There is no labor a person does that is undignified; if they do it right.
– Bill Cosby
Since Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, Americans have celebrated the vast achievements of our workers. Incredible progress has been made since the Industrial Revolution, which saw the average American working 12-hour days, seven days a week to earn a meager living, and children toiling away in hazardous conditions. Yet there is still work to be done to secure fair wages, safe conditions, and equality in the workplace, and pro bono attorneys have contributed significantly to improve the lives of workers throughout the country and around the world. As we mark the end of summer and back-to-school season, we also pause to reflect on the original meaning of Labor Day and the impact our
pro bono efforts can have. Here are some inspiring examples:
- Debevoise & Plimpton LLP* represented five waiters in Manhattan’s Chinatown and obtained a settlement for systematic underpayment and misappropriation of tips. As a result of this litigation, working conditions have dramatically improved at the restaurant, where the pro bono clients still work. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP*† pursued another case of tip misappropriation, securing almost $700,000 in compensatory damages for 11 Chinatown workers. The cases have empowered other Chinatown workers to speak up and confront employers who are engaging in unfair practices.
- Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP* obtained over $25,000 in unpaid wages from various grocery stores and pharmacies in Manhattan for its pro bono client, a deliveryman who had escaped civil war in Rwanda.
- Zuckerman Spaeder LLP*† represented 46 day laborers against a subcontractor who refused to pay them in full for their intense and grueling labor in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, resulting in a settlement with the general contractor and subcontractor of approximately $250,000. The laborers had spent nearly two months moving large debris from the water, shoveling away mud, and cleaning out rotten food from casino refrigerators, working seven days a week, up to 12 hours each day.
- Fish & Richardson P.C.†, in collaboration with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, brought a civil action on behalf of two Indonesian women who were illegally brought into the U.S., held in captivity, and enslaved by force for years by a wealthy couple living in New York. The trial resulted in a substantial settlement for the victims. The couple was also convicted of federal crimes.
- O’Melveny & Myers LLP*, in collaboration with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, filed a civil suit on behalf of a trafficking victim from China, who was forced to be an indentured servant in California and was subjected to physical and emotional abuse for more than a year, seeking compensatory damages for the psychological, medical, and emotional damages she had suffered. Her abusers were prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California.
- Seyfarth Shaw LLP*† obtained citizenship for an Egyptian-born girl who was nine years old when her parents sold her to a wealthy Egyptian couple. A year later, the couple moved to California, bringing the girl along and forcing her to do all of the family’s chores while living in a garage without heat, air conditioning, or windows, where she slept on a dirty mattress and washed her clothes in a bucket.
- Appleseed worked with White & Case LLP*† to prepare All Work and No Pay, a report that documents barriers that cash earners face in claiming state earned income tax credit benefits, and with Morrison & Foerster LLP*† to develop an advocacy strategy to allow more cash earners in New York to claim the credit. Their comprehensive proposals would ensure that hair dressers, house cleaners, and other cash-earners receive the funds to which they are entitled.
In addition to marking the unofficial end of summer and back-to-school season, Labor Day constitutes our yearly tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. We’ll be serving a heaping portion of gratitude along with our hamburgers and hotdogs this holiday weekend – and hope you will too.
Hat tip to PBI intern Lauren Epstein for her help with this post.
*denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
†denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project