"Labor and Wage Law: Pro Bono Works at the Cutting Edge"
In the cold of the early morning, a day laborer waits on a corner. A truck
pulls up and he gets in. He needs a job. He does not know the person driving
or where he will be working. He does not know how much he will be paid –
or if he will be paid at all. According to Steve Smitson, Esq., Senior Manager
for CASA de Maryland's Legal and Social Services Department, getting paid is
only one of the problems that day laborers face.
"We've seen instances where workers got injured on the job and the contractors
simply dropped them (workers) off at the emergency room or, even worse, along
the side of the road," explains Smitson. "Without knowing their employer's
names, the workers have no recourse for compensation."
CASA de Maryland was founded in 1985 as a community organization to address
the special needs of refugees who were moving into the area from Central America.
CASA now serves the needs of immigrants from virtually every country in Latin
America, as well as Africans, Asians and U.S. citizens.
"Around 1990, CASA got involved in organizing day laborers by setting up
a center where the workers could look for jobs," says Smitson. "It is good
for the contractors because it gives them an orderly system to find workers,
and, more importantly, it is good for the workers as well. The center provides
shelter from the elements and restroom facilities while they are waiting, as
well as a place where they can take classes and study."
Beginning with just one attorney working a few hours a week, the legal project
has grown to seven full-time attorneys with around 300 open cases involving
both labor and advocacy litigation. CASA represents day laborers and domestic
workers in everything from negotiating claims to bringing suit for wage and
overtime violations, discriminatory employment practices, retaliatory discharges
and involuntary servitude. In the last three months alone, CASA has helped
to recover $123,000 in lost wages.
Another area of concern for CASA is the trafficking of domestic workers. "We've
handled more cases than just about any other organization in the country," notes
Smitson. "In conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's office, CASA participated
in the first successful prosecution of Maryland employers who were trafficking
young women from Cameroon to work in their homes without pay."
When cases become complex or reach the appeal stage, volunteer attorneys
doing pro bono work provide an invaluable service by greatly increasing CASA's
ability to litigate grievances. One such volunteer is Sonia Zeledon, Esq.,
with the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
Zeledon volunteered to assist on a wage and hour claim from a CASA client
who had been an indentured servant. "I'd heard about their (CASA's) reputation
but had not worked with them before," Zeledon explains.
"I've been involved with them for about a year now. I've seen the work they
(CASA) do firsthand, and it is simply astounding; they're a great organization."
"The case we have is currently in federal court, and we hope to pave the
road and provide some good case law on trafficking," Zeledon adds. "We're working
on this now and there is hardly anything out there. This could turn out to
be a very important case for CASA and other organizations like them across
CASA believes it is important for the workers to be involved as well. When
a worker comes to CASA seeking legal recourse, he or she is required to contribute
to a "time bank" by performing 20 hours of community service in exchange. The
time bank concept was developed in 1980 by Dr. Edgar Cahn (see sidebar). This
involvement, according to Smitson, makes the workers an active part of the
solution instead of passively waiting for a lawyer to fix the problem for them.
Jon Moseley is Volunteer Services Coordinator for
the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland.