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Advocate’s View: WJCNY – Protecting rights of disadvantaged workers

Steven E. Cole

Steven E. Cole

I write during this holiday season to discuss and celebrate the work of the Worker Justice Center of New York, Inc., a statewide legal services organization with local roots and a strong local presence.

Some readers may recognize the name Farmworker Legal Services of New York, based in Rochester, which serves the needs of farmworkers throughout New York. For many years, the late, great Jim Schmidt led FLSNY in its fight for the protection of the human rights of migrant farmworkers in New York.

In 2012, FLSNY joined forces with a spin-off of FLSNY in the Hudson Valley known as the Workers Rights Law Center, to form the Worker Justice Center of New York. Through its staff and cooperating outside counsel, WJCNY provides legal advice and representation to agricultural and other low wage workers throughout New York state. This includes representation in litigation, and providing education to workers and employers on pesticides, workplace safety, domestic violence issues, and on human trafficking.

With the many other legal service providers doing good work here in Rochester, WJCNY has tended to fly “under the radar,” so to speak. However, it is an organization worth knowing and, if so inclined, worth supporting.

Why do farmworkers and other low-wage workers need protection? In many cases, the lack of work documentation and language barriers make it extremely difficult for workers to exercise their rights to wages, safety in the workplace, adequate housing, and freedom from discrimination and abuses.

The workers are here, all around us. Much of the food we consume was grown and picked by foreign agricultural workers. They work in orchards and dairy farms, in hotels and restaurants. The live in work camps, trailers, as well as apartments and houses not so very far from where we live. They work, they come home, they have families here or elsewhere, their kids go to school, they pay taxes, and they have all of the same hopes and problems as people everywhere.

Where there is the opportunity for exploitation, there is exploitation. Corners are cut, wages are shorted, safety precautions are ignored. Not every time — and certainly not every employer, but foreign low wage workers are often in a poor position to demand basic rights. If you grow up in a rural area in another country and have problems with the language, you may not know your rights or have the first idea of how they might be enforced. If you lack working papers, the disincentives are strong.

Fortunately, there are many not-for-profit organizations which serve low-wage workers in different areas and address different needs. These groups have formal and informal networks to refer cases involving legal rights to the right place.

WJCNY participates with other not-for-profits by conducting outreach, providing education, referring individuals to appropriate agencies for non-legal needs, and serving the needs of those who are referred for legal questions. WJCNY also maintains open lines of communication with governmental agencies, and refers appropriate matters for governmental enforcement. Indeed, WJCNY recently honored New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for the role of his office in protecting the rights of low-wage workers.

WJCNY and its predecessors have a long track record of success in litigation on behalf of low-wage workers on substantial legal questions including the FLSA, AWPA, the New York Labor Law, Title VII, and the New York Human Rights Law. Many of these cases involved workers who came to the United States on H-2A or H2-B visas. WJCNY often partners with private law firms, which act as co-counsel in litigation.

This partnering provides benefits to the clients, WJCNY, and firms involved. Among many other firms, the New York City law firm of Kaye Scholer has consistently provided generous support to WJCNY through co-counseling and otherwise. Locally, Nixon Peabody has been a strong supporter of WJCNY. In addition to acting as co-counsel, Nixon Peabody’s contributions have included providing training and mentoring to WJCNY staff attorneys.

Preventing human trafficking has long been a focus of WJCNY’s attention. In 2001, an investigation started by WJCNY during the course of outreach visits led to the first criminal prosecution by the U.S. government under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Since 2005, WJCNY has been a member of the Western New York Human Trafficking Task Force, assisting federal agencies with the investigation of cases and development of protocols for government action in this area.

The good work of the Worker Justice Center of New York is worth celebrating at any time of year. For those interested in learning more about the WJCNY, I encourage you to visit its website, www.wjcny.org, or contact me.

Steven E. Cole is a partner in the law firm of Leclair Korona Giordano Cole LLP. Cole is the president of the Board of Directors of Worker Justice Center of New York, Inc.