2008 Archive

Spotlight: Workers' Rights Clinic Helps Low-Income People Navigate Workplace Problems

By Michael Bazeley

The clients at the Workers' Rights clinic start trickling into the Shattuck Avenue building before 6:30 p.m.. In a back room of the brick-walled building, a dozen law students are still prepping for a busy night of work. The clients have a myriad of work-related questions, and they are counting on the students to guide them to  answers.

"A lot of times, the clients are people who have been terminated and not received a paycheck, or terminated for bogus reasons,'' says Ben Botts '09, one of four co-directors of the clinic. "There are workers comp issues and unemployment insurance. It's a variety that runs the gamut.''

Started about two decades ago, the Workers' Rights Clinic is one of six student-run clinics at Berkeley Law. Four student co-directors handle the soup-to-nuts management of the program while student counselors dispense advice directly to clients. A rotating pool of professional attorneys staff the clinic each night to train the students and advise them on their cases.

The clinic, hosted at the East Bay Community Law Center's Self-Help Center, operates every other Thursday. The routine is the same each night. Students get one hour of training with a professional attorney, followed by two-and-a-half hours of client meetings.

On a recent Thursday evening at 5:30, the law students crowded into their meeting room and munched on a dinner of pizza, grapes and carrots while attorney Matt Goldberg of the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center ran through a detailed and rapid-fire explanation of unemployment insurance.

Based in San Francisco, the Legal Aid Society partners with workers' rights clinics at three law schools—Berkeley Law, Hastings College of the Law and Santa Clara University School of Law. About 500 low-income people walk through the doors of the Berkeley clinic each year.

"We knew there was a need, and when you see 1,500 people (at the three clinics), there's a need out there,'' said Mike Gaitley, senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. "Who can afford, at minimum wage, to pay a lawyer $300 an hour? And you can't just do this with fact sheets or by looking on the Internet.''

At about 6:30, the students emerge into the main office area to meet clients. Sitting at tables and desks, they listen intently to the clients' stories, look at reams of paperwork and take copious notes. The meetings can last 30 minutes or more. Then they retreat to the meeting room to discuss their cases with the attorneys on-hand and to consult a thick workers rights handbook, compiled by students.

The first person that Negin Iraninejadian '11 sees that night is upset because she left her job on medical leave and came back to a new manager who suspended her for getting too many complaints from clients. Iraninejadian listens, takes notes, and disappears for a while to consult with law school Lecturer David Rosenfeld, who's volunteering his time this night. She returns to explain that California is an at-will employment state, meaning employees can be fired without cause. But there are exceptions, including sex and race discrimination that could affect her client's situation. Iraninejadian explains how the woman can collect evidence to see if she is being unfairly targeted by her employer. The woman leaves, grateful for Iraninejadian's time.

"I think it's a fabulous opportunity, especially for 1Ls who are sometimes disenchanted with how abstract law school is,'' Botts says. "It was a reminder for me of why I went to law school. You're surprised at how grateful people are to get advice from people who aren't there to take their money.''

Meanwhile, Sushil Jacob '11 is working with an older woman who was fired. She says her boss was rude and demeaning, and increasingly took responsibilities away from her.

"Generally, she's slow and doesn't get it, is what they tell her,'' Jacob tells Gaitley during a debriefing.

Gaitley tells Jacob that the woman needs to demonstrate that her supervisor's criticisms were pretexts or lies. "Are other people as slow as she is?'' Gaitley asks.

As for the harassment by her boss, "There no protection,'' Gaitley says. "Unless it's based on a protected person. You can have a lousy work environment.''

Each case is different, and some are truly remarkable. Such as the guy who was told to apply for unemployment insurance in Washington because his company headquarters were located in that state. Or the woman who worked an overnight shift for nine hours, but was told she only worked eight because of a daylight savings change.

Regardless of the case, the weekly trainings and consultations with attorneys are intended to ensure that students give sound advice, Gaitley says, often on par with what someone would get from a law office.

"We're really focused on the advice going out being real good,'' he says.

For more information about the Workers' Rights Clinic, visit the web site: http://www.boalt.org/workersrights/index.shtml