Community IMPACT Series: Workplace Justice Project, March 16, 2010

New Orleans, LA – Hurricane Katrina recovery has been a boom time for people doing construction, demolition and renovation work in the New Orleans area, but they aren't the only ones who have seen their workload skyrocket during these past few rebuilding years. The recovery work, and the dramatic influx of Latino immigrant workers it caused, has kept the Workplace Justice Project busier than ever.

The Workplace Justice Project is part of Loyola University's Law Clinic, a program through which law students represent poor clients from the community. For this project in particular, the clients are overwhelmingly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigrant workers who believe they have been cheated out of their wages by employers. Such workers are often undocumented, and advocates with the Workplace Justice Project say that makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation by dishonest employers. Here's project staff attorney Vanessa Spinazola:

"They'll get a thousand dollars up front and they'll be promised the other five thousand when the work is done. So they'll finish all the work and the contractor will completely disappear, and there will be three workers who haven't gotten paid for four weeks of work."

If workers in these situations do find their erstwhile employers, that boss might flat-out refuse to pay, or perhaps come up with an excuse that their work was no good. The trump card, however, held over all undocumented workers is the dreaded threat to call ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So, very often, these workers simply forego their fair pay.

"The reactions of people are as varied as the reactions of people are going to be. Some people are very angry. Some people are very humiliated. The thing with the Latin culture too is these are men, and they're expected to make enough money to feed their families back home and if they can't do that, that's humiliating for them"

In response, the Workplace Justice project created its Wage Claims Clinic, now held every Thursday in Mid-City. The clinic is staffed by volunteer students, lawyers and interpreters, who might see anywhere from 10 to 40 different workers a day.

"Every worker you talk to will have, you know, a dozen times that this has happened to them, it's not just once or twice."

"Ninety percent of the people we see work two or three months at a time, putting a house together, repairing a building, working at a hotel before they get fired. So they have multiple employers and pretty much every employer they work for somehow takes either their regular wages or their overtime wages away."

Getting those earned wages, or even a portion of them, can be a daunting endeavor. There are language barriers and the fear of ICE intervention, plus the burden of court fees to file wage claims and obstacles in the court system itself.

"Undocumented workers are entitled to their wages. However there's still a lot of resistance to that in our very own courts because our judges don't know."

But the Workplace Justice Project is now working behind the scenes with volunteer interpreters, with small claims court judges and other court officials to bring this issue to the forefront. When cases are successful, Vanessa Spinazola says, the workers often gain something intangible in addition to their pay.

"A lot of times they feel really grateful that someone has taken the time, free of charge, to assist them, to make this happen. It makes them feel like America is more their home too."