Yesterday, I handed a settlement check to a former slave

Yesterday, I handed a lawsuit settlement check to a former slave. Can you believe the year is 2012 and I work in the nation’s capital? We still see extraordinary workplace abuses: a man who had worked for $100 a week for years; a woman who had been fired for leaving the factory floor to go to the hospital to have a baby; people who have been denied workers’ comp unjustly and lost their houses; people who haven’t been paid at all!  We need your help.

This particular woman came to our Workers’ Rights Clinic and told us her story. Her “employers” held her captive for over a year in their house, took her passport and threatened to call Immigration if she said anything. She was told horror stories of jail and deportation, and feared for her life. She worked for them for more than a year and never saw even one dollar.

She escaped to a neighbor’s house one day, and somehow ended up in our Clinic. We advise on employment law, and clearly she needed much more extensive help, so we found her that help through other area nonprofits. Once she’d gotten housing and a visa, we filed a lawsuit against her employers.

Every day, we come to work so that we can work on – and win – cases like this one. We have five lawyers on staff, and we help more than 800 people every year, many of whom come back multiple times as their cases proceed. In most cases, we give them legal advice to file suits on their own. In the above case, we knew we’d take it on with our legal team.

We want to do more.  It’s frustrating to dream about what we could do if we weren’t always so worried just about making ends meet; we could hire another lawyer — or two, or three — on staff; we could have a mobile Workers’ Rights Clinic, or expand our Clinics to Maryland and Virginia.

This was an extreme case, but we see people who have not been paid for their work every day. Most people in this country are a paycheck or two away from losing everything; the people we see often are in the process of losing everything because their employers cheated them. Sometimes we can keep them from losing their homes or having to rely on food banks to feed their families, but the law works slowly. As with this woman, sometimes we can only help them find delayed justice.

As everyone knows, the economy has been rough on nonprofits at precisely the moment when the demand for their services is exploding.  Private donations and foundation grants have dwindled across the board, and everyone is making do with less and less. Many times, we have to turn people away from Clinic because the demand exceeds our capacity.

But it’s people like you who give us hope. Our donors. Our supporters.

Through your generosity, we have been able to provide legal advice and assistance to over 10,000 low-wage workers since the EJC started.  Because of your support, we are able to lead local coalitions to legislative victories that have reformed wage enforcement and the workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation systems in the District, affecting the lives of thousands each year.  There’s a lot left to do, but we are confident that with your help, we can keep more workers and their families from slipping into poverty by advocating for their rights under the law.

It costs the EJC $175 to serve just one client at Clinic.  We know that our donors are just as passionate about workers’ rights and employment justice as we are.  We hope that you will share our big dreams: starting with a Workers’ Rights Clinic that doesn’t have to turn workers away, on through expansion and replication, to the biggest dream of all: that all workers everywhere have a resource when their employers mistreat them.  Your donation, big or small, goes to fund our vision of a community where all workers know their rights and feel empowered to claim what they deserve under the law.  Thank you for helping to protect workers’ rights.


Sally Abrahamson

Staff Attorney