor.  Jesse’s case is an exemplary illustration of the importance of LAF for people living in poverty.

July eNewsletter

The impact of LAF’s cases can ripple outward for generations.  Most of LAF’s clients are adults, but as you’ll read in this month’s eNewsletter, many children’s lives are changed by LAF.  You’ll read about Joe and Jack whose family is a little more secure thanks to public benefits, children with medical complications whose health is improved by LAF’s medical-legal partnerships, and how civil legal aid is crucial to fight violence in Chicago by breaking down barriers to employment. And you’ll read about one child, Dennericka Brooks, who grew up to become a legal aid attorney, whose impact continues to make ripples in other children’s lives into the future.
As always, on behalf of LAF and all our clients, thank you for your continued support of our work. Your investment in LAF ensures that equal justice prevails for all people, across generations and into the future. Read it online here.

Student Loan Debt: Rights & Relief

fileLast week, friends and cohorts from Chicago’s social services community joined LAF and Joseph Sanders, Assistant Attorney General from the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, to discuss student loan debt—an issue social service providers like LAF are seeing more and more among its client population. “Having student loan debt that is past due harms people’s chances of landing a job, obtaining permanent housing, and pursuing further education down the road,” said Kulsum Ameji, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Community Engagement Unit and moderator of the discussion.  “It can actually exacerbate poverty and push vulnerable people deeper into the cycle of poverty.”

The idea of higher education leaving people worse off runs contrary to the narrative that has shaped how we’ve talk about education for generations. As President Johnson famously said as he signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law—which greatly expanded financial assistance for higher education—the “nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained close to any American.” But as enrollment rates skyrocketed, so did tuition—and at a rate that outpaced income growth, forcing more and more students to take on large amounts of debt to finance their education under the universal assumption that investing in education will lead to higher income and more opportunities for a better life.

Today, with $1.4 trillion of student loan debt in the United States—more than either credit card and auto loan debt and now second only to mortgage debt—and a default rate of 11%, the question of the real return on investment in education is starting to surface. “We have such a positive view of education that we don’t think about its costs the way we do when we’re buying a car,” explains Shelmun Dashan, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “Most people don’t go to school just for the intrinsic value of learning—we have the goal of achieving a higher income or changing careers, but a lot of times we haven’t done the homework to figure out if what we’re doing will actually meet those goals. Private lenders let you take the loans out regardless, and that gets you in trouble—which they know. They depend on people having this positive association with education and not thinking about what it really means.”

Being an empowered consumer takes some time and research. Is the price tag worth what I’m getting? Are there other ways to get what I want? Apply that same mindset as best you can to higher education, advises Kathryn Liss, Senior Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “It is absolutely imperative in this climate that people really compare the costs, the financial options, and the subsequent opportunities.”

And while educating people considering going back to school now or in the future is a sound preventative approach, there are plenty of resources for the millions already grappling with student loan debt. “Even if we’re not able to take every case out there, we want to be sharing resources and playing a role in connecting people who need help with student loan debt to other organizations that focus on those issues,” Katie says.

That’s where folks like Joseph come in, who helps oversee the IL Attorney General’s Student Loan Helpline. “We started the helpline back in 2015, training five of our Citizen Advocates specifically on student loan issues, he explains. “They are there to assist with anything related to student loans. Even if they’re not your loans, for service providers it can be helpful if you’re working with a client and have a question.”

As student loan debt affects more and more people—disproportionately those from low-income and vulnerable communities—it’s important for community partners to continue having these conversations. Thanks to Joseph and everyone who joined us for this fruitful discussion!



Katie Liss Stands for…Livelihood

Katie Liss.pngCollege education offers opportunities for personal and professional growth, but with tuition on the rise, students are borrowing more and more to ease the financial burden. In fact, the average 2016 graduate holds $37,172 in student debt—up 6% from last year. And according to the Department of Education, the student loan default rate is 11.3%

“Student loans aren’t a huge part of what we do at LAF, but it’s an area that we’re trying to cover more,” says Katie Liss, Senior Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “Given the nature of our work, we’re often putting out fires—stopping foreclosures and wage garnishments, keeping people in their homes—we’re not always able to deal with student loan issues as much as we’d like to. But it impacts millions of Americans, and even more in the future, so we’re trying to find ways to address it.”

“When it comes to cases involving student loans, many of our clients became disabled or faced mental illnesses that prevented them from getting jobs and being able to sustain themselves,” says Katie. Through what’s called a Total Permanent Disability Discharge, she’s helped a number of clients with disabilities discharge their loans. “I can see the weight being lifted off their shoulders.”

For other clients who come to LAF seeking foreclosure defense or help filing bankruptcy, student loans aren’t their primary issue, but they may be a contributing factor affecting their overall livelihood. “We counsel clients in other types of cases to help them get on track to make affordable payments on their student loans,” Katie says. “There are a number of affordable ways to make payments on your loans, like income-based repayment plans, that people just don’t know about.”

“There’s just so much stacked against our clients—we need to stand up for them. We need to try to level the playing field.” Help dedicated attorneys like Katie continue standing up for vulnerable and under-resourced communities by making your tax-deductible donation for 2016 at www.lafchicago.org.