Field of Practice: Workplace Justice Project

The Workplace Justice Project (WJP) was created in December 2005 to provide legal services to low-wage workers who came to New Orleans in the post-Hurricane Katrina clearing and rebuilding efforts and who were not being paid their earned wages. Most of these workers were Latino. Since its inception, the WJP has partnered with many community organizations to address the need for legal representation in wage claims and worker education. In 2008, it instituted a weekly Wage Claim Clinic (WCC) available every Thursday evening. Since 2015, in response to time constraints faced by workers, the WCC operates daily through a combination of telephone intake interviews and in-person follow up meetings.

The WJP builds resources and enforces low-wage workers’ rights, cultivating legal and economic opportunities which uphold and respect their dignity. The WJP’s overarching goal is to reach out to vulnerable workers who are otherwise marginalized by their lack of access to the legal system and to improve the climate in which workplace laws are enacted and enforced. This work includes the improvement of working conditions through collaborative alliances with similarly focused community organizations, holding regulatory government agencies accountable, and examining the need for changes in the law that bring about meaningful improvements for vulnerable workers and their families.

Student Practitioners are critical to the work of the WJP: They endeavor to educate workers about their rights and the legal process, litigate their claims in order to hold employers accountable and advocate for changes and modifications in the law, where appropriate, so that workers’ workplace conditions are respected and wages are valued, protected and recovered in the least expensive, most efficient way possible. In this context, Student Practitioners have the opportunity to represent clients from initial interview and counsel to final resolution by negotiation, trial or appeal, in varied causes of action in or related to labor and employment law; these include, but are not limited to state remedies for non-payment of wages, state construction labor liens, state obligations law, Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, Title VII, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, American with Disabilities Act, 42 USC §1981, Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986-Anti-Discrimination Provisions, Section 7-concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act, workers as creditors in Bankruptcy Court and state and federal procedural law. Moreover, the Workplace Justice’s WCC process affords Student Practitioners the opportunity to exclusively develop and improve their interviewing, analytical and writing skills.

The WJP has been able to expand its work by securing grants from local and national funders, including the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Louisiana Bar Foundation, Baptist Community Ministries, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. WJP staff serves on the Louisiana State Law Institute’s Unpaid Wages Committee, which examines how to increase the effectiveness of state wage statutes to ensure understanding of rights and obligations and secure payment of all earned wages. The WJP maintains a website as a resource to the community about workers’ rights and access to legal remedies.

Recent Case Highlights

Four workers complained that their employer paid them less than $2.50 per hour for their work. The workers got together with the employer in an effort to better the terms of employment. They were fired within three weeks of the meeting. The Workplace Justice Project filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging a violation of their right to get together to better their working conditions and a federal lawsuit asking to be paid a minimum and overtime wage. Their complaints were successfully resolved.

An elderly worker was employed long hours doing back-breaking labor, but was classified as an independent contractor. The employer avoided paying benefits and taxes on behalf of the employee and the wages were so low that he did not even earn the minimum federal wage of $7.25. In addition, the employee had an added tax burden imposed on independent contractors but not on employees. The Workplace Justice Project filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the worker was an employee entitled to minimum and overtime wages. His lawsuit was successfully resolved.

A truck driver, with many years’ experience, was hired by a local truck hauling company which heavily recruited him. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances not his fault, the driver had a minor accident. The employer did not react negatively and instead instructed him to continue his work. However, at the next designated pay period, the driver was terminated, asked to leave the premises and told he would not be paid because of the accident. The Workplace Justice Project made demand on the employer and the driver was paid his full wages in a short time.

A young mother of five children worked long hours cooking and cleaning tables at a family owned restaurant. She was not paid for almost three months of work. The employer claimed he did not have the money to pay, all the while promising to do so; she was afraid of leaving her employment because she might not be paid, but finally had no choice. The Workplace Justice Project sued in state court to recover her wages and obtained a judgment. The Project continues to help the young mother collect on the judgment as the employer continues to refuse to pay.