The Workplace Justice Project (WJP) builds resources and enforces workers’ rights, cultivating legal and economic opportunities to uphold and respect the dignity of all workers.
Founded in late 2005 to meet the legal services needs of mostly immigrant low-wage workers, the Workplace Justice Project (WJP) first worked in collaboration with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans – Hispanic Apostolate Community Services, and the New Orleans Pro Bono Project to create a weekly clinic on Thursday evenings. The Wage Claim Clinic (WCC) is now institutionalized as part of the WJP, a section of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice, at the Loyola College of Law. Although it is evolving from the weekly in-person clinic, the WCC remains the core of the WJP and the point of entry for workers seeking legal services.
More than a decade after the WJP’s post-Katrina genesis, Louisiana’s low-wage workers remain caught in a “trifecta of vulnerability.” Louisiana still has no state minimum wage. All workers are subject to “at will” employment. Louisiana’s status as a “right to work” state – a growing national trend – poses a bar to meaningful worker organizing. Most traumatic for workers: millions of dollars of earned wages remain unpaid. Because Louisiana lacks any administrative structures to assist workers in recovering unpaid wages, the U.S. Department of Labor remains the only available agency for this purpose, but it is unable to tackle most of the claims workers present. The WJP notes that workers are deprived of wages through a variety of tactics ranging from misclassification of employees as independent contractors, fraud in the inducement, paying with NSF checks, to threats based on national origin, ethnicity or economic status, to intimidate and discourage workers from enforcing their rights. Each tactic has the same result – leaving workers already on the financial edge without the wages they need to survive.
In response, the WJP has built a “trifecta to build strength” – recognizing that the solution comes most effectively through a three-pronged approach: education, litigation, advocacy.
Education: Education runs through all of the WJP’s work. Educated workers are their own best advocates because they are alerted to the conditions and or power differentials that can make them susceptible to wage theft and workplace abuse and create change in the climate that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The process of interviews, demand letters, extensive fact and legal reviews of each potential case also educates workers, as well as volunteers and staff. WJP workshops on workplace issues and existing rights educate workers, law students, lawyers, and community volunteers.
Litigation: Resources for low-wage workers in Louisiana are extremely limited. Legal Services are often barred from accepting wage claims and cannot represent many immigrant workers. Most employment lawyers in private practice do not take small wage claims. The WJP responds to this unmet need, as well as to emerging and challenging legal issues facing these workers, by litigating in state and federal courts. Even so, particular concerns remain as to the ability to access the courts by those with limited English proficiency and the poor. Workers whose claims are suitable for litigation may be represented by supervised Loyola law students and WJP staff. Where the WJP does not have the capacity to represent the workers, we seek appropriate counsel.
Advocacy: The WJP forms alliances to enforce existing laws and hold government agencies accountable, while examining the need for changes in the law that will improve the work environment for the most vulnerable workers. Most recently, our advocacy focuses on policy efforts and engagement that builds economic opportunity for working families.
For legal assistance or questions about your rights at work, contact us.